Rupert Christiansen

But where is Colonel Blimp?

The Triumph of Music, by Tim Blanning<br /> <br type="_moz" />

The Triumph of Music, by Tim Blanning

This is an often entertaining, occasionally illuminating, but cur- iously unsatisfying book, written by a distinguished historian of early modern Europe. Subtitled ‘Composers, Musicians and their Audiences, 1700 to the Present’, it purports to be a study of the ways that the art of music has increasingly come to dominate western culture. ‘Triumph’ is not, I think, the mot juste here; something more like ‘increasing ubiquity’ would be more apt.

Professor Blanning is never dull or dryasdust: he writes with lucidity, grace and wry wit, and he clearly has a passionate enthusiasm for music. But given the vast scope of his subject, it is inevitable that much of the material amounts to little more than a breezy skimming of the surface, in which major figures and issues are sketched in a summary or introductory fashion. There is certainly no indication of any musicological research.

Blanning opens with an account of the open-air pop concert held in the grounds of Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002. This is a snapshot as the ‘culmination of three centuries of musical development’, demonstrating the rise in the status and wealth of musicians, the role of technology in their performance, and the ideology of personal self-indulgence which their music purveys. (One might think that the event was more interesting as a symbol of the depths to which monarchy has had to sink to ensure the maintenance of mass favour, but I suppose that is a tale to be told elsewhere.)

Music, Blanning reminds us, has always been relished in post-Renaissance Europe, despite the attempts of some of the fiercer Protestant reformers to banish it from society altogether. But until the 19th century, musicians struggled to assert themselves, with performers considered little better than actor-vagabonds, and composers treated as mere court functionaries.

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