Apologies for the lack of blog post yesterday, but I have been hard at work writing my final presentation on my work throughout this month. I cannot quite believe that I am almost at the end of this fellowship and I still have so much I would like to see! I spent the morning in the library with even more books, but decided to spend this afternoon reading through all the material so that I could better plan my talk.
I often work through books so quickly that I don’t always have time to take in all the information, despite making numerous notes. For this reason, I had some inkling of themes for discussion but no more than that. Fortunately, after re-reading all of my notes this evening I am pleased that so much of the material relates to one another and is turning up some interesting points I don’t believe have been noted before.
The whole purpose of looking at literature as well as diaries, memoirs and letters was to build a more nuanced picture of the role of music education in 18th-century Britain. The ‘British’ part is particularly important, since music education in this country tends to be quite misunderstood – and it was no different in the 18th century! Whenever I talk to my non-musical friends about the relationship I have had with private teachers, the difference between a conservatory and university music education and even high school versus a specialised music school, I see their eyes glaze over with confusion. Meanwhile, musician to musician understands the typical discussions had between teachers and students and the challenges faced within the more formalised education system. Let’s not even mention TV shows such as X-Factor propagating the ‘musical genius’ or ‘child prodigy’ at every turn. I am going to let you all in on a secret – music is hard. It is hard for everyone! It takes hard work and dedication. Hours upon hours of lessons, practising not to mention the expense. Children do not open their mouths one day and sing with a classically trained voice. Men do not learn how to sing opera in the shower! At some point these people will have had some sort of music education. Period. *Rant over.*
These are the same things being said in 18th-century memoirs and conduct books. These female authors point out that learning music is a difficult challenge that requires time and discipline. The pursuit of a music education is occasionally a noble one, where a mother hopes her daughter will be better equipped to find employment if she has a musical education – but more often than not, it is described as an ‘ornamental’ activity i.e. not essential to a ladies education but perhaps useful.
I would like to point out that I don’t think this revelation makes my research on the subject less worthy. The fact that music is so often discussed in great detail between characters in novels and that more often than not, when female characters are the protagonist of the story, their musical skill is highlighted as a particular accomplishment, it shows just how important music was in 18th-century society. In some ways, it is a form of understated boasting – by describing the musical education of the characters and their knowledge of music utilised in discussion of performances the author is telling the reader that they have been privy to such education themselves and are therefore, dedicated (as well as wealthy) members of society. It is a written declaration that their music education is being put to use in other, perhaps unexpected means not directly related to performance itself.
What is important to note is that music education whether described in literature or in factual accounts is, for the majority of the time, not prettied up as an amazing feat of genius accomplished in a short space of time. Children as young as 6 were expected to begin a difficult and rigorous course of instruction if they appeared able to do so and by the age of 15 were expected to be able to perform in company when asked. Capability of learning is very much taken into account and the idea of a one-size-fits-all method is completely absent from the narrative. Perhaps something to seriously think about when it comes to ideas about children’s learning in the 21st century.