In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section England

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Music England
Stephen Banfield
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0160


Music in England has been perceived in terms of both richness and dearth. With art music, the conventional narrative is that periods of enormous creativity alternated with long stretches of mediocrity or domination by Continental visitors and ideals, the latter sometimes interpreted by reference to the country’s isolation as part of an island on the fringe of Europe. Yet London, thoroughly dominating the rest of the country, was for more than 200 years the largest and richest city in the Western world, and the public sphere of concert life was pioneered there in the late 17th century. Again, the capacity for pre-eminence in popular music, particularly around 1964 with the Beatles’ “invasion” of the United States, contrasts strongly with the marginality of England’s traditional music, endlessly subservient to the allure of the Celtic traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and to a much lesser extent Wales, the countries making up the remainder of the British Isles. Some historical facts about England may have rubbed off on its music in ways making for the sense of exceptionalism that remains strong, and they would include institutional continuities (the monarchy, a state church since the break with Rome, no 19th-century political revolution), an enduring scepticism about power (including intellectual power), and a corresponding emphasis on individual liberty and toleration, and in apparent contradiction to these, an equally enduring class system, anatomized in Cannadine 1998 (cited under Class and Ethnicities). Further contrasts affecting music might include that between a cultural conservatism obsessed with heritage and the socioeconomic drive that fueled England’s early Industrial Revolution and urbanization; both the loss and conservation of folk song were related to these, as was the rise of the domestic piano and its music. Some of these traits apply more to England than to Britain as a whole, others to the British nation, but the relation between England and Britain can never be simple or categorical for scholarly purposes; at the same time, it has not always been sufficiently specified. A further factor with which to wrestle is England’s (and London’s) role as the hub of a historical British Empire, territorially the largest the world has ever seen, a role not entirely relinquished in the wider and looser anglophone “British world” that continues to this day but includes the United States, for the commercial popular music in English that has penetrated world tastes and dominated markets since the 1960s, broadly defined as rock, is an Anglo-American phenomenon. In several of the cited works in this article, coverage of an English topic often includes consideration of its ramifications throughout the British world. Comparably, while it has not been possible to include studies of individual musicians (many of them will have their own Oxford Bibliographies entries), several of England’s leading composers are nevertheless the focus of sources.

General Overviews

Most overviews prior to the 1980s simply omitted popular music and folk music or relegated the latter to a separate category. They tended to be histories of leading composers and their works, with cultural explanations incorporated. Walker 1952 answers to this description. Caldwell 1991–1999 and some volumes of Spink 1981–1995 retain this approach; Banfield and Russell’s “England”, while treating traditional music separately (as do most Grove country articles), attempts to integrate popular and commercial music.

  • Banfield, Stephen, and Ian Russell. “England.” Grove Online.

    Tries to cover the whole spectrum of art, popular and commercial, and traditional music, with extensive bibliographies that include films and recordings of traditional music.

  • Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991–1999.

    Impressively detailed, with generous music examples and a large bibliography that includes guidance on modern editions of scores. By and large a critical coverage of elite and genteel repertoire. Has the best up-to-date account of English music in the Middle Ages.

  • Spink, Ian, series ed. The Blackwell History of Music in Britain. 5 vols. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981–1995.

    A comprehensive undertaking whose individual volumes are described under Period Studies. A sixth volume, The Middle Ages, never appeared. The first volume to be published, Temperley 1981 (see Romantic and Victorian), was under the imprint of The Athlone History of Music in Britain.

  • Walker, Ernest, revised and enlarged by J. A. Westrup. A History of Music in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

    Originally published in 1907, this edition remains the most reliable one-volume account of the art music tradition.

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