MMB Conference

Music, Mind and Body in Nineteenth-Century Britain
The Open University, Milton Keynes (online)
18 September 2020
Supported by the Royal Musical Association


The conference will now be held online.
Please register by emailing Rosemary Golding by the end of 16 September.


1.00 Technical set up
1.15 Welcome and Introduction
1.30 Helen Barlow: Music as therapy in the British Army, c.1850-c.1918
2.00 Tamsin Alexander: Listen with your eyes: Lighting and audiovisuality in late nineteenth-century concert spaces
2.30 break
2.45 Martin V. Clarke: School hymnals, gender and Christian character
3.15 Victoria Bernath: ‘Where words fail, music speaks’: ‘Powick Asylum Music’ (c. 1879) and changing attitudes to mental healthcare at Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum (1851-1884)
3.45 Final Remarks and Close


Helen Barlow: Music as therapy in the British Army, c.1850-c.1918
Though music therapy was not widely accepted or understood at the time, the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a number of experiments with it, particularly in the United States and Britain, and it is striking how often the embryonic therapy comes into close contact with the military. In 1859, for example, Florence Nightingale, famous for her work in the Crimean War, had written about the therapeutic effect of music in her Notes on Nursing. There is also evidence of a belief in the beneficial role of military bands in bringing the healing effects of music, both psychological and physical, to sick and distressed soldiers serving abroad in the Empire. The therapeutic effects of music come particularly vividly to the fore in the experiences of military personnel during the First World War, where the provision of music to military patients (and to the medical staff who cared for them) was widespread. Usually this provision was informal and based on an instinctive appreciation of the pleasure and relief that music brought, but there are also hints of a more formal recognition on the part of some medics of the healing power of music. Concentrating mainly on Britain and the British Army, this paper will explore some of the sources that illuminate the relationship between music therapy and the military up to the end of the First World War.

Tamsin Alexander: Listen with your eyes: Lighting and audiovisuality in late nineteenth-century concert spaces
The story goes that by the end of the nineteenth century, auditoriums had become dark and silent. The roots of this practice have often been traced back to romanticism, whereby composers and performers became heroic creators, and listeners their pious worshippers. Various studies have already begun to complicate this picture, with many revealing that conversation and bustle persisted throughout the nineteenth century. Little attention, however, has been paid to the visual element – to the debates raging around what ought to be seen and not seen, particularly in the concert hall. While by the turn of the twentieth century, many opera houses had adopted the darkened auditorium, for concerts the practice remained unusual. More unusual still were new ideas about concealing concert performers, in imitation of the increasingly common orchestra pit.
In this paper, I explore experiments in playing in and to darkened spaces in late nineteenth-century Britain. These concerts and the debates surrounding them, I suggest, were shaped by changing lighting technologies, which brought about new possibilities for controlling audience experience, while at the same time opening up discourse about the positive power of safe, effective illumination systems. Far from being the ideal, we find that many reacted against darkness as obstructive to attentiveness, and detrimental to mental and physical health. Meanwhile, listening spaces that allowed audiences to take in both the sonic and visual dimensions of performance were celebrated.

Martin V. Clarke: School hymnals, gender and Christian character
Muscular Christianity was an influential concept in the Victorian era and was particularly powerful in shaping the education of boys within British public schools. While it is most commonly associated with physical development and activity, in particular the playing of team sports, its impact can also be seen in the selections of hymnody, both words and music, made for use in chapels of public schools. Hymnals such as The Public School Hymn Book (1903) contains selections of words and music that affirm three aspects of manliness associated with muscular Christianity: physical, chivalrous, and moral (Vance, 1985). Texts encouraged mental toughness and resilience, preparing boys for lives of noble service and patrician leadership, while the editors paid close attention to the selection of tunes, excluding any deemed to exhibit ‘weakness or false sentiment’. Hymns were also used to guide the lives and minds of schoolgirls in this period, such as in School Hymns, supplementary to Church Hymns (1889), edited by headmistress Dorothy Beale for use at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. While the imagery it contains is strikingly different from that found in The Public School Hymn Book, similar themes of preparedness for public service and leadership are evident.
This paper argues that school hymnals represent a confluence of Victorian ideas about Christian character, gender, class and leadership, and that, as such, they are key sources for understanding the ways in which educationalists and religious leaders sought to use communal singing to shape the minds of those in their charge.

Victoria Bernath: ‘Where words fail, music speaks’: ‘Powick Asylum Music’ (c. 1879) and changing attitudes to mental healthcare at Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum (1851-1884)
Dr. James Sherlock (1827-1881), the Medical Superintendent of the Worchester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum for thirty years (1851-1881), promoted humane psychosocial care during his tenure through the implementation of Moral Treatment. This progressive methodology, introduced in the late eighteenth-century at The Retreat in York by William Tuke (1732-1822), aimed to provide benevolent approaches to treating asylum patients. Today, this methodology is a burgeoning area of interdisciplinary research. However, the study of regional efforts and methodological variations across England, including those of Dr. Sherlock, remains neglected.
This lecture-recital explores the pioneering efforts of Sherlock, who integrated music as a key element in the daily treatment of patients, culminating in the establishment of both a professional asylum band and a collaboration with its band leader, a young Edward Elgar (1857-1934), which brought about the music album, ‘Powick Asylum Music’ (1879-1884). The lecture-recital begins with a brief overview of reform logic and the Moral Treatment which underpin early nineteenth-century asylum care in England. Subsequently, by drawing on original and previously undocumented printed ephemera (including Sherlock’s extensive notes) and using performance-led analyses of the Powick Asylum Music manuscripts and its unique orchestration, I argue that the individual and combined efforts of Sherlock and Elgar are important precursors to the practice of modern-day music therapy in Britain. Indeed, the album (a collection of originally composed quadrilles and dances) and the contexts in which the music was performed, act as important prototypes of group music therapy sessions in the nineteenth-century. The lecture concludes with a short performance of select dances from the album, arranged and performed by the author.

Call for Papers

Music, health and medicine have formed increasingly important topics in recent times. With both formal and informal methods of music therapy and community music-making taking a more central role in debates over health, the history of music and medicine has also come into the spotlight. This day conference is intended to draw together scholars working on aspects of music, mental and physical health, and the body in nineteenth-century Britain. Papers are invited on a range of topics relevant to this theme. These might include:

– The practice of music as a therapy
– The physical nature of performing and listening
– Music and the brain
– Health and sickness among music professionals
– The potential dangers and benefits of music to health and mental state
– Musical perception and processing

Potential speakers are invited to submit an abstract of c. 250 words, together with a brief note of biography and/or affiliation, by the deadline of 30 June.

Delegates wishing to attend will be asked to register by 31 July.

Speakers unable to travel to the conference (for example due to workload, caring responsibilities or environmental concerns) but with research interests in this area are invited to make contact to discuss potential involvement.

Rosemary Golding

The Open University