Class, control, and classical music in late 20thC Cambridge

TL:DR. Dr Anna Bull, formerly of this parish has written a book. Buy it and read it. Please.

You can buy the book from Blackwells here.

I’m not really sure what the best way to begin this article actually is. I’ve already deleted entire paragraphs pondering whether to give a personal history as a background is the right way to go. This piece has turned into a reflection of my own musical experiences in the context of some themes Dr Bull has examined in her book. 

Dr Bull’s book is a piece of research that goes into a level of depth and breadth that I have seldom seen and that very few are capable of. It is that depth and breadth as well that makes it such a comprehensive and compelling read. This is why doctoral-level research in this field takes so long. Perhaps even more so if one’s own musical experience has been affected positively or negatively by the institutions that she analyses

There are a whole host of institutional actors that Dr Bull investigates in her book that I’m either personally familiar with, or became familiar with in conversation with past friends and partners. 

To highlight a few that stand out for me so far:

  • The introduction to classical music through simple church hymns at primary school
  • The performance of classical music pieces for specific religious occasions (eg Easter, Christmas)
  • The churches as a means of social control – in particular in my teens
  • Classical music as an institution carrying the baggage of some of the policy positions and political statements by senior church figures – in particular relating to social policy, because of its association with the institutions.
  • The significant amount of effort and investment some parents put into the musical education of their offspring when they are at primary school

Classical music and religion

My first memory of music at primary school was this dirge-of-a-hymn that the head teacher tried to get us mainly four year olds to learn and sing back. I still remember it now and hate her for it! But she was a musician and a strict disciplinarian of the old school – of the generation of women that did their teacher training around/just after the Second World War, and who never married. 

In those days my primary school was linked to the local Anglican church – though for some strange reason me and the children of a few other families had to go to this small pokey little place at a different end of the neighbourhood, while a few more went to somewhere completely different altogether, and also had this thing called ‘Sunday School’ to go to. “But we’ve got the whole of the week to go to school for!” the six year old me thought. 

Interestingly the Choir at the Anglican church was infinitely better than the one I went to as a child, so I spent my teens learning to hate ecclesiastical music because it reminded me of spending every week in a place where I didn’t want to be. 

Classical music, religion, and ‘dressing up like a smart young man’ [in uncomfortable clothes]

One of the things I remember about the last Christmas concert before a new head teacher broke the links with the Anglican church was being picked to play the triangle in one of the songs at the Christmas concert in the late 1980s. Which got me wondering to this day at what point does one decide they are going to become a triangle player in an orchestra as a career goal, and become the best triangle player in the world. Are there exams in the triangle? How does one go on to become a triangle teacher? Yes, I did look them up! I’m not entirely sure how I became the triangle player.

I was eight years old and was given it by the music teacher and told that this lovely girl called Katherine, who was given this wood block scraper instrument (yes – I looked that one up as well) was to be my partner and we were to stay together at all times. She was two years older than me with long, dark brown hair and pale skin. And she looked after me in the rehearsals. She arrived at the concert late – just in time for our carol where I had to play the triangle striking it on the start of each beat just for one verse, then Katherine taking over with the woodblock for the next verse. We sounded awful! Yet in the rush to find her place crouched at the front next to me, I still remember her really soft hair brushing against my cheek – even though I had been getting worried that she might not appear, and was also aching from the not comfortable church clothes I was dressed in for the occasion. We had both been dressed for the performance. Although we never got to know each other beyond that, for some reason it’s one of those random innocent nice memories from childhood that has stayed with me. 

In the 1980s going to classical music events meant dressing up for classical music events. Apart from a concert for the 90th anniversary of the school where I somehow managed to get away with wearing possibly the biggest and most comfortable pair of trainers I’ve ever had, along with a new sweatshirt from our local youth football club. I think I got away with it because there was a World Cup that year and that was all anyone was talking about – to the extent that someone persuaded our string quartet teacher we should learn to play the Match of the Day theme tune. 

This was also the time of the West Road Concerts for young people. As a concert hall I hated it because the seats were itchy and unlike the Arts Theatre – founded by the son of Florence Ada Keynes, the Mother of Modern Cambridge (he was called John Maynard, you might have heard of him in economics), it had no decoration to gaze at inside the main auditorium. We all had to dress up in uncomfortable clothes and go along with all of the other families who had dressed their children up in uncomfortable clothes. Bar one performance where children were invited up on stage to look closely at the non-standard musical instruments, all I remember was how uncomfortable it was! Yet looking back on it, the whole set up was designed to exclude working class families – not least because there were no car parking facilities and town buses did not run from council estates to the venue. (Hence why I’d build a new concert hall in a much more accessible place).

Classical music meant singing like a choir boy and singing like a choir boy meant you got bullied at secondary school

So even though I had a decent enough singing voice at school, I stopped singing. Singing meant either that awful church choir every Sunday, or suffering the same fate that one of the boys in our year group who was a member of one of the college choirs faced, which was relentless bullying. Faced with those two options, I kept my head down and simply did what many teenagers do, which was to disengage completely.

The failure of anyone in authority to break this meant that more than a few of us with musical potential never got to experience things like the Cambridgeshire Holiday Orchestra which was run by amongst other people, Ludovic Stewart – who was from a group of very rebellious siblings one of whom was fellow musician and anti-fascist, Frida Stewart. And it was Frida’s final book, Cambridge Music, that told the story of the music of Cambridge the town, culminating in the year of its publication with a feature of the Cambridge Folk Festival – the festival itself being founded by firefighter, Labour activist, and former Royal Signaller Ken Woollard. (Both Frida and Ken were shot at by Nazis at various points during their time in France during WWII, and survived). 

Despite one of the biggest folk music festivals in the world taking place ***in our neighbourhood*** why did this musical culture not flow into and out of our schools in the late 20th Century?

This point comes back to Dr Bull’s theme of ‘The significant amount of effort and investment some parents put into the musical education of their offspring’. To get to grade 8 and to do grade 5 theory takes a significant amount of time and resources – resources which I dare say few state schools in the 1990s had after almost two decades of austerity. Those parents that want their children to progress beyond the beginners stage of any musical instrument in those days had to be prepared to pay for both an instrument that suited their child’s physical development, and for the 1-2-1 tuition. In that sense I got lucky in that my late grandfather bought me a new violin (I still have it – it’s a half-size) and we found a cheap but competent local music teacher to get me out of the beginner’s classes. By the time I passed my grade 1 aged 9 I was told I was joining the school string quartet.  Looking back, none of the other children stood a chance. Half an hour a week with a stock of half broken, poorly maintained musical instruments from the county store. The two girls in the string quartet both had musically talented mothers. 

But why didn’t folk music feature from the early 1990s?

Dare I say it, it had become unfashionable. Throughout the late 1980s/early 1990s the world of pop music was dominated by the Stock Aitken and Waterman stable that gave you the likes of Kylie and Jason. I can’t think of that many songs or groups at the time that had a high profile violinist. The synthesizer dominated. The first time I came across contemporary folk music was when one of my friends from school introduced me to The Levellers – who at the time had This Garden charting in the pop music charts. Their previous album Levelling the Land was probably the first album that challenged everything that I had been taught about the world. Prior to that, I had been completely oblivious to the lyrics of the likes of Erasure, Jimmy Somerville and The Pet Shop Boys all of whom were in my music collection. But being of the generation schooled under Section 28, plus having to go to church every Sunday, there simply wasn’t the personnel let alone the safe spaces (there were no youth clubs) to discuss social issues. So I had no idea what Enough is Enough by Jimmy Somerville was about at the time. (It was AIDS).

Politically it culminated with an off-the-cuff remark in 2001 by Junior Culture Minister Kim Howells – ironically at a time when folk music was gaining bigger audiences. Show of Hands wrote the song Roots as a riposte to the minister – a song that was also included in the album Folk Against Fascism when the far right tried to hijack the musical scene for for their own ends. 

Music in protest

It was only with the advent of Youtube and people uploading archive and historical content did I learn about the wealth bequeathed to us by past generations of musicians. Even when we did sing songs that hinted at a political message, the response was seldom to question the system. Politics wasn’t talked about – not in front of the children anyway, even though I was reading the newspapers and watching the news on TV from just before I hit double figures. One of the first we sang at primary school was this number – straight from the Cambridge Folk Festival.

Note the dedication to festival founders Ken and Jean Woollard. This performance was the 50th anniversary of his first performance at the Cambridge Folk Festival way back in 1969.

At church, again the music was strictly regulated centrally – your list of ecclesiastically approved hymns in the hymn book. So you couldn’t really break out and ask questions like this group did in the late 1980s.

Originally by the Isley brothers, one class in my last year at primary school performed this track in a concert by singing along to the track played on the large tape recorder.

“What if…?”

There’s still more pondering over Dr Bull’s incredible and hard-hitting research. One of the areas I’ve been thinking about that she covers is where she interviews young people who had found their niche/place/calling in classical music and within its institutions. What would it have been like for me if I had been one of them? As it was, and as I wrote in 2018, I never found my tribe.


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