‘Drove Mrs Bell-Martin to hear the Band’: sources for experiences of listening to music in the long nineteenth century

In her diary entry for 21 April 1857, Mrs Ouvry, an army wife stationed in India, writes that she drove her friend Mrs Bell-Martin to hear one of the twice-weekly performances of the regimental band. The previous night, as she also records, the garrison had been subject to an arson attack – the ‘Indian Mutiny’ or First War of Independence had arrived on their doorstep. In the face of escalating hostilities, going to hear the band was part of a pattern of normality that Mrs Ouvry and her compatriots doggedly – if futilely – maintained. A small, personal listening experience, it is unremarkable and routine on one level, but also resonant of the layers of significance that music can acquire in ordinary people’s particular and intimate experiences of listening. Focusing on the period from the late eighteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War, this paper deals not with the professional responses of nineteenth-century music critics, but rather with those of amateur musicians and music lovers, and with more incidental encounters with music – in the street, in the park, on the promenade. It considers the ways in which, and the reasons why, people listened to music in their everyday lives – for pure enjoyment, education and improvement, morale, solidarity and social cohesion, or whatever else. The paper illustrates the range of sources that can be drawn on for evidence of such listening experiences, from personal correspondence, diaries and memoirs, through travel writing, journalism and fiction, to apparently unlikely ones such as government papers, and examines the questions and issues prompted by different types of source. It concludes by introducing the Listening Experience Database project, a major AHRC-funded collaboration between the Open University and the Royal College of Music launched in January 2013, describing its aims, methods and progress.

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