From the Band of Musick to the Concert Party: Musical Entertainment in the British Army, c. 1780–1918.

Helen Barlow gave a paper at the Research Center for Music Iconography conference ‘Sounds of War and Victories’ at City University New York on 11 November. Entitled ‘From the band of musick to the concert party, c. 1780-1918: the changing role of musical entertainment in the British army’, the paper will be published in the 2016 edition of the journal Music in Art.

Abstract: From the work of professional artists, to soldiers’ sketchbooks, to photographs, a range of different visual media bear witness to music as a feature of military entertainment. From the time the presence of bands became routine in the British army in the late eighteenth century, music was as important to the army in this context as it was in overtly military settings such as on the march or the parade ground. But this was always entertainment with a serious underlying purpose. At one end of the spectrum, music at dinner in the officers’ mess reinforced a sense of social exclusivity and the right to command. Similarly, a regimental band was a very useful tool of soft power in civilian contexts: playing outside the barracks, at balls and in public parks, it made the local presence of a regiment palatable, even glamorous. At the other end of the spectrum, the anarchic music hall acts of divisional concert parties on the Western Front and elsewhere in the theatre of World War I were entirely different from regimental band performance in almost all respects, except that they too were (paradoxically) about the preservation of order: they offered soldiers a way of addressing and accommodating the situation in which they found themselves―one which their diaries and memoirs frequently describe in terms of madness and lunacy. These functions of music are vividly recorded and illustrated in images from the period, and this paper will examine the visual evidence and the relationship of context, medium and message.

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