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Opera in the Jazz AgeCultural Politics in 1920s Britain$

Alexandra Wilson

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190912666

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190912666.001.0001

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(p.71) Chapter 3 Brows
Opera in the Jazz Age

Alexandra Wilson

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 3 focuses upon two archetypal figures in the 1920s battle of the brows: the highbrow and the so-called man in the street. It discusses the various ways in which the term ‘highbrow’ was employed during this period, before considering which music periodicals and critics fell into the highbrow camp, even if the term was not always explicitly used. The chapter proposes that there were various types of highbrow critic: some overt snobs, others more benevolent voices who wanted to share good music with a wide audience. The second part of the chapter analyses the eclectic, middlebrow tastes of the ‘man in the street’, a mythical figure who represented the burgeoning middle classes. Finally, the chapter considers publications, talks and broadcasts that were employed by various opera companies and individuals during the 1920s to encourage more people to watch and listen to opera.

Keywords:   opera, Britain, 1920s, highbrow, middlebrow, class, periodical, critic, criticism

British intellectuals of the 1920s were profoundly concerned about the growth of mass culture and its effects upon both so-called high art and social hierarchies. Within such a climate, they increasingly felt that their cultural authority and ability to regulate taste were under threat.1 At the same time, they became figures of fun, increasingly ridiculed by the middlebrow and popular press. Brown and Grover argue that ‘hostility to the highbrow preceded and was more generally pervasive than hostility to the middlebrow’, although the two groups were certainly locked in battle with each other.2 In 1927 Leonard Woolf, publisher, member of the Bloomsbury Group (much derided for its supposed snobbery), and husband of Virginia Woolf, published a short book entitled Hunting the Highbrow, which opened with the declaration that ‘The highbrow is an extremely unpopular person . . . When I open a paper or listen-in I am continually told that we are all much better fellows—more honest, and clean, and happy, and wise, and English—for being lowbrows’.3

Woolf’s point about Englishness is particularly significant: the pillorying of the highbrow as ridiculous was part of an attempt to form a post-War national identity that was healthy, hearty, sporting, and anti-intellectual. Stefan Collini notes that intellectualism had verged upon becoming fashionable around 1910 but that the term ‘highbrow’, as employed in the 1920s, was (p.72) indisputably pejorative.4 As such, it was not a label many cultural commentators of the day would have adopted to describe themselves, for identifying as a highbrow was to put oneself in a lonely position.5 Indeed, in some circles being a philistine was considered a veritable virtue: Aldous Huxley observed in 1931 that while, some time ago, the stupid and unintelligent had aspired to become intelligent and cultured, it was now the fashion for intelligent and cultured people to ‘do their best to feign stupidity’.6 This public swing against intellectualism was, Huxley argued, the result of a growing culture of mass consumption: it was in the interests of industrial producers to discourage people from sitting quietly in their rooms with their own thoughts or perhaps a book, and thus newspaper propaganda portrayed such people as ‘miserable, ridiculous, and even rather immoral’.7 The peculiarly English strand of anti-intellectualism that was intensifying around this time would undoubtedly colour later twentieth-century public attitudes towards opera.

In the first part of this chapter I shall analyse the complex attitudes held about opera by the anxious music intellectuals of the 1920s. The views of highbrow critics merit detailed attention because these figures were important voices in contemporary musical debates, acting as gatekeepers with responsibility for setting the new terms of reference. In the second half of the chapter, I turn to examining the tastes and attitudes of an emblematic figure who was set up in 1920s musical discourse as the highbrow’s opposite number: the so-called man in the street. This protagonist in the 1920s opera debate is interesting for the way in which he enjoyed opera alongside a wide range of other forms of entertainment, embodying the new eclectic middlebrow taste. Both the highbrow and the man in the street were, to some extent, figures of the imagination: variously caricatured, maligned, and celebrated by the contemporary press. But understanding the position of these two key players in the debate is important because it helps us to consider the ways in which perceptions of public taste contributed to discussions about opera’s cultural categorisation.

(p.73) The musical highbrow

The battle of the brows was as intense in the sphere of music as in any other field of art. The term highbrow was employed liberally in the 1920s press and in different ways: either to mean something quite specific (a particular genre of music or a critic) or as a loose term of abuse.8 In his thoughtful study of jazz and its place within wider musical contexts (1927), R. W. S. Mendl protested against crude aesthetic labels, arguing that it was impossible for music itself to be highbrow and that the term signalled nothing more than the speaker’s personal lack of enthusiasm for it.9 Indeed, perhaps the term highbrow should be considered a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘exemplary’. Drawing a comparison with the ostensibly more populist field of sport, Mendl argued that:

To describe a musical production as ‘highbrow’ has no more meaning than to use the word of Hobbs’ batting, Carpentier’s boxing, or anything else which is good of its kind in the opinion of the majority of those people who have studied the subject.10

The reference to sport here is not merely casual. As will become clear over the coming chapters, classical music and sport were routinely measured against one another in debates about British identity, sometimes as polar opposites (often with the implication that ‘real Britons’ preferred sport) but sometimes as fields that had a surprising amount in common.

Mendl taps into both facets of the sport–music debate here. He uses the reference to sport in order to ridicule the idea of a musical performance being ‘highbrow’, but he also demonstrates that music and sport are not so far removed as many would imagine. He continues the sporting analogy when discussing people as well as works, arguing that there could be ‘sports-highbrows’ (or indeed ‘food-highbrows’) just as easily as musical highbrows. The crucial point Mendl makes here is the importance of distinguishing between taste and prejudice. He argues that ‘A man does not deserve to be condemned as a highbrow just because he takes delight in the classics of art, but only if he looks down upon the poor souls who have not attained to his own high level of taste’.11 Being a 1920s highbrow (p.74) in the pejorative sense, therefore, had nothing to do with enjoying Bach or Shakespeare; rather, it had everything to do with being a snob.

This was the core of the highbrow issue: it meant being condescending to others, and in some cases feigning tastes in order to set oneself apart. The 1933 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, indeed, defined a highbrow as ‘a person of superior intellectual attainments or interests; always with derisive implication of conscious superiority to ordinary human standards’.12 The problem was that the rest of the population, aggrieved at being talked down to, was then prone to becoming inclined to set its mind stubbornly against any activity associated with the highbrows, running the risk of cutting off its nose to spite its own face. Lionel R. McColvin, author of a 1926 book about art and taste, put his finger on the nub of the argument, writing that:

too many of those who appreciate, or pretend to appreciate, the best are apt to set themselves apart and to insist that there is an unbridgeable gulf between their art and that of the common herd. The average man hates this highbrow snobbery and hates, too, everything they are supposed to care for, since it is tarred with the same brush.13

This does not really apply to opera in the 1920s, since few of the most ascetic highbrows cared for it. Nevertheless, one can see how this mindset was a factor in the emergence of a self-defeating elitism rhetoric later in the century.

The archetypal highbrow music critic was satirised in the popular press as being recognisable for his distinctive appearance (domed forehead, pimpled face, horn-rimmed spectacles), as well as for his leaning towards certain inaccessible types of music.14 In reality, however, it is not entirely straightforward to assign labels to the music critics of the 1920s, particularly when it comes to their views on opera. The picture was complex: some were avowed highbrows and proud of it, but generally speaking, critics rarely identified themselves explicitly as highbrows or middlebrows and some exhibited attitudes that were a mixture of both stances. There were also different types of highbrow, ranging from the out-and-out snob of popular cliché to the advocate of serious music who embraced the word highbrow in a more positive way and whose attitudes were not caught up with ideas of social exclusivity. For members of this latter group, highbrowism was (p.75) not incompatible with notions of cultural ‘uplift’: their ideal was highbrow music for all.

Music journals of this period found subtle ways of signalling their place within the new cultural categories. There was a great deal of infighting among critics of this period about what constituted good taste, and it is striking that many publications ostensibly devoted to music displayed a pronounced hostility towards particular types of repertoire. Indeed, it is noteworthy that the most negative voices speaking out against opera tended to come from within the specialist music press rather than from the general press. They were a force against which those attempting to make the case for opera had to fight, at the same time as trying to convince the public at large.

Music magazines that attempted to speak to the middlebrow often denounced what they called ‘academic’ music, by which they meant chamber music and serious orchestral music. As The Musical News and Herald proclaimed, ‘A good waltz will always outlive a dull symphony’.15 Some popular music magazines, such as The Musical Mirror, were also prone to mocking opera for being too highbrow, albeit in a fairly affectionate manner. Conversely—and intriguingly, for our purposes—there were certain periodicals that attacked opera, with some venom, for not being highbrow enough. In an article entitled ‘Opera: A Vindication’, Cecil Gray—a musical highbrow who believed in the idea of a cultural ‘aristocracy’ yet who was also, unusually, a champion of Italian opera—wrote that: ‘It would be idle to deny . . . that there exists at the present time a strong and influential body of enlightened opinion which is definitely hostile to opera, particularly among musicians themselves’.16 Occasionally, publications managed to combine both standpoints: the hostility of The Musical Standard towards opera was a mixture of aesthetic snobbery from above and money-minded suspicion from below.

There was much disparagement of opera’s status as an art form from publications that considered themselves to be primarily concerned with more serious types of music, such as The Musical Times (MT), whose primary ambition at this time was to promote church music, and whose views on opera are worth examining in detail.17 The MT more or less explicitly billed itself as highbrow with the frank declaration in 1924 that ‘This journal is not (p.76) read by the kind of folk who like rubbish’.18 There were some pro-operatic voices on the MT’s staff, notably the aforementioned Francis E. Barrett. More broadly, however, the journal’s editor Harvey Grace (1874–1944), a church organist and the author of a book on Bach’s organ works, steered the journal on a deliberately anti-operatic course.19 He regularly wrote outrageously dismissive articles about opera and other types of so-called ‘popular music’ under the pen name ‘Feste’, after the fool in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Under Grace’s editorship, the MT regularly insulted the audience for opera. The idea that opera was something for less intelligent people and that the truly cultured appreciated ‘higher’ forms of art was one that would become something of a leitmotif in the journal, one of whose contributors argued that opera was ‘only completely satisfactory to undeveloped artistic tastes’.20 Grace himself disparagingly observed: ‘It has been said that the operatic public is the least musical of all, and hard though the saying be one cannot but feel that it is true, seeing the absurdities and inconsistencies that opera-goers will swallow’.21 He was referring in this particular case to recent polyglot performances at Covent Garden but continued to assert this argument about the audience for opera over a period of some years, later declaring that the opera public is ‘not on the same level of musical intelligence as those who attend orchestral and chamber concerts’.22

In 1925, Grace wrote a lengthy diatribe about opera, attacking it as musically and dramatically weak, too expensive, and (in response to calls for subsidy) ‘the very last form of enterprise with claims on the state’ since it would—unlike libraries, playing fields, and public parks—only benefit a minority.23 Resentment about the use of public money to subsidise specialist art forms such as opera would, of course, rumble on throughout the twentieth century and beyond—witness the furore in the 1990s over the allocation of over £78m in lottery funding towards the refurbishment of the Royal Opera House. The difference is that while hostility towards opera today may have increased in the general press, it has surely diminished in the specialist music press, since the pressures to defend all types of classical music against charges of elitism have become acute.

Many opera propagandists of the 1920s proposed that opera ought to be valued not only on its own merits but as an effective medium for introducing (p.77) listeners to a wider range of types of classical music. The BNOC’s magazine Opera, for instance, asserted that ‘opera is the best introduction to art’, while the opera convert and evangelist Agnes Savill proposed that opera provided an enjoyable way for the beginner to acquire a taste for music: they might at first just watch the acting, coming to appreciate the music later.24 Earnest meetings about the democratisation of opera were also held in the drawing rooms of Chelsea: Lady Hoskyns hosted a discussion entitled ‘Why Opera is Needed’ under the auspices of the British Confederation of the Arts at her home in Sloane Gardens in July 1929.25 H. C. Colles of The Times argued at the meeting that opera could provide an elementary education in the arts for those who were at present ‘grovelling in the cinemas’.26

Such well-intentioned (if to our ears patronising) comments about diverting people towards a more ‘improving’ form of art stand in direct opposition to Grace’s disparaging remarks about opera actually having a good deal in common with lowbrow entertainment. And since opera was itself veritably lowbrow, Grace proposed, it was in fact useless as a tool by which to convert musical novices to ‘good’ music. He noted that people often uttered the expression ‘ “Get the man in the street into the opera house, and he is half-way to Queen’s Hall” ’.27 (The Queen’s Hall was the home of symphony concerts and vocal recitals, and attracted a well-to-do, cosmopolitan audience.) Grace’s pithy response to this assumption was: ‘Only half-way though, and likely to stay there’. Such a listener, incapable of recognising the ‘genuine article’, would mistakenly believe himself, upon attending the opera, to be ‘at an important artistic function’. The real musician, Grace snapped, knew better, recognising opera to be ‘merely a superior and very expensive kind of variety show’: similar rhetorical tropes about music hall and variety clustered around star singers, as we shall see in Chapter 6.

Individual members of the musical establishment argued about whether the highbrow was a force for good or ill within the world of music. The various voices who spoke out against highbrows approached the issue from a range of slightly different stances. Herman Klein, by this time an elder statesman of music criticism and an opponent of Modernism, posited the musical highbrow as a dangerous figure because of the influence he could exert both upon susceptible young composers and listeners, subverting (p.78) accepted norms of taste.28 The contralto Clara Butt, meanwhile, adopted a crowd-pleasing angle, arguing that highbrows were simply putting a dampener on musical enjoyment: ‘There are a number of musical snobs who consider that because a song is popular it cannot be good. Were I to have a concert merely for the musical “scientists” it would have to be at a small hall; there are so few of them’.29 As a concert and recording artist, Butt had, of course, much to gain from being seen to endear herself to the largest possible audience. Indeed, she took pride in irritating the ‘musical snobs’ by singing ‘the songs the people like instead of the songs they ought to like’ (namely Lieder).30 The term scientist is a significant one, constructing serious music as ‘difficult’ and antithetical to lighter repertoires that Butt posited as speaking from the heart.31

Ethel Smyth is an interesting case, as a composer of serious music who nevertheless positioned herself in opposition to the highbrow. Smyth contrasted attitudes in Germany and Italy, ‘where opera is taken naturally and simply because it is indigenous to the soil’, with those in Britain, where a highbrow mentality had imposed a stuffy ‘oratorio-like solemnity’ upon musical life.32 Recounting an exchange with an unidentified conductor who had taken her work The Boatswain’s Mate too seriously, Smyth remarked that ‘if people confuse opera with divine service there is nothing more to be said’, adding ‘Here we have the result of highbrowism’. This puritanical, humourless attitude, Smyth argued, was attributable to the background of many of the commentators writing about music. She lamented the fact that the English musical establishment was so closely entwined with the Church (as we have already seen in the case of Harvey Grace) and with Oxford and Cambridge. Observing the fact that ‘the highbrow is essentially a University product’, Smyth wrote ‘To be frank, this influence seems to me wholly deplorable. What we need in our musical outlook is oxygen, and I cannot bear to see the freshness and innocence of would-be cultivated amateurs smiled or sneered away by these pretentious graduates in the school of Professor Stodge’.33

The highbrow musical establishment was, in Smyth’s view, setting itself apart from the majority of opera-goers. Critics were actively putting operatic (p.79) novices off attempting to enjoy the art form by telling them that the works they enjoyed were poor or old-fashioned (Smyth cites the rather surprising example of Fidelio), thus depriving them of music that could serve as a pain-soothing balm.34 Mocking the tastes of those who enjoyed popular music in the hope of encouraging them to explore art music was also counter-productive. Mendl railed against the musical snobs who characterised jazz as detestable and worthless, arguing: ‘Could anything be more calculated to keep the musically uneducated man away from other forms of music? No wonder that he looks upon musicians generally as a lot of eccentric freaks whom he does not profess or wish to understand, and the musical connoisseurs as a body of stuffy, academically-minded highbrows!’35

We can see, then, that highbrow had become a term of abuse in the 1920s, a silencing reprimand, rather akin to the way in which the word elitist might be used today. According to W. J. Turner, ‘The word “highbrow” is one of those usefully vague words which can be stuck on to anything or anybody one dislikes. If you suspect a man of knowing more than you yourself do on any subject, fling the epithet “highbrow” at him and his superiority is at once undermined’.36 But Turner advocated that critics should reclaim the term as a compliment—indeed, the highest of compliments. Conceived more positively, the label might be used to describe a writer who had confidence in his own convictions and did not feel the need to adjust his stance to mirror what he supposed might be the view of the majority.37

Turner was an outspoken poet and member of Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Circle whose views on opera, although more intuitive than academic, were often insightful.38 His attitude towards the musical public, however, show a marked and overtly snobbish disdain for middlebrow tastes, and he actively condemned the efforts of the music appreciation lobby.39 Working on the principle that everything of value in the world—whether concepts of morality, honour, and justice, or works of art—had been created by an elite, he proposed that ‘The public does not know what is good, it does not even care to know . . . it is lazy, stupid, indifferent, apathetic and incapable of sustained desire, effort or discipline’.40 Turner’s view here corresponds with the typical highbrow stance of the day, as exhibited particularly strongly in the Modernist mindset, which hinged on the idea that both (p.80) the creation and the appreciation of great art required special, rare talents, and training.41 At the same time, Turner refused to ‘write down’ to the ordinary man, arguing that what we would now refer to as ‘dumbing down’ was contemptuous and insulting.42

Some music critics were keen to distance themselves from the highbrow tag and clearly felt affronted to be labelled thus when they considered themselves to be simply speaking common sense about opera’s weaknesses. An anonymous writer for the largely anti-operatic Musical Times argued that:

A musician need not be derided as a highbrow or a purist if jealousy for his art makes him resent the lavish expenditure of money, effort, and applause on works wherein music that is merely conventional or weak is tolerated and even acclaimed because of its association with a successful drama, or owing to its performance by star singers.43

As we have seen above, a certain type of ‘highbrowism’ went hand in hand with the attitude that opera was beyond the pale. However, to equate highbrowism systematically with a hostile attitude towards opera would be to oversimplify matters. Virginia Woolf—the archetypal self-proclaimed highbrow voice of the decade—confessed that her youth had largely been spent at Covent Garden in the years before the War, although her passion for it was, by the early 1920s, starting to cool.44

Some critics who were openly anti-democratic in their attitudes towards music in general and disdainful of the tastes of the masses were simultaneously—and seemingly paradoxically—enthusiastic about opera, such as Kaikhosru Sorabji, who was enthusiastic about the works of Verdi and Puccini, if not the excesses of prima donna-dom, as we shall see in due course.45 And there were also other serious, if less overtly highbrow, music critics who were enthusiastic about opera, who took it very seriously, and who wanted to see it well performed, such as Figaro of Musical Opinion. Some of these critics were keen to engage a wider public, while sacrificing (p.81) nothing in terms of high artistic expectations and standards. Agnes Savill, writing in 1923, listed Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times, Percy Scholes of The Observer, Robin Legge of The Daily Telegraph, and H. C. Colles of The Times as critics who were making concerted efforts to introduce musical works to readers who did not understand musical terminology (even if Colles had a reputation as a rather severe intellectual).46

Music critics did not all share the same vision of their role. As Nigel Scaife has observed in his study of early twentieth-century music critics, some, such as Ernest Newman, firmly believed that there was a single, objective assessment of the merits of a musical work, whereas ‘subjectivists’—particularly those writing for The Manchester Guardian—saw themselves as simply putting forward a personal perspective in such a way as to engage and interest the reader.47 Some critics identified as professionals, others as (in Scaife’s words) ‘reporters, reviewers and belletristic “chatterers” on musical subjects who neither intended nor were expected to provide critical thought about music’.48 Some had professional musical training; others—such as Neville Cardus of The Manchester Guardian, who was also a cricket correspondent—had no such musical education and wrote in a non-technical manner.49

The example of Percy Scholes illustrates how difficult it was to pigeonhole critics. He wrote to Compton Mackenzie in 1923 about their shared dislike of ‘this confounded high priest business’, writing: ‘I think what you call “the little London clique” cannot understand that the music critic of a serious London paper may be none the less competent in that job, although he does write books on music for the man in the street, and even for that man’s children’.50 Scholes, a former extension lecturer for the Universities of Manchester, London, Oxford, and Cambridge turned critic for The Observer (1920–7) and the BBC (1923–8),51 made a concerted effort to take music to a wider audience. His book Everybody’s Guide to Broadcast Music was aimed uncompromisingly at musical beginners. Brief introductions to selected operas included a pronunciation guide: ‘Pronounce “Fee-day-lee-oh” ’; ‘Pronounce name of composer (p.82) Bee-zay” ’.52 On the other hand, Scholes acknowledged that he was sometimes seen as a highbrow and certainly demonstrated a certain aversion to the wider aesthetic tastes of the middlebrow, criticising ‘nasty, pinchbeck jewellery on their bodies, and sentimental pictures on their walls, and shallow novels on their tables’.53 Nevertheless, Scholes was firmly of the opinion that good taste—in music, as in other matters—was within the grasp of everyone, and that taste could only go up, not down.54

The man in the street

The so-called ‘man in the street’ was of course the archetypical lover of sentimental pictures and shallow novels. This everyman figure was often mocked by the highbrow critics and simultaneously lauded by the popular press for his ‘plain speaking’ and ‘uncontaminated’ view of music. His interests were regularly discussed in the contemporary music press; indeed, he became a near-mythical figure. While some commentators were disdainful of his tastes, others applauded him for his no-nonsense attitude and lack of pretensions. Certain sectors of the musical establishment took an earnest, benevolent attitude towards him, considering him to be a ‘project’ ripe for cultivation, while others regarded such efforts as patronising.

The man in the street, like the highbrow, was treated as a species to be classified and analysed. So who was he and why did cultural commentators concern themselves so much with him? Sometimes the term was used to describe the working-class man, but more often it denoted the relatively unrefined middle-class man.55 In 1922 Francesco Berger defined the man in the street as ‘the up-to-date phrase for the average man’, a person who was neither learned nor ignorant and who took his opinions ready formed from his daily newspaper, becoming himself ‘the mouthpiece of contemporary opinion’.56 In other words, the man in the street was effectively the middle-class middlebrow, although the latter term was not yet widely being used. And there were an awful lot of ‘men in the street’: this was a period in which a sense of growing panic was emerging among cultural elites about the growth of a sprawling suburbia and the rise of the middle-class functionary. The figure was of little interest at the individual level, Berger argued, (p.83) ‘yet the aggregate forms an enormous power, which the minority may not respect but cannot ignore’.57 The explicit gendering of the term obviously deserves comment. Female tastes, insofar as they might have differed from male tastes, were rarely discussed explicitly in the mainstream or musical press. Male nouns and pronouns were invariably used, but we should not assume that the tastes discussed were necessarily exclusive to men: there were undoubtedly also ‘women in the street’.

Sometimes slightly different versions of the term were employed. Critics occasionally used the term ‘the Plain Man’, which was something slightly more specific: unlike the man in the street he could be said to have a definite interest in the arts, but his busy working life prevented him from devoting much attention to them.58 And the journalist (and later bestselling novelist) J. B. Priestley coined the term ‘broad brow’ rather than middlebrow in an essay first published in The Saturday Review in 1926. In Priestley’s view, highbrows and lowbrows were equally problematic because of their tendency to be ‘sheeplike’. ‘Low’ was ‘the fat sheep with the cigar from City or Surbiton’ and ‘High’ ‘the thin sheep with the spectacles and the squeak from Oxford or Bloomsbury’, but both were incapable of independent thought and uncritical. For example, the highs ‘move in one well-drilled mass from one artistic fashion to the next, all making the same gestures of contempt and admiration’.59 The broadbrow, on the other hand—with whom Priestley himself identified—had eclectic tastes ranging from Russian dramas to variety shows, grand opera to boxing booths, and was able to exert independent thought.60

The British ‘man in the street’ was not the same beast as the cultivated peasant one could supposedly find in other nations: a figure much idealised in contemporary reports by commentators hoping to shame their compatriots. Henry Russell estimated that 80 per cent of the English-speaking races (thus, audiences not only in Britain but in nations such as America, Canada and Australia) were more or less indifferent to opera whereas ‘On the continent, and particularly in Italy, the man in the street, the peasant who can neither write nor read, is interested in singers and in operatic (p.84) singers in particular’.61 Similarly, Agnes Savill argued that the audience in Paris was ‘drawn from every class of the people’, and that opera in all the major cities of Italy and Germany was priced at levels similar to the Old Vic (Figure 3.1), meaning that ‘opera is indeed the recreation of the people’.62


Figure 3.1 The Old Vic Theatre, Lambeth (b/w photo), English photographer (twentieth century)

Private Collection. © Look and Learn/Bridgeman Images.

Yet although the level of knowledge possessed by the British man in the street of popular caricature was inferior to that of his continental counterpart, he was not so much a person who knew nothing about music as (p.85) someone who knew something and could perhaps be enticed to learn more.63 His tastes were in some respects limited but by no means entirely uninformed. The Deputy Director of the BBC wrote in Opera magazine in 1923 that ‘We English are notoriously unmusical, not one man in a hundred enjoys Wagner, not one in a thousand can listen to Beethoven’.64 This was, however, something of an overstatement: Rose argues that ‘there was a substantial working-class audience for Beethoven’, thanks to their wide participation in choirs and orchestras, particularly in northern industrial cities.65 A group of Sheffield manual workers who were surveyed in 1918 about their cultural interests were asked to state whether they had heard of various key historical figures. Of the 22 members of the ‘intellectual’ group, eight knew Beethoven’s name, as many as had heard of Arthur Sullivan.66

There was a widespread perception that ‘plain men’ preferred ‘plain tunes’ and popular ballads certainly remained favourites, especially ‘Home Sweet Home’, which was characterised as ‘the perfect expression of one of their deepest sentiments’.67 On the other hand, a reasonable amount of ‘serious’ music appeared on the man in the street’s radar: he attended an annual performance of Messiah, had seen a few operas such as Carmen, and could whistle ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Weber’s ‘Huntsman’s Chorus’, and the soldiers’ chorus from Faust.68 Francis Toye, music critic of The Morning Post from 1925 and later an important biographer of Verdi, argued that ‘the modern democracy, amazingly ignorant, incredibly ill-educated though it may be, is beginning to grope after the pleasures of real music’.69 It had picked up this taste from hearing snippets of serious music in cinemas and tea shops and on gramophone records and was now eager to find out more about the music of Verdi and (more surprisingly, on the face of it) Wagner.

The general public beyond those who regularly attended operatic performances was evidently knowledgeable enough about the basics of popular opera for operatic plots to be referenced regularly in popular fiction. But it was likely to be suspicious of the ‘trappings’ of opera in its most glamorous manifestations and of its rituals, about which it was widely presumed one (p.86) had to be ‘in the know’, an assumption that still persists today. This view is reflected in comments from Richard Capell (then music critic for The Daily Mail and editor of The Monthly Musical Record) who wrote in 1930 that ‘Those great continental opera-houses which suggest such possibilities of musical pleasure may also strike us as rather alarmingly official in look, and uncomfortably like temples, where faith is congealed in formularies’.70

Unsurprisingly, Opera magazine made a strong case for ‘opera for the people’, and overtly declared its commitment to the engagement of ‘the man in the street’, announcing its manifesto to be that ‘Opera in England, must be made the pastime of democracy’.71 Numerous personalised anecdotal accounts reinforced the point that the BNOC’s performances were for ordinary people rather than any sort of social elite. For example, Opera published a story in which a 16-year-old barber’s apprentice from Bradford saved a shilling a week from his pocket money to buy tickets for the opera. Heart-warmingly, the orchestra paid for three seats for him during the last few days of the season, at which point he had run out of money.72

The BNOC made much of its efforts to take opera to working-class men who occupied a rung lower on the social ladder than the middle-class man in the street. Perceval Graves, the BNOC’s Publicity Manager, wrote of touring round factories in northern cities, giving talks about opera in cheerless canteens during the workers’ lunch breaks. Graves would tell the plots of operas, with music examples performed by a singer colleague, and explain that the ‘grand’ in ‘grand opera’ did not mean highbrow: the knock on effect was a demonstrable increase in ticket sales.73 He argued that music’s social and health-giving benefits should inspire benefactors to follow Beecham’s lead in funding it, since ‘The sedative effect of the right music on neurotics, and the tonic properties of community singing in the factory, should fire their imagination and loosen their purse strings’.74

Opera clearly did have a large audience among ‘ordinary people’, but some publications called into question whether it was really appreciated by the much-discussed man in the street; indeed as one journalist wrote ‘There have been more words and “hot air” expended lately on the subject of popularising opera than on any other controversial musical matter’.75 A crude caricature by The Musical Standard revealed that the man in the (p.87) street was capable of enjoying opera, whereas orchestral music was considered to be the real ‘highbrow’ music: ‘ “I love to hear good singers, if they don’t jabber in some foreign language. But an orchestral concert is above me” ’.76

As well as revealing a suspicion of non-texted classical music, this quotation demonstrates the perceived necessity of translating opera into English in order to appeal to British audiences. This was of course the policy of the touring companies and the Old Vic. Covent Garden, meanwhile, returned to performing operas in the original languages during the second half of the 1920s.77 (The latter had been the policy instated by Augustus Harris at Covent Garden in the 1890s. Prior to that, the policy had been to translate all operas, whatever their nationality, into Italian.) Some critics suggested that opera might have a greater dramatic effect in the original language, but such suggestions tended to attract outraged accusations of snobbery from those aspiring to democratise opera.78 Opera magazine exalted the democratic virtues of opera in English, the editor making the case for opera in a language ‘which is intelligible to “the classes and the masses” alike’.79 In the same periodical, Samuel Langford, a determined adversary of musical snobbery who usually wrote for The Manchester Guardian, attacked ‘the outrageous man of culture’ whom he characterised as wanting to keep opera in its original languages explicitly so as to keep it out of reach of ‘the mass of the people’.80 He argued that the translation of opera into English was absolutely essential, since ‘nothing is more detrimental or indeed fatal to the general love of music in any vocal form than the common use of alien tongues’. Such debates about whether or not to translate opera rumble on vehemently today: the practice has arguably become redundant since the introduction of surtitles, yet English National Opera continues to present singing in English as central to its distinctive identity and its business model.

As we have seen, the man in the street was almost certainly familiar with operatic ‘bleeding chunks’.81 This form of listening attracted snobbish comment from critics of various dispositions. A. H. Fox-Strangways, chief (p.88) music critic for The Observer and founder of the academic journal Music & Letters, condemned fragmented listening in The London Mercury, writing that ‘An opera is, in fact, not primarily a mine of quotations. Those who regard and value it as that will never understand opera’.82 Although the Mercury was a cultural magazine that spanned the highbrow-middlebrow divide, Fox-Strangways was clearly presenting an unashamedly highbrow agenda here, since middlebrows were less concerned about the purity of cultural texts, as we shall see presently. It is noteworthy to see a similar attitude being adopted even by Edward J. Dent (an advocate for ‘popular opera’ in his strong support of the Old Vic), who posited the person who came to opera by hearing isolated fragments in celebrity concerts as ‘dangerous’. Although this type of listener was theoretically capable of enjoying good music if it was presented to them in the right way, Dent conceded, he or she was ‘undiscriminating’, unable to analyse whether their enjoyment of a piece of music was the result of the music, the words, or some external factor such as the singer’s clothes.83 Such comments exhibit a purist attitude towards opera, a reverence for the musical ‘work concept’—however problematic that might be with regard to opera—and a dismissive attitude to the intelligence of the average listener.

In contrast, there was respect in some quarters for the way in which the man in the street listened to music, which was posited, paradoxically, as ‘purer’ than that of the musical expert, who was ‘normally a mass of prejudice without knowing it’.84 The Musical Mirror was a publication that actively spoke for the man in the street and, despite its coverage of some serious music, was resolutely sceptical about highbrow attitudes. Insofar as this periodical was concerned, listening to opera for pleasure was not a problem; indeed entertainment was the beginning and the end of the matter. The magazine proposed that the popular audience did not go to concerts to be educated but with the ‘laudable’ aim of being moved or amused, concluding that ‘None but artistic or social snobs (or critics) go to concerts for any reason superior to that of deriving pleasure’.85 Listening for pleasure (p.89) was, furthermore, sometimes presented as an innately British tendency, if not exactly as a national virtue. Denis Laird of The Musical News and Herald played on the stereotype of the nation of shopkeepers and argued that the hard-working British, exhausted after the shutters had gone down at the end of the day, wanted entertainment that did not require study: intellectual laziness was therefore a fair gibe, but intellectual incapacity was not.86

Occasionally some periodicals published articles by journalists using names such as ‘a man in the street’ or, as in the case of the BNOC’s Opera magazine, ‘A man in the queue’. So lauded was the man in the street then, that some journalists apparently wanted to emulate him. Or was this a strategy for engaging readers by making them feel as though the critics were not lofty intellectuals but ordinary people just like themselves? In fact, Opera was prepared to admit the plain truth of the matter: that it was commonplace for periodicals to employ some writers who were not experts and pseudonyms were merely a cover for ignorance. A correspondent going by the name ‘Our Unsophisticated Critic’ reported that the first thing that had to be done when a new magazine was launched was for the editor to divide the writers into two classes: those who knew something about the subject could use their own names, while those who did not would hide behind a nom-de-plume.87

Other commentators, however, baulked at the idea that the ‘man in the street’ should be accorded the authority to pass comment upon high culture, something that was more commonly the case with music than other forms of art. L. Castle wrote in The Musical Standard in 1923 that ‘the ordinary person in the street thinks that he has quite the same right to criticise a piece of music as a musical critic’, whereas he would look at you dumbfounded if asked to criticise a sculpture.88 Similarly, Harvey Grace argued for respect to be paid to those who were actually qualified to write about music, contrasting the disrespect shown towards them with the respect accorded, at least outwardly, to expert architects, painters, or writers.89 Such outspokenness about music, compared with a lack of willingness to comment upon the other arts, seems rather perverse given the specialist technical vocabulary involved in discussing music, but would appear to suggest that music was regarded as something that operated merely at the emotional level.

(p.90) This lack of reverence for music, compared to that which might be found in other European nations, can perhaps be attributed to a widespread lack of knowledge about it, which spanned the class spectrum. Even very cultured British people often knew little about opera. Dorothy Short, writing in the art journal Apollo in 1925, remarked upon the fact that while the average cultivated person knew a reasonable amount about canonical writers and poets and about contemporary art, music was a particular blind-spot: indeed, such a person ‘seems to be almost proud of his incompetence’ in this area.90 A knowledge of music in general—let alone opera specifically—was quite simply not a part of the educated British man or woman’s general education.91 This created a suspicion about it that merely fuelled the contemporary confusion about where to situate opera within the new cultural categories.

Raising tastes

There were lively discussions during the 1920s about whether the musical establishment ought to try to educate the man in the street. On the whole, those members of the musical establishment who cared deeply about opera believed that raising the taste of British audiences was crucial, even if there were concerns that such efforts might seem condescending. (As the middlebrow Musical Mirror contended, ‘How to raise the taste of the masses without being offensively patronising, is a problem that we have always with us’.92) A large number of general books about opera, aimed at beginners, were published during the decade, and often went through several editions.93 More broadly, a veritable industry of music appreciation classes and talks sprang up during the 1920s. Such endeavours attempted to overturn the negative stereotypes that were sometimes associated with opera. First, it was deemed necessary to get past the idea that opera was boring. For example, The Gloucester Journal reported that a Mr F. A. Wilshire of (p.91) Bristol had given a talk to the local Rotary Club, in which he ‘said there was a general idea that grand opera was a dry, dreary, miserable sort of business—something analogous to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and that it was only highbrow people who understood it’.94 Second, it was deemed necessary to demonstrate that opera was not intimidating. Perceval Graves, on a 1924 publicity tour for the BNOC, gave several mid-day addresses in Leeds in which he stressed that opera was supposed to be popular entertainment and that ‘the epithet “grand” was needlessly alarming’.95

The BNOC was particularly active in opera education, both for children and for adults. Its house magazine took its educational remit seriously, not only by publishing articles about opera intended to broaden its readers’ knowledge but by promoting supplementary educational products: a series of BNOC books known as the National Opera Handbooks was advertised with the slogan ‘Read them before hearing the opera and treble your enjoyment’.96 Opera magazine regularly contained supplements outlining the plots of operas in the BNOC repertory and Figaro also found it noteworthy that the BNOC published plot summaries in their programmes, indicating that this was a rarity at the time.97 In 1923 the magazine adopted as the header for its editorial the quotation ‘opera is the supreme instrument for the aesthetic and emotional education of the whole nation’, words borrowed from Peter Green, Canon of Manchester and Chaplain to H. M. The King, uttered in the context of hearing an opera for the first time at the age of fifty.98

Furthermore, Opera magazine devoted a good amount of space to the question of how people might be ‘converted’ by opera on the radio, once again serving its own interests.99 The BNOC Covent Garden production of The Magic Flute on 8 January 1923 was the first ever opera broadcast on radio, and the first studio broadcast, on 8 October of the same year (Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette) also featured a cast primarily drawn from members of the same company.100 The magazine even published articles (p.92) by leading BBC directors, including J. C. W. Reith himself. Reith praised the BNOC for its enthusiasm for broadcasting, something that had assisted the BBC in fulfilling its own aims: ‘It must be remembered that theatre opera transmissions would not have been possible had it not been for the broadminded attitude and foresight of the BNOC. This organisation was amongst the first to see a potential aid in broadcasting, and to support the BBC’s endeavour to give radio audiences the benefit of the highest forms of musical art. We have since broadcast every London season of the BNOC’.101

Reith’s article demonstrated the way in which the BBC, like the BNOC, was attempting to reach out to an audience not yet necessarily familiar with opera. The question of how to convey the plot of an opera was something that was much debated in the BBC’s infancy: for this reason, opera was considered to be more difficult to broadcast than other forms of music. In the early days of opera broadcasting, the announcer not only read out the plot in advance but talked over the music, in order to explain to the audience at home what was going on onstage.102 This policy prompted complaints from listeners, but the BBC defended it.103 After quipping that a listener had threatened to turn up at Covent Garden and shoot anybody who dared to talk over the production of Siegfried, Reith explained to the readers of Opera that although the interpolated remarks seemed sacrilegious to some, they had helped many.104

Nevertheless, it is clear that some listeners perceived opera, as encountered for the first time on the radio, to be highbrow. The BBC received numerous letters of protest about its ‘heavy’ programming—despite the fact that only a small proportion of the repertoire broadcast in these early years was classical—from correspondents who said they wanted to relax when they got home from work.105 There was an immediate outcry when (p.93) the corporation began to increase its number of opera broadcasts. And it is interesting to note that in this context many correspondents lumped opera in with forms of music that were generally considered more highbrow. For example, The Nottingham Evening Post reported in 1925 that ‘the vast majority of listeners are exasperated beyond measure and wearied to death of grand opera, symphony, Elizabethan atrocities, and the like’. This newspaper attempted to whip up populist, anti-intellectual feeling by calling in almost jingoistic terms for the organisation of ‘a great national protest against the musical crank with a passion for the unmelodious and inexplicable’, and ‘virile propaganda for really good, tuneful, expressive, and cheerful music of the kind that stirs the blood and rouses the emotions and brings back to us memories of happy days’.106

Opera magazine, by contrast, made much of the fact that ordinary people were being converted to opera through broadcasting.107 It published a first-person article by an unnamed office boy, who told a story about an evening when he and the office typist, Peggy, stayed at work late into the evening—even forgetting to have dinner—so captivated were they by something ‘very wonderful’ on the wireless.108 They discovered by looking in a newspaper that it was a BNOC broadcast of The Mastersingers. This was of course still an era when ‘self improvement’ was fashionable: clerks from the London suburbs were striving for self-education, reading literature in cheap editions, visiting museums and galleries, and attending concerts.109 The office boy—whom we might see as the even more humble younger cousin of E. M. Forster’s Leonard Bast—visited Covent Garden the next day and found that he could afford a couple of gallery tickets for himself and Peggy. The story was, of course, a piece of overt propaganda for the BNOC’s own collaboration with the BBC, but its general premise (p.94) is backed up by the praise Rose cites for the early BBC opera broadcasts, from working-class audience members who evidently found the listening experience transformative.110

Opera companies also worked in partnership with recording companies to expand the audience for opera, which would of course have benefits for both parties.111 Numerous talks about music were given up and down the country, illustrated by examples on gramophone record, while gramophone societies held public ‘recitals’.112 Opera magazine was full of stories of everyman characters listening to opera on record. There was, for instance, the account of ‘Smith’, previously a lover of band music. Smith’s initial classical choices were deemed ‘bad’ because ‘he selected names, international names, rather than music’—recordings by celebrity singers, in other words—but with repeated listening came to tire of them and to appreciate a more serious repertoire.113 Eventually he was inspired to seek out a BNOC performance of La bohème, where, thanks to the gramophone, ‘he felt that the opera in some undefined way belonged to him’, and even started to enjoy orchestral music, a repertoire he had previously considered too highbrow.

It is interesting to find Nellie Melba—in spite of her precious attitude towards changing audiences at Covent Garden—celebrating the fact that broadcasting and the gramophone were ‘the two most eloquent missionaries to the musical heathen in our midst’.114 The religious overtones to this comment should not go unnoticed. There was undoubtedly a missionary zeal to some of the attempts to broaden the audience for opera. In a particularly clear example, a south-London based clergyman named Father R. H. Green ran an ‘opera club’ at his church in a deprived area of Battersea in the early 1920s. Green invited his younger parishioners to join him after evensong each Sunday to talk through the music and plot of an opera, aided by gramophone examples. After eighteen months, Father Green’s club had grown to number thirty members and his parishioners, who had previously regarded Wagner’s music as mere ‘noise’, now ‘know The Ring by heart’.115 (p.95) Furthermore, so enthused about opera were these poor parishioners that eighteen of them misguidedly signed up for Isidore De Lara’s ill-fated ‘National Opera Scheme’ when he came to visit the club, handing over their hard-earned pound on the spot.116

What, then, do all these stories tell us about opera’s place in the battle of the brows? Like those in the previous chapter, they tell us that the people in the 1920s audience for opera—whether critics or ordinary members of the public—were extremely difficult to categorise. Some Britons were evidently fearful of opera; some, knowing very little about it, presumed it must be highbrow. And yet many so-called men (or women) in the street, once introduced to a little opera, evidently felt able to embrace it without prejudice as just another form of entertainment. What is strikingly clear from the analysis above is that no group seems to have wanted to adopt opera as the private preserve of a limited social group or something for which one required special knowledge or social cachet in order to appreciate. Indeed, precisely the opposite was the case: the most lofty highbrows of the era were keen to distance themselves from opera as something that was rather beneath them, too frivolous to merit proper artistic respect. In short, these were not ‘opera snobs’: rather, they were snobbish about opera. Meanwhile, other critics took opera very seriously but were advocates of serious opera for all. Thus, it starts to become abundantly clear that when thinking about operatic attitudes of this period, a simplistic highbrow-lowbrow dichotomy is a most unhelpful frame of reference. The truth of the matter was far more complicated, and far more interesting: opera occupied a messy and complicated space in the middle. Might we go so far as to call opera middlebrow?


(1.) See, for instance, the way in which F. R. Leavis lamented the ‘sinister’ developments of mass production, standardisation, and a blurring of cultural boundaries, and asserted the rights of the elite to regulate culture, arguing that ‘In any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning appreciation of art and literature depends’. F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture (Cambridge: The Minority Press, 1930), p. 3.

(3.) Leonard Woolf, Hunting the Highbrow (London: The Hogarth Press, 1927), p. 5.

(5.) As Leavis observed, the cultured minority ‘is made conscious, not merely of an uncongenial, but of a hostile environment’. F. R. Leavis, Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture, p. 25.

(7.) Ibid., p. 208.

(8.) In terms of repertory, the term ‘highbrow’ was often associated with new music, particularly the works of Stravinsky and Les Six, which enjoyed a brief post-War vogue. This fashion is discussed pejoratively (‘keyless, tuneless, formless agglomerations of chaotic sounds’) in Klein, Musicians and Mummers, p. 325.

(10.) Ibid., p. 105.

(11.) Ibid., p. 104.

(13.) Lionel R. McColvin, Euterpe, or the Future of Art (London and New York: Kegan Paul and E. P. Dutton, 1926), p. 38.

(15.) Anon., ‘Highbrows’, MNH, 64/1615 (10 March 1923), 225.

(16.) Cecil Gray, ‘Opera: A Vindication’, MILO, 1/1 (October 1929), 8–12, 8. On Gray, see Scaife, ‘British Music Criticism in a New Era’, pp. 35 and 227–39.

(17.) Other church music figures who spoke out against operatic culture included Sir Richard Terry, whose campaign against operatic stars we shall encounter in Chapter 6. Terry was organist and Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral until 1924, where he placed a strong emphasis upon promoting Renaissance polyphony.

(18.) ‘Feste’, ‘Ad Libitum’, MT, 65/976 (1 June 1924), 504–6, 504.

(19.) Harvey Grace, The Organ Works of Bach (London: Novello, 1923).

(20.) Arthur L. Salmon, ‘The Artistic Values in Opera’, MT, 61/930 (1 August 1920), 519–20, 520.

(21.) ‘Feste’, ‘Ad Libitum’, MT, 64/965 (1 July 1923), 465–8, 466.

(22.) ‘Feste’, ‘Ad Libitum’, MT, 66/990 (1 August 1925), 698–701, 699.

(23.) Ibid., 698.

(24.) E. G. J., ‘The Truth about British Opera: An Incident at Wembley’, Opera and the Ballet, 2/7 (July 1924), 6–7, 7; Agnes Savill, ‘Opera and the People’, The English Review (September 1928), 327–31, 327.

(25.) Anon., ‘British Opera: National Effort Required’, The Times, 24 July 1929, 12.

(26.) ‘British Opera: National Effort Required’, The Times, 24 July 1929, 12.

(27.) Laura Tunbridge, ‘Singing Translations: The Politics of Listening Between the Wars’, Representations, 23/1 (summer 2013), 53–86, 57.

(29.) Symphonicus, ‘Heard in the Interval’, MM, 4/8 (August 1924), 143.

(30.) This story was reported in Coulter, ‘An Open Letter to Dame Clara Butt’, 229.

(31.) A similar debate took place in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Italy, where German music was regularly disparaged by dilettante music critics as ‘scientific’. For further reading, see Wilson, The Puccini Problem.

(32.) Ethel Smyth, ‘On Non-Grand Opera and Solemnity’, The Midland Musician, 1/3 (March 1926), 87–8, 88.

(34.) Ethel Smyth, ‘Catchwords and the Beloved Ignorantsia’, LM, 17/97 (November 1927), 37–51, 44.

(36.) W. J. Turner, Variations on the Theme of Music (London: Heinemann, 1924), p. 82.

(37.) Ibid., pp. 85–6.

(39.) Ibid., p. 298.

(40.) Ibid., p. 89.

(43.) Anon., Review of Dyneley Hussey, Eurydice, or the Nature of Opera, MT, 70/1038 (1 August 1929), 720.

(44.) In a letter of 1923, she told a friend that she had found a recent performance of Tristan und Isolde boring, although in her younger days she had thought it ‘the most beautiful thing in the world’. Virginia Woolf, letter of 8 July 1923 to Barbara Bagenal, in Nigel Nicolson (Ed.), A Change of Perspective: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, 1923–1928 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1977), p. 56. In the same year, Woolf describes attending the BNOC’s staged performance of Bach’s Phoebus and Pan at Covent Garden in 1923, wearing ‘attenuated evening dress’ because she was accompanying a friend who ‘takes stalls’. Virginia Woolf, letter of 18 May 1923 to Roger Fry, in Nicolson (Ed.), A Change of Perspective, p. 39.

(46.) Savill, Music, Health and Character, 133. Newman’s writings on opera in The Sunday Times in the 1920s were largely devoted to what he saw as the failure of opera in Britain, whose cause he attributed to the weaknesses of English singers. Paul Watt, ‘Critics’, in Helen Greenwald (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Opera (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 881–98, p. 893.

(48.) Ibid., p. 10.

(49.) Ibid., p. 29.

(50.) Compton Mackenzie, My Life and Times: Octave Six 1923–30 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), p. 20.

(52.) Percy A. Scholes, Everybody’s Guide to Broadcast Music (London: OUP/Hodder and Stoughton, 1925), pp. 107, 108, 114.

(53.) Ibid., p. 176.

(54.) Scholes defied the reader to suggest a single man who used to enjoy Bach and now listens to nothing but jazz. Ibid., p. 227.

(55.) ‘A. G.’, ‘Art and the Man in the Street’, MM, 2/4 (April 1922), 106.

(56.) Francesco Berger, ‘The Man in the Street’, MO, 45/534 (March 1922), 515.

(57.) Ibid., 515.

(58.) Walpole, Preface to Francis Toye, The Well-Tempered Musician: A Musical Point of View (London: Methuen and Co., 1925), p. vii.

(59.) J. B. Priestley, ‘High, Low, Broad’, in Open House. A Book of Essays (London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1927), pp. 162–7, p. 164. Priestley’s essays were originally published in The Saturday Review. The highbrows would doubtless have been equally critical of Priestley, a writer who was overlooked because of his Grub Street journalism in the 1920s and his later popular commercial fiction, and rejection of Modernism. For further reading, see John Baxendale, Priestley’s England: J. B. Priestley and English Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

(62.) Agnes Savill, ‘Opera and the People’, The English Review (September 1928), 327–31, 329.

(63.) At a talk given at the Incorporated Society of Musicians, Hugh Allen divided musical people into three categories: 1) people who really know; 2) those who think they do; and 3) those who think they do not, but do (the man in the street)’. Anon., ‘The “Man in the Street” Again’, MM, 4/2 (February 1924), 29.

(64.) The Deputy Director of the British Broadcasting Company, ‘Broadcasting: Its Possibilities and Its Future’, Opera, 1/5 (May 1923), 20–1, 20.

(65.) Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, p. 206. He also cites interviewees who recalled hearing Beethoven in early cowboy films (p. 202).

(66.) Ibid., p. 194.

(70.) Richard Capell, Opera (London: Ernest Benn, Ltd., 1930), p. 9.

(71.) The Editor, ‘Hands Off Opera!’, Opera, 1/7 (July 1923), 6–7, 7.

(72.) A Man in the Queue, ‘Stray Notes: National Opera News’, Opera, 2/4 (April 1924), 24.

(73.) Graves wrote: ‘That these operatic samples created a demand for opera in bulk was later shown by the box office. Hundreds of pounds worth of tickets can be credited to this source alone’. Perceval Graves, ‘Opera in Town and on Tour’, The Sackbut, 8 (June 1927), 332–4, 333.

(74.) Ibid., 334.

(75.) Anon., ‘Opera for the Plain Man’, MM, 4/10 (October 1924), 187.

(76.) J. Raymond Tobin, ‘Music and the man-in-the-street’, MS, 24/446 (18 October 1924), 132.

(78.) Toye was unusual in critiquing the general policy on operatic translation (whilst admitting that it was unlikely to change), arguing ‘Wotan, rendered into English, is not quite Wotan, and Tosca, screaming anglicised imprecations against Scarpia, can never wholly preserve the full flavour of her native latinity’. Francis Toye, The Well-Tempered Musician: A Musical Point of View (London: Methuen and Co., 1925), p. 204.

(79.) Editorial, No title, Opera and the Ballet, 2/5 (May 1924), 5.

(80.) Samuel Langford, ‘What of Opera?’, Opera, 2/3 (March 1924), 14–15.

(81.) In Berger’s words, ‘it is only these few stray bits or similar ones that have “caught on” with the “man in the street” ’. Berger, ‘The Man in the Street’, 515.

(82.) A. H. Fox-Strangways, ‘Chronicles. Music: National Opera’, LM, 12/67 (May 1925), 92–4, 93.

(83.) Edward J. Dent, ‘The World of Music’, ILN, 30 December 1922, 1084–5.

(84.) ‘Devana’, ‘The “Popular” Audience’, MM, 2/6 (June 1922), 170. There is a striking similarity here with music journalism in Italy at the turn of the century and beyond, where music periodicals regularly undermined the authority of their own critics by holding up ordinary listeners as the ideal critics for responding to music emotionally rather than intellectually. For further reading, see Alexandra Wilson, ‘Defining Italianness: The Opera that made Puccini’, The Opera Quarterly, 24/1–2 (2008), 82–92 and Alexandra Wilson, ‘Music, Letters and National Identity: Reading the 1890s Italian Music Press’, 19th-Century Music Review, 7/2 (2010), 99–116.

(85.) Devana, ‘The “Popular” Audience’, 170.

(86.) Denis Laird, ‘Wanted—A Mussolini’, MNH, 65/1651 (17 November 1923), 426.

(87.) Anon., ‘London Xmas Season. By Our Unsophisticated Critic’, Opera, 1/2 (February 1923), 24.

(88.) L. Castle, ‘The Attitude of the General Public Towards Music’, MS, 21/409 (19 May 1923), 161.

(89.) Harvey Grace, ‘Music and Musicians’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 8 December 1924, 7.

(90.) Dorothy Short, ‘Music and Culture’, R. Sydney Glover (Ed.), Apollo: A Journal of the Arts, Vol 2 July to December 1925 (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprint, 1976), pp. 53–4, p. 53.

(91.) ‘It cannot I think be gainsaid that a knowledge of the great things of music is a part of an educated man’s ordinary general culture’. Percy A. Scholes, The Second Book of the Gramophone Record (London: Oxford University Press, 1925).

(92.) Anon., ‘Music Today: Music for the Masses’, MM, 8/10 (October 1928), 253.

(93.) See, for example, Northcott’s Covent Garden and the Royal Opera, whose first edition of 1921 sold extremely well, with a second edition published in 1924. Other popular books on opera included: Leo Melitz, The Opera-Goers’ Complete Guide: Comprising 268 Complete Opera Plots, with Musical Numbers and Casts (London and Toronto: Dent, 1925); Anon., Opera at Home (London: The Gramophone Company, 1921); Paul England, 50 Favourite Operas: A Popular Account Intended as an Aid to Dramatic and Musical Appreciation (London: Harrap, 1925).

(94.) Anon., ‘Grand Opera. Address to Gloucester Rotary Club’, Gloucester Journal, 29 October 1927, 1.

(95.) Anon., ‘Opera in Leeds’, Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 10 December 1924, 8.

(96.) Inside cover, Opera, 1/2 (February 1923). The series editor was Mr A. Corbett-Smith and the operas covered were Parsifal, The Mastersingers, Tristan and Isolda [sic], The Ring, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro.

(97.) Figaro, ‘The Operatic World’, MO, 47/555 (December 1923), 253–4, 253.

(98.) Peter Green, ‘What it Feels Like to Hear Opera for the First Time at the Age of Fifty’, Opera, 1/7 (July 1923), 12–14, 12.

(99.) The company’s artistic director, Percy Pitt, was appointed music adviser to the BBC in 1923. Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling, The English Musical Renaissance, 1840–1940: Constructing a National Music, 2nd edn (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p. 102.

(100.) J. C. W. Reith, ‘Broadcasting Opera’, Opera and the Ballet, 2/6 (June 1924), 13–14.

(101.) Ibid., 13.

(102.) ‘We had no means of telling whether our listeners, many of whom had probably never seen an opera performed, would be able to follow the dramatic situation. To assist matters therefore, the plot of the opera was read prior to the transmission, thereby establishing a precedent from which we have never since departed. In addition to this, with the aid of another microphone, the invisible audience were kept informed of the progress of events on the stage. These interpolations were superimposed over the opera transmission, the interpolator—or interpreter, one should say—being ensconced on the stage itself, in the prompt-box’. J. C. W. Reith, ‘Broadcasting Opera’, Opera and the Ballet, 2/6 (June 1924), 13–14, 13.

(103.) A letter of 31 January 1929 from B. V. Darbishire to Percy Pitt complained that in a performance of Samson and Delilah the music was interrupted 18 times. The correspondent asked whether this was an experiment and if so whether it could be abandoned. BBC WAC R27/326/1 Music Gen—Opera—General Memos 1929–34.

(105.) Doctor has calculated that in 1925, classical music represented 12.02 per cent of the total hours of transmission and 18.05 per cent of the hours devoted explicitly to music, rising to 15.79 per cent/25.07 per cent by 1927 and 19.32 per cent/32.15 per cent by 1929. Popular/light music still made up a larger percentage of the total music broadcast, although serious music and serious discussion programmes tended to be broadcast at peak times. Jennifer Doctor, The BBC and Ultra-Modern Music, 1922–1936: Shaping a Nation’s Tastes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 40, 49. Hann reported in The Spectator: ‘when the Broadcasting Company increased the number of opera performances in its programmes, there immediately came an outcry, whether representative or not there is no telling, against “Too Much Opera”. If that was a true ballot from those millions of listeners, then here is an end to all our schemes’. Hann, ‘Opera—If You Will’, 8.

(106.) Anon., ‘BBC’s Fare. Continued Protests against Unpopular Programmes. Do Listeners want Musical Tastes Developing?’, The Nottingham Evening Post, 26 October 1925, 7.

(107.) Such reports contradict McKibbin’s claim that the interwar BBC’s policy of giving the general public a taste for serious music was unsuccessful. He writes: ‘There is . . . no evidence that this happened, any more than the apparent enthusiasm during the war for “good” literature denoted any significant change in what people wished to read’. McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, pp. 386–7.

(108.) An Office Boy, ‘My First Opera’, Opera, 2/4 (April 1924), 8.

(109.) Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, pp. 59–61. On the clerks and other office boys, see Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, pp. 401–21.

(111.) H. V. Higgins, Chairman of the Grand Opera Syndicate, Covent Garden, wrote in the preface to a small book published by the Gramophone Company: ‘The publication of Opera at Home should . . . lead to a material increase in the numbers and enthusiasm of operatic audiences—a result in hoping for which I am not entirely disinterested’. Anon., Opera at Home (London: The Gramophone Company, 1921), p. 8. Higgins called the Gramophone Company ‘an admirable missionary in the good cause’ in familiarising the public with the art of great singers (p. 9).

(112.) For further reading on the gramophone societies, see the numerous reports of their activities in Gramophone magazine.

(113.) A. Clement Jones, ‘The Wonderful Gramophone’, Opera, 2/4 (April 1924), 32.

(114.) Nellie Melba ’A Musical Renascence’, MT, 67/997 (1 March 1926), 259.

(115.) See Green’s letter, ‘Father Green’s Opera Club’, Gramophone, 2/12 (May 1925), 501.

(116.) As reported in: Leonard Spalding, ‘The Forum: Grand Opera a Necessity?’, MNH, 69/1756 (21 November 1925), 464.