Roundtable | Music and the Public Sphere, “Caught in the Great Divide: Musicology and the Public Sphere at the Beginning of the 20th Century,” by Sanna Penderson

Caught in the Great Divide:
Musicology and the Public Sphere at the Beginning of the 20th Century

Sanna Pederson 
University of Oklahoma

Should art be for all or only for the few? At the beginning of the 20th century, this question was frequently posed in context of a vast expansion of musical life, ever more threatened by the rift of the “Great Divide” between modern high art and mass culture. This phrase, coined by Andreas Huyssen in his book After the Great Divide, defines late 19th century modernism, including modern music, in terms of its “insistence on the autonomy of the art work, its obsessive hostility to mass culture, its radical separation from the culture of everyday life, and its programmatic distance from political, economic and social concerns” (vii).The musicologist Peter Franklin has noted that musical modernists and anti-modernists alike defined themselves by their disdain for the market, an attitude that believes “the customer is always wrong,” as Richard Taruskin describes it (351). The view from the production side of things, then, was to keep art only for the few. But alongside this stance in the late 19th century there was also widespread enthusiasm for bringing art music to the masses in order to improve lower-class individuals and also to improve society as a whole.

As these movements were unfolding, music expanded into the university, where musicology was established as a scholarly discipline leading to university degrees. Two of the first music professors to accede to powerful positions in academic institutions, Hermann Kretzschmar in Berlin and Sir Hubert Parry in London and Oxford, both believed that art music should remain exclusive, but for almost diametrically opposite reasons. Their different views help us understand the complexity of the possibilities, at the outset, for academic musicology to mediate between music and the public and bridge the great divide. 

Hubert Parry and Hermann Kretzschmar were almost exact contemporaries. They were both born in 1848 and were both devastated by World War I: Parry died just before the Armistice, while Kretzschmar lasted five years beyond that in ill health and greatly diminished capacity. They were both prominent public figures who symbolized the significance of music for their nation. Neither was what we would think of as a scholarly musicologist today.

Parry’s father, Thomas Gambier Parry, was an important art collector and amateur painter, as befitted a member of the landed gentry. Hubert, however, wanted to be a professional composer. As Parry’s biographer Jeremy Dibble explains, the father, like the English in general, viewed the music profession with suspicion because of the financial risks as well as the exposure to continental immorality and unmanliness.1 Hubert took the examination at Oxford University and was awarded a bachelor’s degree in music while still at Eton. When he actually attended Oxford he was involved in musical activities but did not study music formally there. Marriage to the rich daughter of an earl brought on the financial obligations of maintaining a suitably high class lifestyle. Conceding to the English prejudice that, in his words, “a gentleman might be defiled if he were seen to do anything with music,” he worked for three years as an insurance underwriter (Wachsmann, 6). He took the opportunity of leaving this uncongenial position when his friend George Grove invited him to assist with his new dictionary. The 123 articles that he contributed was his only scholarly qualification for being appointed “Director of the Music History Department” in Grove’s newly founded Royal College of Music in 1883.2 A decade later he succeeded Grove as Director and remained there until his death. In 1898 he was made a baronet; two years later he was appointed Professor of Music at Oxford University. The lectures he gave there were published as Style in Musical Art in 1911. That and his most popular book, The Evolution of the Art of Music, which went through ten editions by 1931, were not based on original research. His theory of an evolution of music was inspired by the social philosopher Herbert Spencer’s speculations on the origins of music in audible expressions of emotion in animals and primitive races.3 Although he claimed that “the crudest efforts of savages throw light upon the true nature of musical design” (47), Parry never took the opportunity on any of his many cruises to different parts of the world to try to hear some of this savage music. Instead, he focused on composing prolifically and leading a busy social life with country and town houses, yachts and motor cars. He is said to be the first person in England to be issued a speeding ticket (Dibble, 401).

Hermann Kretzschmar’s background, in contrast, was that of the career musician. His father was a cantor and organist, one of the last who composed his own music for the church services as Bach did. He gave his son a thorough and practical musical upbringing that was continued at the famous Dresden Kreuzschule. Hermann then enrolled simultaneously at the University of Leipzig and the Leipzig Conservatory and wrote a musicological dissertation in Latin on music notation and Guido of Arezzo. He was hired at the conservatory upon graduation to teach theory and organ; but after five years of overwork he had a nervous breakdown and gave up all his duties. The subsequent positions he took were as a music director, conducting orchestras and choirs. At this period in his career he began his famous series of concert guides, the Führer durch den Konzertsaal, which were originally connected to the festivals and historical concert series that he organized. It was only after some professional disappointments, especially not being chosen as the new conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, that he retired from active music making and turned to more scholarly work.4 His concert guides had been very successful, but it was his book of Musikalische Zeitfragen orMusical Questions of the Time from 1903 that seems to have secured him the prestigious position at Berlin as the university’s first ordinarius or full Professor of Musikwissenschaft. 

Both Parry and Kretzschmar were self-confessed workaholics. A professorship at Berlin University was not enough for Kretzschmar, who lobbied successfully to succeed Joseph Joachim as director of the Königliche Hochschule für Musik (the Berlin Conservatory) in 1909. He also directed the Institut für Kirchenmusik and presided over the Internationale Musikgesellschaft.5 In 1912 he took over both the the Neue Bach Gesellschaft and the Denkmäler Deutscher Tonkunst editions. All of these positions led Kretzschmar to be referred to as the “Musikpapst in Preußen” (Musical Pope in Prussia). As powerful musical administrators, both Kretzschmar and Parry were in positions to deal with the problem of the Great Divide. But their perceptions of the problem were completely different. Parry put the blame on mass audiences while Kretzschmar attacked autonomous art.

In his compilation of lectures at Oxford, called Style in Musical Art, Parry devoted two chapters to the “Influence of Audiences on Style.” In these chapters and also throughout the book, Parry returned repeatedly to how large, “aggressive” audiences were diffusing taste and dragging down the quality of all music. “Emancipated democracy” had engendered an era “which has no parallel for hollowness, blatancy and reckless levity in any previous period of art’s history; and it seems inevitable that the contagion must spread and induce deterioration also in the higher branches of art” (131). Although he professed to support the People’s Concert Society, an organization for bringing art music to the poor,6 Parry called those who wanted to improve people through music “pathetic,” and argued that their good intentions were only ruining music:

It is commonly and quite rightly held that music may be of the greatest service in refining the less prosperous classes and keeping them out of mischief. But it is generally overlooked that the wide promiscuous public has a remarkable capacity for exerting influence on music, both in its intrinsic qualities and in style (112-3).

In Parry’s view, any paying audience could only have a negative effect on music. He lamented the degradation the composer must undergo in trying to get people to listen to him. The “very big public” was not competent enough to “encourage really first-rate men in any branch of art or literature” (46). These complaints about unappreciative audiences are common enough, but Parry also condemned appreciative audiences: “Where the public are too ready to be kind their too easily gained favour reacts unfavourably on the composer” (150). Parry considered success with the public dangerous and also vulgar, because it is vulgar to compliment people: 

It is only in the strata of low-class art and low-class minds and productions of every sort that men are constantly flattering and congratulating one another on their performances and their successes. Among men of higher mettle compliments which must inevitably be suspect are tabooed. (150)

Parry argued that conditions were unfavorable for art, among the lower but also the upper classes, since higher class minds never put praise into words. Therefore, the artist could not legitimately know whether he was successful with the very people he would wish to please. “Friends of the higher mettle sometimes pass through life together without arriving at certainty whether the opinion of each of the other’s work is favourable or the reverse” (17). In the end, there was nothing for Parry to say about audience reception except that “in reality all men who think frankly admit that a man is strengthened by the necessity of being self-dependent”—that is, without the confirmation of an audience, paying or not (17). As a composer who felt alienated both by the upper and lower classes, Parry was no doubt speaking for himself. At the time that he wrote this lecture on audiences, he had still only earned about 25 pounds total from his compositions (Benoliel, 30). A recent biographer credits Parry with turning what was still considered in Britain the demeaning job of music into a financially viable gentleman’s profession (Benoliel, 30). But Parry constantly complained that the very aspects that made it socially and financially acceptable, the academic and administrative duties, made it impossible for him to have time to compose. It is no surprise that problems of class appear at the heart of Parry’s despair.

Because he was not primarily a composer as Parry was, Kretzschmar did not approach the problem of music and the public sphere from the same perspective. In fact, at the outset of his Musikalische Zeitfragen he acknowledged that people were worried about the future of composition, but argued that the health of music didn’t depend solely on it; it was not the only question of the times and was not even the most important (4). 

The Musikalische Zeitfragen had originally been published as a series of articles in the Grenzboten, a prestigious weekly magazine that had been discussing in recent years the widespread efforts to bring art to the people. In 1898 Kretzschmar had contributed a piece on the “Volksconcerte” (folk concerts or concerts for the people), which aimed to expose the lower classes to concerts like the People’s Concert Society in Britain. It was thought that symphonies specifically, with their traditionally symbolic status of representing the collective and creating a feeling of community, could bridge the divisions in society. Kretzschmar had two objections to the reasoning behind these concerts: first, he argued that there had always been a difference between folk music and art music, which was obscured by those whose slogan was “one Volk, one language, one religion, one law and one art.” Second, he questioned whether listeners would be able to get anything out of the symphonies of Beethoven, for instance, when even the usual concert goers lacked the thorough cultural and musical training that was characteristic of the audience for which the music was written.

Kretzschmar’s skepticism about the Volksconcerte was expanded in the Musikalische Zeitfragen to include concert life in general. Here he argued that anyone attending a concert needed to be securely grounded in the language of music and also needed to be prepared in advance for the particular pieces on the program. This is the context of Kretzschmar’s concert guides, and also his notorious concept of hermeneutics. These aids to understanding music aimed to remedy the fact that most listeners did not understand, or even worse, mistakenly thought they understood. This problem of inadequately informed audiences bothered Kretzschmar so much that he concluded that the only place truly appropriate for autonomous art music was out of the public sphere and instead in the classroom, where scores could be studied in all their complexity (81). 

Unlike Parry, who warned against the effect of the masses on concerts, Kretzschmar actually seemed to think that the masses were in danger from concerts of art music. He considered the “cult of pretentious and incomprehensible instrumental music” detrimental to musical life as a whole.7 In the Musikalische Zeitfragen, Kretzschmar distinguished between (freie) “free” and (dienende) “serving” music, arguing that music that “served” something, be it text or occasion, was being neglected in favor of free or autonomous music. He declared that “Our times are strongly inclined to expect too much from free art” (80).

Instead, Kretzschmar recommended above all the need to reform and reorganize musical life, with a particular focus on singing instruction in the public schools. It is thought that he was chosen for the Berlin position in no small part because he comes across in the Musikalische Zeitfragen as someone who could work with bureaucrats, who would not defend Musikwissenschaft itself as a free discipline but more “in service” to the greater good of musical life. Indeed, Kretzschmar’s subsequent tenure as professor of musicology does not seem to have been very brilliant in that he does not seem to have spent much time on his lectures and seminars. He much preferred his administrative duties involving curriculum reform. 

Neither Kretzschmar nor Parry were particularly dedicated to musicology above all else; in fact, they may have been chosen for their positions precisely because of that lack of specialization. Beyond being known to the scholarly musical world, these first musicologists were public figures. This is especially important for understanding Hubert Parry, who was celebrated above his other achievements for making music a respectable profession for a gentleman. An obituary for Parry in The Musical Times indicates the preoccupation not only with class, but also nation and gender in its emphasis on Parry as “a man very much after the English public idea of what a man, and especially an Englishman, should be.” The writer returned repeatedly to this theme:

“Again the man! It was the man that was foremost in all that Parry did, in all that Parry was. It is the man that stands out in his life, whether as footballer or musician, yachtsman or speaker or writer, it is essentially the man that speaks in his music. Its bigness of conception, its robustness, its vigour, its humour, tenderness, gentleness—it is all the man Parry. Maybe he was potentially a greater man than musician. At least he was a man first, a very real man, and a very true Briton” (Legge, 491).

The date of this obituary, November 1918, perhaps accounts for the focus on national manhood. But another valedictory article on Parry eight years later in 1926, reveals the same fixation. The author, A.E. Brent Smith, struggled to account for Parry’s lack of success as a composer and suggested that Parry was too much of a man to be a great composer:

“Parry’s music, then, was the utterance of all the finest and noblest emotions of a man, and so long as the emotions to be expressed were such as are common to man, he attained the highest flights of inspiration, but when the emotions transcended his manly experience he nearly always lapsed into dullness” (Brent Smith, 223).

Elsewhere, Brenth Smith commented that:

The reason why some of his works have their undeniably dull moments can be traced in the first place to the fact that he suffered musically from an excess of those very qualities for which he is justly admired—courage, strength, fearlessness, modesty—qualities which made him so superb an example of manhood, particularly of English manhood (Brent Smith, 222).

This overemphasis on the man indicates some deep misgivings about music. If Parry suffers as a composer because he is so English, so manly, then that seems to be a good thing. This attitude complicates the question of whether art music should be for the few or for all in that it raises questions about the value of art music for the English at all.

In Germany, Kretzschmar thought he had the opposite problem: too much value was placed on art music in his country. For this unusual reason, he believed that art music should be limited to the few. He advocated music in general rather than art music. Freed from the need to above all protect and preserve autonomous art music, Kretzschmar escaped many of the maladies his contemporaries were subject to. Anxieties about class, nation and gender do not break through the surface at almost every opportunity as they seem to do with Parry. Kretzschmar was not led to speculate about the origins of music in order to understand the future and therefore did not write about the uncivilized savages of other races and nations. He did not panic about mass culture or the extreme tendencies of modern music. He did not work from the assumption that historically music had already reached its peak and was in danger of dying out. He was not strongly nationalistic. The price for all these refreshing attitudes however, was a dismissal of the power of autonomous art and a concept of musicology that was weak. It was deliberately weak in that it was put in the service of music making, but also weak in that he neglected his own scholarship, as in his theory of hermeneutics, which does not seem to have been thought through or developed enough. Kretzschmar’s reputation has suffered from this weakness, which was attacked in particular by Carl Dahlhaus. Things seem to be changing, however, and I imagine if Kretzschmar were alive today he would have a job. In 2004 it was announced that the musicology department at the Technische Universität in Berlin, where Dahlhaus presided for so many years, would be closed, along with that of the Freie Universität. But the third university in Berlin, the Humboldt Universität, was able to celebrate 100 years of Musikwissenschaft at the university, beginning with Kretzschmar’s tenure, with the expectation of more years to come. The fact that that University’s first musicology professor was critical of autonomous music initially seems extraordinary. But now that the times are more in tune with the idea of a downgraded autonomous art, Kretzschmar’s conception of musicology may be worth a second look. 

Works Cited

Benoliel, Bernard. Parry before Jerusalem: Studies of his Life and Music with Excerpts from his Published Writings. Aldershot et al.: Ashgate, 1997.

Brent-Smith, A. E. “Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.” Music & Letters 7, no. 3 (1926): 221-28.

Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Vol. III.From c. 1715 to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Dibble, Jeremy. C. Hubert H. Parry: His Life and Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

———. “Parry as Historiographer.” In Nineteenth-Century British Music Studies, edited by Bennett Zon. Aldershot, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 1999.

Franklin, Peter. “Audiences, Critics and the Depurification of Music: Reflections on a 1920s Controversy.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 114, no. 1 (1989): 80-91.

Gillett, Paula. “Ambivalent Friendships: Music-Lovers, Amateurs, and Professional Musicians in the Late Nineteenth Century.” In Music and British Culture, 1785-1914: Essays in Honour of Cyril Ehrlich, edited by Christina Bashford and Leanne Langley, 321-40. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Kretzschmar, Hermann. Gesammelte Aufsätze aus dem Grenzboten. Leipzig: Grunow, 1910.

———. Musikalische Zeitfragen. Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1903.

Legge, Robin H. “Charles Hubert Hastings Parry 1848-1918.” The Musical Times (1918): 489-91.

Parry, C. Hubert H. Style in Musical Art. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1924.

Parry, Hubert. The Evolution of the Art of Music. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1912.

Sommer, Heinz-Dieter. Praxisorientierte Musikwissenschaft. Studien zu Leben und Werk Hermann Kretzschmars. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht. Vol. 16, Freiburger Schriften zur Musikwissenschaft. München-Salzburg: Musikverlag Emil Katzbichler, 1985.

Taruskin, Richard. The Oxford History of Western Music. 6 vols. Vol. 4: The Early Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Wachsmann, Klaus. “Spencer to Hood: A changing View of Non-European Music.” Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 1973 (1973): 5-13.


  1. “The view was commonly held that the life of a musician was beset with financial risks, an existence unbecoming to the sons of country squires who were set to inherit and manage the estates or enter respectable professions such as the army (with an automatic commission) or the church (with the guarantee of preferment). Furthermore, music was not infrequently associated both with the immorality of continentals and with a sense of unmanliness; hence there was a determined attempt to dampen enthusiasm for music beyond its pursuit as a genteel pastime” (Dibble, 13). John Caldwell confirms: “A large body of political and intellectual opinion was either indifferent or even hostile to the pursuit of music, at least as a career or as a consuming interest” (319).
  2. Parry’s doctorates in music from Cambridge (1883) and Oxford (1884) were honorary.
  3. “He believed in the connection between race, style and national character. This belief gave rise to a cultural hierarchy in which Teutonic art held sway” (Dibble, “Parry as Historiographer,” 49).
  4. See Heinz-Dieter Sommer’s Praxisorientierte Musikwissenschaft: Studien zu Leben und Werk Hermann Kretzschmars for an overview of his career.
  5. In 1900 Parry became President of the British branch of this International Musical Society (Dibble, 377).
  6. Dibble, 377. On the People’s Concert Society, see Paula Gillett’s article “Ambivalent Friendships: Music-Lovers, Amateurs, and Professional Musicians in the Late Nineteenth Century.”
  7. The context is his discussion of “Volkskonzerte” (Kretzschmars, Gesammelte Aufsätze aus dem Grenzboten, 309).