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‘The sound of my axe is the beginning of history’: Vaughan Williams, The Land Question, and Interwar Cultures of Usefulness

Wednesday 16 June 2021, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Sarah Collins (University of Western Australia)

The popular association of Ralph Vaughan Williams with pastoralism, together with his folksong collecting, his advocacy for ‘national music’ and his interest in amateur music-making, is typically understood in relation to an historically-persistent conflation of the landscape—nation—the people.

Recent work has sought to challenge the reactionary hue of this association by drawing out the composer’s engagement with a more fragmentary and ambivalent set of pastoral tropes after World War I, in direct response to his war service and as evidence of his under-recognised interaction with musical modernism. Yet quite apart from the history of cultural and artistic representations of landscape, there was also a set of specific political mechanisms that shaped the way that land was viewed during this period.

Vaughan Williams was not only familiar with policy debates about land use in the interwar period, but he was directly engaged in preservationist activism, through certain stage and film works as well as other practical activities, whereby he hoped to make himself of use to the preservationist cause.

This paper will explore how Vaughan Williams’ outlook on landscape and the associated evocations of nation and the people intersected with a quite specific set of political questions regarding the use, management, and ownership of land.

It will focus on Vaughan Williams’ intellectual formation among radical liberals in the 1890s and the symbolic role played by the system of Parliamentary enclosure in their discussions of land reform and land tax, and will trace these targeted preoccupations in Vaughan Williams’ work with E. M. Forster on two historical pageants in the 1930s, and his music for propaganda films in the 1940s. In doing so I will draw out discursive links between what I am calling ‘cultures of usefulness’ in interwar Britain, mapping how the moral valorisation of productivity, improvement, and individualism found expression across the political, economic, and aesthetic spheres in sometimes unexpected ways.

About the speaker:

Professor Sarah Collins has published widely on the relationship between music aesthetics and broader intellectual and political currents in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. She is the author of Lateness and Modernism: Untimely Ideas about Music, Literature and Politics in Interwar Britain (Cambridge UP, 2019), and The Aesthetic Life of Cyril Scott (Boydell, 2013); editor of Music and Victorian Liberalism: Composing the Liberal Subject (Cambridge UP, 2019); and co-editor with Paul Watt and Michael Allis of The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford UP, 2020). Sarah lectures in the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Western Australia, where she is Deputy Head (Research) and Chair of Musicology. She has been reviews editor for the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, and is currently a co-editor of Music & Letters. Sarah is currently Lead CI on an ARC DP ‘A Cultural and Intellectual History of Automated Labour’. She has held visiting fellowships at Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and Durham University, and has received competitive research funding from the British Academy, Leverhulme Trust, the Australian Research Council, and the European Commission.

Join the seminar on Zoom

Meeting ID: 915 8006 2656
Passcode: 840125

Location: Online (Zoom)