By the mid-nineteenth century, England had earned a reputation among other European countries as being "the land without music." Although London boasted a thriving concert culture and vibrant music criticism, the British concert-going public preferred music by foreign composers. While this xenophilia reinforced their country's image as a commercial superpower able to import the finest the world has to offer, it left English composers unsupported by their own country, weakening their international status. As the century progressed and nationalistic attitudes increased, the need for native English composers became imperative, coinciding with growing concern about political and economic threats to British supremacy. Many members of the British musical establishment sought to rehabilitate their nation's musical reputation through educational reforms aimed both at the general public and at specialists in the conservatories. This campaign necessitated new ways of presenting music history, particularly with regard to musical activities in Britain. As a result, several new volumes of music history were published in the second half of the nineteenth century, each reflecting the specific motivations of its author.
This paper is a historiographic account of music histories published in Britain between 1838 and 1908, comparing their presentations of one composer, Felix Mendelssohn. As a German composer who enjoyed enormous popularity in Britain in the decades after his death in 1847, Mendelssohn provides an ideal lens through which to examine the tensions of the Victorian era and how they affect historians' treatment of evidence. Writers from the generation that had direct contact with Mendelssohn tend to present him as a beneficial force in British musical culture, introducing the public to morally uplifting art and actively encouraging English composers to produce works in the same vein. These histories place greater emphasis on narrative accounts of the composer's ten visits to Britain, as well as anecdotes from English composers invited to study with him in Leipzig, thereby deriving credibility from lines of direct personal contact with Mendelssohn. Later generations of writers, however, express anxiety over the profound influence one foreign composer exerted over their culture, arguing that his legacy discouraged composers from developing a distinctly "English" music. These histories treat personal narratives with skepticism, asserting that admirers' devotion to a Mendelssohnian cult of personality blinds them to his aesthetic shortcomings.
Though the "Great Man" paradigm prevails in most British music histories of the Victorian era, the values that constitute "Greatness" change, away from the social graces epitomized by Mendelssohn and toward the perceived rugged individualism of English composers of the early twentieth century. By tracing the presentations of Mendelssohn in music histories by George Hogarth, Reverend H.R. Haweis, William Smyth Rockstro, Hubert Parry and others, this paper sheds light on how British music enthusiasts used histories to shape perceptions of musical life in England at a point when the nation's musical identity seemed most malleable.