Thursday, September 15, 2016

What did the Victorians think of music and sport?

I awoke yesterday morning to find that two different people had sent me links to the same New York Times article: “Why Not a College Degree in Sports?” In it, Roger Pielke, Jr. argues that college sports have a lot in common with the performing arts—they require specialized skills and training, and people pay to see the students perform—so it should be possible to earn a degree in basketball, just as someone can currently get a bachelor’s degree in viola performance (like I did).

I’m not opposed to the idea. There is a lot of overlap between athletes and musicians, between the psychological pressure of performing in the moment and the need to maintain physical health. Just as I had to take several classes in music theory and history, Pielke cites a proposed curriculum of “sports history, sports law, sports finance.” The sports history aspect is most appealing to me, as that can become a student’s entre into the humanities—pretty much any human endeavor reveals something about the society in which it developed, so I can envision classes like “Politics and the Modern Olympic Games,” or “Ancient Precursors to Soccer: Global Perspectives.”

The proposed sports degree does enter into the ongoing debate about what the “true” purpose of higher education should be. Is college supposed to train you for a career in a specific field, or provide you with a broader knowledge base? Few sports majors would become professional athletes, just like few performance majors are be able to support themselves purely by playing. Yet such a program could help develop the skills to find alternative jobs within the field—and, ideally in my view, intellectual skills that they could apply to other fields, as well.

But that debate is not really in the purview of this blog. This statement, however, is:
And beyond such economic disparities, class distinctions of 19th-century England still shape thinking about sport: Classical music is valued by high society, while sport is for the masses.
The second half of the sentence is a cliché. The sentence as a whole is inaccurate.

Sure, John Philip Sousa isn't English, but
do you know how hard it is to find a
photograph from that era of a composer
striking an athletic pose?
A “Sport in Victorian England” class would cover how much emphasis the upper- and middle-classes placed on physical health and the appearance of strength. The Victorians didn’t leave sport (no final “s” in British usage) to the masses—they regulated it, organized it, and turned it into a commodity. They established sport clubs which (like most clubs) were open only to members of certain social standing.

Meanwhile, music was respected elsewhere in Europe in the 19th century, but not in the one country that Pielke cited. I know this seems to go against some other things I’ve written on the blog about 19th-century concepts of high art, but there’s a weird historical quirk in that England didn’t value music as highly as other fine arts like literature and painting. It was morally suspicious, not an acceptable profession for gentlemen. This is part of why there aren’t many famous English composers between 1700 and 1900, as I’ve previously written. Music was for women and foreigners, not men of good standing.

I just filed my dissertation on Felix Mendelssohn reception in Victorian England. Part of the reason he was so popular was because he had all the fine qualities of an English gentleman, despite being a composer. He was foreign, so it was acceptable for him to be musical, but there was still a strong association between music and domesticity, a feminine sphere. Even today, we sometimes think of Mendelssohn as delicate and effeminate, partially because of this link.

But when George Grove (the very model of a Victorian gentleman) wrote an entry on Mendelssohn for the very first edition of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians, he went out of his way to emphasize how masculine Mendelssohn was, quoting an English acquaintance of the composer:
“‘Nothing effeminate or morbid. There was a great deal of manliness packed into his little body,’ as all readers of this sketch must be aware.”
Dictionary of Music and Musicians by George Grove (1880), Volume II, page 295
Grove goes on to describe Mendelssohn’s physical prowess in gymnastics, riding, and swimming, as well as his skill at billiards. This description enhanced Mendelssohn’s image; despite being into that music stuff, he was still a fine specimen of masculinity and thus acceptable company. Grove mentions this specifically to counteract the prevalent belief that musicians cannot be gentlemen. (Despite writing the first comprehensive dictionary of music, Grove himself was an engineer by profession.)

Pielke made the classic mistake of assuming that the way things are now are the way they were in the past. I think some sports history classes would give him some perspective.

Special thanks to Derek Katz and Robert Fink for sending me this link!

“Why Not a College Degree in Sports?” by Roger Pielke, Jr. in The New York Times

“Victorian Sport: Playing by the Rules” by Alex Parry, on

Dictionary of Music and Musicians by George Grove (1st edition, 1880),_George)

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