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At the time when the last full-scale history of British music was published, Benjamin Britten was at the height of his powers, Tommy Steele was starring in Half-a-Sixpence, and the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper. Fifty years on, this engaging and immensely readable History of Music in the British Isles takes a fresh look at our complex and fascinating past, offering new perspectives and bringing the story up to date.

Beginning with the discovery of a set of pipes dating from about 2000 BC in an Irish bog, it follows the evolution and development of music in Britain up to the end of the twentieth century. It chronicles the lives and achievements of the composers and performers, the promoters and impresarios, the conductors and critics, who have shaped our musical life. It discusses the great works that everyone knows and many of the lesser ones which deserve to be better known. And it sets the whole story against the background of religious, social, political and technological change in British society down the ages. This is a book that will appeal to readers with all levels of musical knowledge and interest – from the musically-minded and musically-informed to those seeking an accessible introduction to the subject.

Volume One, From Monks to Merchants, charts developments up to 1800. Celts and Romans, Saxons and Normans all brought music with them. Kings and queens, cardinals and archbishops saw music as a useful means of glorifying themselves and pursuing their religious and secular ends. Patrons saw their wealth and position reflected in the music they commissioned. Promoters and managers saw a chance of getting rich.

Volume Two, Empire and Afterwards, takes the story through the vibrant 19th and 20th centuries, covering what is known as the English Renaissance, and the impact of two world wars. It ends with pop and rock groups vying with each other to exploit new technologies and the new media.

Together they encompass the rich tradition of church music and secular art music; folk music from the countryside and folk music from the industrial and mining towns; popular song from the pleasure gardens and the music halls; ballet, opera and stage musicals, and place them in the wider context of the evolving economic, political and social history of the British Isles.

‘A must-have for all lovers of music’
— [source withheld]


About the author:
When Dr Laurence Bristow-Smith was twelve, a peripatetic music teacher came to his school to demonstrate how to play brass instruments. It was a moment that changed his life: he was seized with a desire to play the trombone. He played in his school orchestra and in the Kent Youth Orchestra under Bela de Csillery. He was not very good, but the experience left him with a lifelong passion for music. He recalls:

“I was thirteen and sitting on the steps of the nave in Canterbury Cathedral with the Kent Youth Orchestra. We had played Elgar’s Enigma Variations and then Sibelius’s glorious Seventh Symphony. That was when I first sensed some kind of link between music and the culture that produces it. Only when I was approaching sixty and had just returned to Britain after years of living abroad did I decide to explore that link. The result is not a thesis, but a story full of unexpected twists and turns and interesting people whom I’d like to have met and had dinner with.”

In the heady days of the 1970s, he ran discos and folk clubs in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His subsequent career as a diplomat, which took him all over the world, saw him offering help and support to groups and artists as diverse as the Moroccan folk group Nass el Ghiwane; a Tibetan dance troupe; a Chinese opera company; Opera North; La Scala Ballet School; and the European Union Youth Orchestra. Together with the late Kenny Craddock, Laurence also wrote a stage musical, Spooner, and songs which have been recorded by artists including Liane Carroll and Fairport Convention.

Laurence Bristow-Smith’s previous publications include Landscapes for the Turning Earth, a study of the life and work of the artist, Alan Rankle; and Half-an-Eye on History, a biography of Harold Nicolson, which is also published by The Letterworth Press.

Both volumes are clothbound hardbacks
From Monks to Merchants
ISBN 978-2-9700654-6-3 424pp. Price £33
Empire and Afterwards
ISBN 978-2-9700654-7-0 520pp. Price £36