Bennett Zon, Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture

Bennett Zon, Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 374 pp. $96.00 PDF, £90.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107020443

It is the ever raging ‘cheesecake wars’ that Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture takes as its starting pistol. Broadly speaking, these wars – begun with Rousseau and re-igniting in the twentieth century – have revolved around questions of music’s contribution (or otherwise) to evolutionary development: did music hold some responsibility for changing and expanding the internal structure of the Neanderthal brain and therefore play an instrumental part in human development? Or has the role of music been analogous to a sweet treat (hence, cheesecake), constituting no more than frivolous light-relief against the burden of quotidian experience?

Over the course of Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture’s seven chapters, Zon’s aim is not to declare a victor in the cheesecake wars. His central claim is that throughout the nineteenth century musical discourse actively shaped, rather than passively responded to, evolutionary discourse. Along with other recent titles such as Amanda Jo Goldstein’s Sweet Science: Romantic Materialism and The New Logics of Life (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and Benjamin Morgan’s The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science (University of Chicago Press, 2017), Zon offers a significant contribution to a wider scholarly imperative to trace the co-generative interactions between scientific and aesthetic thought. He offers a substantial revision to a historic privileging of scientific influence on aesthetic work. As Zon neatly puts it, the book aims to prove that ‘music helped evolution evolve’ (2).

As Zon makes clear in the introduction, Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture takes the Great Chain of Being – an evolutionary motif that fixes life from its ‘lowest’ to ‘highest’ forms in ascending order – as its organising principle. The subsequent chapters, loosely following the trajectory of the Great Chain of Being, engage with various forms of Victorian musical culture and demonstrate how they were, in various ways, enmeshed exchanges with recent or concurrent evolutionary discourses.

The first chapter, ‘Zoomusicology’, focuses on nineteenth-century attitudes to animal sounds and the question about whether creaturely vocalisations could be considered as music or not. Taking the songbird – whose liminality undermined the fixity of the chain of being – as its case study, the chapter offers a compelling explication of how birdsong was considered, often complimentarily, as a redemptive force in both scientific and religious debates.

The second chapter, ‘Ethnomusicology’, examines the influence of contemporary evolutionism (with a particular focus on Herbert Spencer) on the conceptualisation of non-Western music by those considering music from an ostensibly anthropological stand-point. As the first two chapters firmly establish and the following chapters cement, despite sustained pseudo-scientific attempts to imply objectivity, the debates in progress – evolutionary and musical – were deeply imbricated in often unsavoury, sometimes progressive ideological narratives.

The third chapter, ‘Folk Musicology’, presses forward to the turn of the twentieth century. At the heart of the chapter are issues of survival and revival; it develops the second chapter’s introduction to prominent anthropologist E. B. Tylor’s theory of ‘survivals’ and traces the influence of Tylor as well as ‘non-Tylorian’ theories on the Folk-Lore society and the subsequent establishment of the Folk-Song society. The chapter’s focus on Cecil Sharp, a figure central to the second folk revival in the 1960s, does much to reassess the intricacy of Sharp’s ideological positioning.

In ‘Music Pedagogy’, the fourth chapter, children and musical education are the focus. The chapter argues that, not unlike the songbird, the Victorian child (via Romanticism) was a liminal figure caught between thresholds, and therefore positively invited investigation through the lens of developmental theory. The chapter examines the role of recapitulation in relation to nineteenth-century musical pedagogical theories and methodologies; in his careful tracing of its genealogy, Zon shows how just as musical education sought to cultivate, it was itself subject to cultivation over the course of the century.

In chapters Five and Six, ‘Music Biography’ and ‘Music History’ respectively, recapitulationism takes centre stage as the reader approaches the higher rungs on the chain of being: the Great Man, or, Musical Genius. The two chapters work as companion pieces, both concerned with a nineteenth-century imperative to understand and then refute Britain’s long-standing reputation as the Land Without Music.

The final chapter ascends to celestial matters as it probes fraught negotiations of the relative and the absolute in nineteenth-century musical culture. The chapter examines some of the implications of evolution on Victorian ideas about spiritual progress, questions of the embodiment and representation of Christ-in-song, as well the role of divine simplicity in what might be called the plain song revival, which was championed and defended by Rev. Henry Formby. The chapter ends by reconceptualising Formby’s plain song revival as part of a wider effort to situate the relative and the absolute within an acceptable model of spiritual progress.

Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture certainly does justice to a complex intellectual landscape in an almost dizzying, seemingly constant process of re-evaluation and re-negotiation. By reinstating both hegemonic and outlying nineteenth-century figures amongst the ideological currents that they sought to either perpetuate or push against, Zon’s compelling account offers a striking enactment of his broader hypothesis about the centrality of interdisciplinarity to evolutionary and musical discourse. There is a kinesis to the book’s subject that does not readily lend itself to simple explanation and Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture can be at points a challenging read, but Zon’s engaging, authoritative, far-reaching study will be required reading for those interested in nineteenth-century culture at large. Evolution and Victorian Musical Culture will be of particular value to those researching histories of music, science, aesthetics, pedagogy, or those working at the intersections of these disciplines.

Rebecca Spence, Lancaster University