The Linguistic Basis of British National Music

of the Late- and Post-Romantic Periods


J. Marshall Bevil



            British national music from either side of 1900 is customarily attributed to the adaptation of contemporary Continental idioms, to native folk music, and to sixteenth- and early seventh-century art music. While correct as far as it goes, that assessment overlooks the enormous influence of spoken English as a force that shaped the musical development of Sullivan, Parry, Stanford, Elgar, the young Vaughan Williams, and others during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. The present study is an analysis of the relationship between spoken language and the musical traits that gave turn-of-the-century British national music its distinctive character. A corollary point is that the close bonding between spoken English and musical style did not originate during the deep twilight of romanticism in Britain but is traceable at least as far back as Purcell. In addition, national manifestations continued well into the twentieth century, and one could argue that some remain in the works of more conservative contemporary British composers, especially those whose pieces are in the gray area between popular and academic styles.

            Musical illustrations include songs of Elgar and early vocal works of Vaughan Williams, as well as works by Sullivan, Parry, and Stanford. Emphasis is placed not only on the relationships between song texts as one would speak them and their musical settings but also on the composers’ selection of those texts partly on the basis of literary quality. Attention also is directed to select instrumental compositions in which rhythm, accentuation, delivery speed, and the often markedly angular and irregular melodic rise and fall mimic the inflection of speech.



J. Marshall Bevil – Curriculum Vitae


            J. Marshall Bevil holds the PhD. in musicology from the University of North Texas. His doctoral minor was in English, with concentration in linguistics and the history of the language. His dissertation on oral-aural melodic transmission in Southern Appalachia presented a linguistically-based, computer-supported method of comparative analysis. He now acts as an expert witness in copyright and intellectual property disputes, using that analytical method when it is appropriate.

          Dr. Bevil’s historical focus is on British music from ca. 1870-1920. He is working on an annotated, facsimile edition with parallel transcription of the Vaughan Williams folksong manuscripts and a study of pentatonicism in the music of Frederick Delius.