Music, Leisure, and the Cultivation of ‘Higher Civilization’ in the Late Nineteenth Century



Alexandra Palace and Park, situated on Muswell Hill in North London, opened in 1873. Envisaged as a ‘palace of the people’, this enormous structure and landscaped gardens were constructed to provide leisure and entertainment to a local population estimated to be one million people. It provided a cornucopia of attractions including flower displays, circus acts, horse racing, art exhibitions, and the performance of oratorio, opera, and orchestral, band, and symphonic music. Like many ventures of its time, the Palace and Park were not economically viable and by the late nineteenth century its future was in jeopardy. This article examines the first twenty (or so) years of its operation and the economic, social, cultural, and musical pressures placed upon it. In addition to ‘reading’ the musical life of the Palace as textbook case of the expression of nation, Empire, and religion, we argue that a more subtle reading of the Palace’s mission was to promulgate a so-called ‘higher civilization’ that was prevalent in popular and scholarly discourses of the day.




Alexandra Palace: Music, Leisure, and the Cultivation of ‘Higher Civilization’ in the Late Nineteenth Century
Paul Watt and Alison Rabinovici*
ਪµ* Monash University. Email: University of Melbourne. Email: An earlier and shorter version of this article entitled ‘Music-making at Alexandra Palace in the Late Nineteenth Century: Competition and Commerce’ was given at the 17th Biennial International Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music at the University of Edinburgh on 29 June 2012. We are grateful to Christina Bashford, Sarah Collins, Margaret Kartomi, and Fiona Palmer, who provided comments and feedback on various earlier drafts and to the Music & Letters Trust for a grant of 𧺬 that greatly assisted in costs associated with undertaking research for the article. The Alexandra Palace and Park archives are held at Bruce Castle in Haringey, and our grateful thanks are extended to Valerie Crosby and Clare Stephens for their help and generosity in accessing the archives. The various documents cited below give the Palace’s archival folders prefixed by ‘AP’ followed by box, then folder numbers.



In the late 19th century, music played a pivotal role in the cultural and social fabric of society, particularly in the context of leisure and the pursuit of what was considered a ‘higher civilization.’ This era, marked by rapid industrialization, urbanization, and the emergence of a middle class, witnessed significant changes in how music was consumed, appreciated, and integrated into daily life. The cultivation of music as a leisure activity was intertwined with broader ideals of refinement, moral improvement, and cultural uplift.

### Music and the Middle Class

The expansion of the middle class in the late 19th century brought with it a desire for cultural capital and social status, which was often pursued through the acquisition of musical knowledge and participation in musical activities. Music education became a marker of refinement and a necessary element of a well-rounded upbringing. For women, in particular, proficiency in playing the piano or singing was seen as an essential attribute of femininity and respectability.

### Public Concerts and Music Societies

The period saw a significant increase in public concerts and the establishment of music societies and orchestras. These events provided the burgeoning middle class with opportunities to engage with music as both spectators and amateur performers, fostering a sense of communal identity and cultural sophistication. Composers like Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Gustav Mahler became celebrities, and their works were integral to the concert repertoire, embodying the artistic and intellectual aspirations of the age.

### Music in the Home

Advancements in technology, such as the mass production of pianos and later the invention of the phonograph, made music more accessible in the domestic sphere. The parlor, often equipped with a piano, became a center of musical entertainment, where families and friends gathered to make music together. This domestic music-making was not only a leisure activity but also a means of instilling moral values and reinforcing social bonds.

### Music Education and Conservatories

The late 19th century witnessed a surge in the establishment of conservatories and music schools, which professionalized music education and provided structured training for those aspiring to careers in performance, composition, and teaching. This institutionalization of music education reflected the era’s belief in the power of music to cultivate personal and societal improvement.

### Expositions and Music Festivals

World’s fairs and international expositions were prominent features of the late 19th century, showcasing advancements in science, technology, and culture. Music played a central role in these events, with dedicated pavilions, concerts, and competitions designed to exhibit national musical traditions and innovations. These gatherings highlighted music’s role in the project of nation-building and the celebration of ‘higher civilization.’

### Critiques and Challenges

While music was celebrated as a vehicle for cultural elevation, this period also saw critiques of the commodification of music and the elitism of classical music culture. The rise of popular music genres, such as ragtime and jazz, challenged traditional notions of musical value and opened up debates about race, class, and the meaning of ‘high’ versus ‘low’ culture.

### Conclusion

The late 19th century marked a transformative period in the relationship between music, leisure, and the cultivation of ‘higher civilization.’ Music became a crucial medium through which the ideals of beauty, morality, and intellectual achievement were pursued and expressed. This era laid the groundwork for the 20th century’s music culture, with its continued tensions between high art and popular forms, and the enduring belief in music’s power to enrich human life and society.

Leave a Comment