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As musicologists broaden their perspective to embrace the wider, non-musical context in which particular works were written, historians have begun to acknowledge the importance of cultural context, and the relevance of artistic responses to social developments and political events. This latest volume in the Oxford Handbook series attempts to construct a New Cultural History of Music – an ambitious task for a single volume, even one with a near-600-page length.

Skilfully edited by University of Michigan musicology professor Jane E Fulcher, the book carries itself with a deliberately provocative sense of purpose. Divided into two sections – the first examining how ‘cultural identity’ constructs and represents itself in a state of constant flux; the second exploring the no less fluid issue of ‘cultural experience’ and its reception – the book includes 21 wide-ranging essays that stretch from the role of state-sacrificial music in 12th- century China, to the challenge of agreeing a music history ‘after the Age of Recording’.

That essay, by the conductor Leon Botstein, in which he rails against ‘the tyranny of criticism and judgement rooted in the 20th- century romance with recording’, echoes a current debate in popular music (see Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: OUP 2009) and rousingly asserts the primacy of experiencing music live rather than on disc.

The strength of the various arguments here is their shared insistence on arguing for ‘culture’ and ‘history’ as part of a shared continuum. So, the book’s eclecticism – which touches on politics, gender, Mahler and Freud, chansons populaire et ancienne in Third Republic France, the rise of print culture, political romanticism in music, jazz icon Sidney Bechet, ‘Music and Pain’, and a host of other subjects – proves to be one of its great (if occasionally over-stretched) strengths. Especially admirable (and enjoyable) is the sense of freshness and freedom of always engagingly pointed essays that challenge current orthodoxies and identify new perspectives at every point of the compass.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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