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‘I insist on your neither piping nor fiddling yourself. It puts a gentleman in a very frivolous, contemptible light.’ So said Lord Chesterfield in a letter to his son in 1633, quoted in David Wright’s surprisingly entertaining history of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, the first ever written. How social mores have changed. Many more such transformations are noted in this informative educational and cultural history.

The ABRSM conducted its first exams in 1890, the founding of the board being an attempt to end the antagonism between the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, and to establish the influence of these two institutions. Early fees and costs are fascinating. Many are given in guineas (one pound and one shilling), being the traditional pre-decimal unit for charging for professional services.

Music exams helped elevate the status of music teachers from social outcasts to diploma-bearing professionals. Wright confesses that one reason why the ABRSM has been such a rewarding subject to study is because examination processes tell us much about the wider social and historical context. At the start, teaching fees at the RCM and the RAM were low; bestowal of the title ‘professor’ was perceived as compensation. For more than half of their years of operation Australian exams ran at a loss. The board maintained its resistance to women examiners until 1956. According to Wright, the pre-war principals Sir George Dyson (college) and Sir Stanley Marchant (academy) were more prepared to damage the board than to concede the gender issue. In the whole of the 1930s, only six clarinettists took ABRSM grades, as against 20,468 in 1980 alone! Incredible as it may seem, in the whole of the pre-war decade, 1929/30 to 1938/39, only one double bass player was examined.

The ABRSM’s exams were exported across the empire, making a telling cultural contribution. The expansion into the Far East and China is well covered. For instance, over a period of 50 years the board’s operation in Malaysia went from one examiner, staying for a week or so, to the 1998 position of around 40 centres with some 30 examiners working for almost three months.

An expansion, and a story, of which we should be proud.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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