Every morning, I start my day with coffee, and opening Spotify on my laptop. After a good-natured dispute with the children about whether to listen to Louis Armstrong, Bach or Pharrell Williams, music pours into the kitchen. On the bus to work, I tune into Radio 3 or listen to 6 Music podcasts on my phone. During the day, I encounter music in shops and cafes, in the reception area and the lifts in Broadcasting House. At night, I might go to a classical concert or a gig at my local, Bush Hall. I take it so much for granted that I can hear the music I love, whenever I want to, that it is unthinkable to go without it. Almost akin to a human right, not having access to music would be as intolerable as living without electricity, food, or fresh air.
There was a time when this unlimited access to music simply didn’t exist. If you wanted a good night out in early 18th century Paris, Vienna or Rome there weren’t public concert halls or opera houses where you could pay to hear what you wanted; unless you were a prince, a pope or a wealthy patron, new music was pretty much off the menu. The idea that, regardless of background or class, you could choose to listen to music was a revolutionary one, and it came from Britain.
The 17th century had seen poverty, plague and regicide, but the following hundred years in Britain were to be a period of money, culture, patriotism and power, with Britain enjoying the fruits of a nascent industrial revolution at home and with great riches pouring in from its colonies abroad. Everywhere you looked, international industry and trade, coupled with homegrown novelty and invention, were fuelling unprecedented British growth.
A burgeoning middle class of doctors, lawyers, bankers and merchants were keen to enjoy the finer things in life. Chippendale furniture, Wedgewood teacups, fine silks and polite conversation were the order of the day and music became the soundtrack to an age of pleasure and politeness. What was known at the time as a “rage for music” began to sweep the country as the monetisation of culture became unstoppable.
The notion of “the gig” came from London when, in 1672, a penniless musician called John Banister opened up his home to music fans. On payment of a shilling you could go in and demand the music you wished to hear performed. It was a simple idea, but it had never been done before. Soon, pubs and taverns tapped into the mania for music, devoting upstairs salons to public performance. Glittering assembly rooms sprang up in such cities as York, Newcastle and Glasgow, with in-house bands and the luxuries of good food, wine and expensive candlelight. In the leisure resorts and spa towns of Bath, Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells, music acted as a social leveller – strangers could meet, talk and dance together like never before.
Soon music had its own bespoke performance spaces like the Holywell Music Room in Oxford, the oldest purpose-built music space in Europe. Here, acoustics, architecture and engineering came together to create what remains today one of the best chamber music venues in the world, with its semi-circular wall behind the stage naturally amplifying even the smallest sounds.
For those who couldn’t afford the expense of the concert hall or the opera, there was still music to be had on every street in Britain. The milkmaid, lavender-seller and the knife-grinder heralded their arrival with a well-known tune; local waits, or pipers, played for every christening, festival and funeral in town. The streets of Covent Garden in London teemed with ballad-sellers and dingy print shops, producing thousands of new songsheets every day. The sellers, mostly impoverished women, would cry out their wares in song, and everyone from a lord to a country lass knew the tunes by heart. Freshly minted lyrics would tell the latest news of royal affairs, domestic scandals, ships lost at sea. A song cost a penny and once the words were out of date, you could use the rough sheets as draught excluders or toilet roll.
Sewage, smut and dirt were never far from even the most sophisticated of Georgian entertainments. Boatloads of visitors crossed to the south bank of the River Thames each night to attend Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and escape the malodorous streets of the city. There among the perfumed walkways, an orchestra would serenade you and fashionable singers performed charming ditties. They sang of love and loss, romance and innocence, while over in the garden’s notorious Dark Alley – an avenue intentionally kept unlit by Vauxhall’s owners – men would enjoy the company of one of the many prostitutes who hid in the shadows. Muzak – the curse of many a 21st century venue – was invented here, with reluctant musicians forced into playing in tunnels underground, grilles above their heads, so that heavenly sounds would waft up amid the passing customers. The Prince of Wales was apparently a big fan of the innovation and loved the magical fantasy of Vauxhall.
The passion for British music became global, with the “pleasure garden” brand spreading to Paris, Copenhagen and even Nashville, Tennessee, each of which had their own “Vauxhall Gardens”. As British harpsichords began to be shipped to rulers in India, and the latest sheet music sent from London to colonial Virginia, the sound of Britain travelled as far as the empire itself. We in turn absorbed the best of what the world had to offer, happily offering up Britain as a home to the leading international musicians of the day. It was here that the eight-year-old Mozart, a travelling child prodigy, wrote his first symphonies and where Handel (a German who later became a naturalised Briton) produced iconic national pieces such as The Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Messiah.
As a servant of the Esterhazy family in rural Hungary, the composer Joseph Haydn had allegedly been paid with candles, cabbages, even a pig. On visiting London, his genius was rewarded with a gold snuff box studded with diamonds, and even a parrot, shipped over from Britain’s colonies in the West Indies. No wonder the cream of Europe’s musicians wanted a piece of the action.
Add to all that a veritable army of music publishers and advertisers, soiree organisers, critics, promoters, instrument-makers, star singers and panting fans, newspaper columns, music periodicals and coffee-house gossip and you find a music business not unlike the one that Simon Cowell or Simon Rattle might recognise. Today, when we click on our iPods, queue up at venues and compile playlists, we are enjoying the legacy left by 18th century Britain. It was a century that was richly varied, culturally democratic and irresistible in its energy and which created the foundations of the musical world we know today.
• The first episode of the three-part series Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century, presented by Suzy Klein, is on BBC4 on Monday 7 April at 9pm.