When you walk down Holywell Street on your way to ATS, you may not know it, but you’re walking past the world’s oldest purpose-built concert hall. The Holywell Music Room, built-in 1748, helped to popularise the music of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who was crucial in the development of the chamber music played within the walls of the concert hall. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) played there himself. The Sheldonian, now used for both concerts and drama, was built as a separate venue for matriculation and graduation. It saw the performance of Handel’s Athalia, to celebrate the commencement of the colleges. Now music as diverse as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony to Cowley’s own indie band Stornoway have performed there. Here we can also enjoy many performances by the musical groups associated with the University, keeping orchestral music alive—and cheap for students too!
Perhaps one of Oxford’s most celebrated musical exports is Radiohead, though they really met at school in the Abingdon area. However, they performed at the Jericho Tavern in Oxford, leading to their signing by the managers they retain to this day. Radiohead have developed their sound over the years, from 1993’s ‘Nirvana-lite’ Pablo Honey, through to 2000’s electronic, haunting Kid A, and into 2016’s stripped back, piano-accompanied A Moon Shaped Pool. That same school also produced some members of the band Foals, and the other members were incidentally in a cult math rock band called The Edmund Fitzgerald—also from Oxford. You could say that the city has produced several great rock bands.
However, here’s the problem. The jump from Haydn to Radiohead cannot really be bridged by any significant composers from Oxford. Handel and Haydn were never even ours in the first place, but German (then British) and Austrian respectively. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the relative dearth of major composers in Britain during this period.
It might instead be productive to look to those who propelled day-to-day musical life at Oxford. There is Philip Hayes (1738-97), organist at New, Magdalen and St John’s. Prior to any of these composers were John Taverner (1490-1545), organist and choirmaster at Christchurch, and Daniel Purcell (1664-1717), the prolific younger brother of the more famous Henry, and organist at Magdalen. Certainly, Oxford’s college choirs are a significant legacy, spawning recordings and concerts. Yet a leap from Haydn to the late 19th century is fairly easy to make nationwide, with the Germans in 1904 calling us ‘Das Land ohne Musik’ (‘The land without music). Is this particularly representative?
Honestly, it’s not too harsh—if not completely fair. Some of the most famous composers of the day (if not necessarily our time) actually studied at Oxford. John Stainer (1840-1901) was the youngest ever successful Bachelor of Music at Oxford and eventually the Heather Professor of Music. During his lifetime, he was hugely popular, with his oratorio The Crucifixion still performed today. Hubert Parry, who set William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ to music in 1902, attended Exeter College, though he studied law and history; this is an iconic and internationally known piece. Though not an Oxford student, the real breakthrough in English music came with Edward Elgar, particularly with his internationally recognised, continentally inspired Enigma Variations (1899). Oxford then offered up George Butterworth, a friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), and who set fellow Oxford alumnus A.E. Housman’s poems from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ to music, but he was sadly killed in action in 1916. In 1923, Christ Church’s William Walton, another prodigy and young entrant to Oxford, performed his relentlessly modernist Façade, which set Edith Sitwell’s poetry to music as it was spoken through a megaphone; in 1931 he composed his Belshazzar’s Feast. British music of the 20th century was not exactly propelled by Oxonians, however: Vaughan Williams went to Cambridge, Elgar had no formal musical education, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) studied under Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, and Michael Tippett (1905-1998) studied there too.
Nevertheless, Oxford has produced several successful and well-respected composers and bands, and also renowned college choirs and organists. Its relative dearth of composers from the mid 18th to late 19th centuries echoes that of the country at large: a city without much music in a country without much either. Oxford has plenty of venues, from the O2 Academy to the Jacqueline du Pré Room, and there exists a thriving musical scene today. We’re lucky to live in a place with such easy access to the music of the past and present, and yet Oxford isn’t exactly the most iconic musical city in the country either. At the same time, our city occupies a noteworthy place in English musical history: a city ‘mit Musik’.