Jessica Beck

What do you do with a PhD in Music?

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Anyone who has seen the musical Avenue Q may recognise the title of my blog from the first line of the opening song, ‘What do you do with a BA in English?’. While this may have been sung with a slightly ironic tone, the question about my PhD was one that I have been asked on an incredibly regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, most people are (or at least pretend to be) impressed, but the question about what doors a PhD in music can open are genuine and most people can’t think of many suggestions beyond teaching.

In truth, once I’d been asked this dreaded question a few times I began to realise that I wasn’t very sure of the answer. I was certain that teaching wasn’t the only option (not to say that I wouldn’t be happy with that outcome!). I love my research topic, which is the main reason I chose to continue studying, but what else was I hoping for? Or at least, what were my options? Trying not to worry, I began to think about this a bit more while I worked.

Of course, there was no reason to worry – a PhD in musicology requires an ever-expanding range of skills and diversity of knowledge that can be applied to many situations. It is rare that I do a day of work without learning something that I would never have predicted I would learn, and I often amuse myself when I take a step back and think how the particular thing I’m researching or the job I’m spending hours labouring over often seems very far removed from the central argument of my thesis.

So this is the point of my blog. Hopefully, it will reach to a few of those people who have asked me the now not-so-dreaded question and provide them with a clearer picture of what I get up to on a daily basis. Maybe a few students will see this and get a better idea of what they are letting themselves in for if they apply for a PhD (think of the cliché ‘it’s a rollercoaster…’).

I’m sure many of you who read this will have a much better idea than me about what the study of music can lead to in the future; however, I’m hoping that the learning curves I share will be relatable experiences that you can comment on or will simply make you smile when you think of all the small, unexpected challenges that you face while you work. Fingers crossed, I’ll also be able to share with you a few moments of inspiration and some new discoveries along the way!

Now for a quick overview of my research. The history of Conway Hall is long and complex, but in short, it started as a religious institution at South Place, Finsbury, which quickly attracted radical thinkers and became a Unitarian church. Later, Stanton Coit, a key figure of the ethical movement, changed the name of the institution to South Place Ethical Society and dropped its religious associations. It is now a Humanist organisation and the only surviving ethical society in the UK.

The society has a rich musical history and has attracted many talented composers and performers over the years. Music has taken place as hymns during the Sunday services, as dance music during the society’s soirees, as orchestral music played by the society’s orchestra, and as chamber music during the South Place Sunday Popular Concerts. These concerts began in 1887 and continue today as the longest running chamber music concert series in Europe (dare I say the world…?).

Women have contributed enormously to all aspects of the society’s musical achievements, but like many women who worked in the arts during the late 19th/early 20th century, their value has quietly slipped under the radar. The purpose of my research is to explore the role of music in British ethical societies, and through a few case studies, identify a clearer view of the place that women held within this arena.

During the first year of my PhD, I started to read around the history the ethical movement. I was surprised to discover that contemporary literature regarding the ethical movement in the UK is fairly limited, considering its sociological importance in a century where religious belief notably declined and secular societies were becoming more common. Subsequently, there is even less existing work about the place of music within the ethical movement, which leaves me to fill in some gaps.

Each society incorporated hymns into its Sunday service, and many followed the lead of South Place and hosted chamber music and other genres of music as part of their extra activities. Often music functioned as a way of integrating members from different societies, as a society would sometimes invite other societies to take part in a special service that would include music, or they would invite them to a dance or soiree where members of the society would perform.

My first year also allowed me to dive into the archives and start making my way through the programmes, leaflets, annual reports, notebooks and minute meeting books (I’m still very much in the early stages of reading the minute meeting books due to the very elaborate handwriting of the time!). A great place to start was the concert dedicated to women composers that was held on 24 January 1915. This led me to discover a few women who had a profound impact on South Place and whose reputation extended beyond the society, although they are mostly unheard of nowadays.

One of these women was called Josephine Troup. She was described by many of her contemporaries as being an important figure in the ethical movement, particularly for her contributions musically, and spent much of her time at South Place. There are many references to her in the archives, a valuable example of which is the memorial book that was compiled by South Place after her death in 1913.

The book gives some thoughtful accounts of her personality as well as noting many of her musical achievements during her time at South Place. She compiled, edited and financed three ethical hymn books and regularly composed songs for children, music for special services and also wrote chamber music for the Sunday concerts. She was also a performer and a poet, and all accounts of her talents are very positive.

Another woman who has taken up a lot of my time over the past year is Edith Swepstone. She had a large output of compositions, but as of yet nobody has had much luck finding what I am presuming might be some of her most interesting compositions, which range from orchestral works to a Quintet for pianoforte, flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Swepstone’s music was played regularly at South Place, making her the most popular female composer of instrumental chamber music at the Sunday concerts during the early twentieth century. She also held the reputation of being the most regularly played composer by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, when it was conducted by its founder, Sir Dan Godfrey.

As well as being a fairly successful composer and performer, Edith was also a member of the South Place Sunday Concert Committee between 1898 and 1903 and lectured at the City School of London. Both Swepstone and Troup also gave lectures at South Place, playing a part in the educational role that music held at the Society.

I am entering my second year with optimistic hopes of filling in a few more of the gaps in this small slice of history, but for now I need to work on getting over my sixth year of fresher’s flu… Looking forward to updating you throughout the year!

 

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