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ABRSM, culture and society

7 years ago

  As publisher Boydell & Brewer brings out the first ever history of ABRSM, author David Wright explains the thinking behind the book. I am still astonished by my good fortune in being the first to write a history of ABRSM. Perhaps this is another way of saying I am amazed that others before me had not realised just how significant ABRSM’s role has been in British music. But it is only fairly recently that music history has expanded much beyond the traditional ‘life and works’ treatment of composers. The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural HistoryNewer historical writing emphasises the importance of the social, cultural and economic context in shaping the ways that people use, learn, perform and understand music. And few things have been more influential on the musical taste and development of millions of people than graded music exams. My interest in ABRSM’s history resulted from researching the foundation of the Royal College of Music (RCM). I was intrigued by significant differences between the documentary evidence and false assumptions historians have endlessly recycled. It struck me that no one had attempted any satisfactory explanation as to why the British had embraced music exams on such a massive scale. Writers frequently mocked the proliferation of exam boards and diplomas without probing the phenomenon itself. So in the first part of the history I explain how music exams helped transform the status of music teachers from social pariahs to diploma-bearing professionals. The founding of ABRSM itself was an attempt to end the enmity between the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and to establish these two royal schools as Britain’s unquestioned musical authority. There were some early ABRSM heroes whose names have long since been forgotten. One was George Watson, its first Secretary, who set up the ‘Board’ in 1889 with amazing speed and efficiency, just as he had helped George Grove establish the RCM on a sound footing. Another was the intrepid Frederic Cliffe, an early examiner set adrift in Australia and New Zealand to make the best of uncertain communications and hazardous travel over extremely long distances. ABRSM examiners were important cultural ambassadors between Britain and the British Empire countries, and ABRSM made a significant contribution to the cultural glue of empire, with its early overseas exams running often at a significant financial loss. There were also some unexpected discoveries to be explained. For example, in the whole 1930s, only six clarinettists took ABRSM grades as against 20,468 in 1980 alone. Until the rise of county music centres after the second world war, very few brass or woodwind players (flute excepted) took graded exams – the majority of candidates were for keyboard, strings and singing. Brass and woodwind players learned through local bands – graded exams were irrelevant for them. The flourishing of school instrumental teaching after the war generated huge growth in the numbers taking orchestral grades and ABRSM had to adapt to this change in the musical landscape. There is not the space here to tell of ABRSM’s resistance to women examiners until 1956. Nor of the difficulties faced by examiners as they endured dangerous wartime conditions. Nor even of many other fascinating aspects including some heart-warming stories. The history of ABRSM is about so much more than just the process of examining, as the perennially changing relationship between teacher, pupil and examiner illustrates. My research on the book was supported by a British Academy grant, and in carrying it out much kindness was shown me by all at ABRSM. From the beginning it was understood that this history should be an independent academic study, with no constraints put on my research or on what I could write, and published by a leading scholarly publisher, Boydell & Brewer. As a history, rather than an educational study, the book is ‘agnostic’ about the educational value or otherwise of graded music exams. But I must declare my position in one important respect. Writing this book has linked me back into my own early days teaching music to young learners. That grounding convinced me just how important it is to give children the opportunity to experience music through learning to play or to sing, and the book’s cover wonderfully captures the absorption and pleasure of doing so.

  • Purchase your copy of The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History at

David Wright was formerly Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music.

This article was originally featured in the January 2013 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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