In recent years, the academy has witnessed an explosion of interest in the concept of the middlebrow - a term used, on the simplest level, to describe cultural practices and products that are neither straightforwardly highbrow nor lowbrow, but which fall between the two. The most sustained engagement has come from literary and film studies, where the middlebrow has been deployed in a variety of different ways.
Some scholars have understood the term as referring to the institutions responsible for broadening access to elite culture, as well as to the modes of dissemination and reception they promoted. Others have used it to excavate a set of ideas about cultural values, drawing energy from the academy’s current commitment to complicating traditional modernist narratives. Still others have engaged with the middlebrow as an aesthetic category, inviting a reassessment both of canonical works and of works that have traditionally been considered outside the canon.
Taking inspiration from such scholarship, musicologists have now begun to turn their attention towards many of these issues, exploring directly or implicitly practices, ideas and compositions that implicate the middlebrow. For the most part, however, musicological research has tended towards a sense of isolation, such that the different aspects of the middlebrow – whether institutional, ideological or stylistic – have not been thought about in relation to one another.
In contrast, the starting point for our project is the belief that a more productive way of understanding the middlebrow attends to all of these aspects and – crucially - the interaction between them: that is, how cultural values, practices and aesthetics evolve in dialogue with each other.
With this in mind, this project seeks to bring the concept of the middlebrow more fully to bear on musicology, and at the same time, to ask how the case of music might challenge accepted understandings of middlebrow culture. By establishing dialogue between scholars researching different aspects of music and middlebrow culture, we will draw together perspectives from a range of disciplines, including musicology, film studies, literary studies, and cultural studies.
The chronological and geographical contexts will naturally focus on late-nineteenth- and early-twenieth-century Britain and America, where the concept originated; but we are also keen to explore how the concept of the middlebrow might help us to make sense of cultural preoccupations that cut across music in modernity more broadly.
The project has three aims. First, we hope to deepen our understanding of those musical practices and cultural products that might usefully be understood as middlebrow. More specifically, we want to draw attention to a particular cultural milieu that crystallized around a range of pedagogic initiatives, critical writings, marketing practices, technological developments and compositional styles – all of which combined to broaden access to high culture on an unprecedented scale. At the heart of these initiatives was a paradoxical set of commitments: on the one hand to the ideal of art as transcending the social and political spheres; on the other, to art’s potential to transform society.
Second, by exploring the middlebrow as a historical category, we also seek to bring the concept to bear on broader disciplinary concerns. There remains a division in musicology between scholarship that reduces the aesthetic to a form of social value, and that which upholds the autonomy of the aesthetic even as it claims to address social contexts. This division has intensified despite - or perhaps even because of - recent turns towards performance studies, sociology and anthropology, and new cultural history. Engaging with the middlebrow offers an alternative response - one that seeks not to resolve the tension between social and aesthetic concerns, but rather that carves out space for both, as it focuses attention on how these two aspects of musical culture develop in conversation with one another.
Finally, at a time when calls to establish middlebrow studies as a sub-discipline in its own right are growing,it seems pertinent to consider how attending to music might enhance middlebrow studies more broadly. For the distinctive characteristics of musical culture, such as its ability to transcend linguistic boundaries, as well as musicology’s particular relationship to ideas of autonomy and formalism, raise new questions that might change the stakes of middlebrow debate.