The function, status and value of the British orchestral conductor’s role had undergone a transformation during the decades preceding the outbreak of war in 1914. Like all branches of the music profession it forged an identity informed by continental European exemplars. In the wake of the Boer Wars, Britain’s open musical marketplace had become an increasingly problematic and pressing issue for native musicians. As Cecil Forsyth vehemently asserted in Music and Nationalism (1911): ‘How long will it be before we realise the fact that where the foreign musician is there is the enemy?’ Drawing on a wider project that seeks to re-evaluate the issues, networks and models that shaped the professionalization of orchestral conducting in Britain, this paper probes and contextualizes the purpose and ethos of the Musical Conductors’ Association (established 10 March 1916, London). With Landon Ronald as Executive Chairman, the Association’s central aims focused on ‘improving and consolidating the position of British Conductors’. Aside from Ronald, the Honorary Council included leading British conductors of the age: Sir Frederic Cowen, Sir Edward Elgar, Edward German, Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Sir Henry Wood.
This paper examines and assesses the impetus, strategy, membership, propaganda and impact of the Musical Conductors’ Association. Drawing on sources including unpublished archival material and contemporaneous newspaper criticism, it places the formation and remit of the Association in various contexts. By analysing the Association’s underpinning ambitions of inclusion and exclusion on various levels, it reinterprets issues of nationality, protectionism, and of the conductor’s role at home and abroad through the aspirations of this organization. Broadening out to explore questions of unionization and of the value placed in the formation of societies and associations in this period—both in Britain and in continental Europe—it casts light on the place of the conducting profession within the wider musical marketplace. As a result, new understandings of leadership, opportunity, collective bargaining and authority within the orchestral conducting profession emerge. In a time of conflict, this collective effort to resist foreign invasion in British orchestral life acts as a lens through which artistic struggles in wartime are brought into sharper focus.