In Britain the development of the role of conductor into a viable career and high-status branch of the music profession was a complex process. Perceptions of British conductors, their function, status and authority shifted significantly between the 1870s and 1920s. Emerging from the shadow of continental European exemplars, British conductors began to forge a clearer identity. The individual careers and contributions of high-profile conductors have been the subject of close consideration. However, little attention has been paid to the collective efforts of conductors to influence the opportunities, working conditions and status of their profession during the First World War.
This paper uses the establishment of the Musical Conductors’ Association [MCA] (March 1916, London) as a lens through which to explore the issues surrounding the conductor’s role within the music profession at that time. Casting light on the place of the conducting profession within the wider musical marketplace, it questions the impetus, timing, membership and aspirations of the MCA, situating its activities and effectiveness within the broader framework of unionization in Britain and in continental Europe. With central aims focused on ‘improving and consolidating the position of British Conductors’, the MCA’s Honorary Council included leading figures: Landon Ronald (Executive Chairman); Sir Frederic Cowen; Sir Edward Elgar; Edward German; Sir Alexander Mackenzie and Sir Henry Wood. A range of sources underpins the research, including unpublished correspondence, institutional archives, contemporaneous newspapers and periodicals. As a result, new understandings emerge in relation to professional hierarchies (public and private), the status and working conditions of conductors and the power of collective action at this time.