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Faculty of Music


Karen Arrandale (University of Cambridge)

Musick’s Curious Hand-Maid: Edward J. Dent and the Establishment of Cambridge Music

A talk given to mark the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the Faculty and the publication of a biography of Professor Edward J. Dent.

Although it had existed at Cambridge for centuries, Music only became a tripos subject in 1948, on the back of a wave of postwar recovery, undertaken when there was no money, a lot of debris and a universal determination to build a fresh new society, free from historical shackles, and including state funding for the arts. But that path towards such official recognition of its importance had already been a long and tortuous one, any success in a large measure down to the efforts and vision of Edward J Dent (1876-1957, Professor 1926-1941).Dent was a maverick, ‘a highly idiosyncratic character…in many ways a bundle of contradictions’. His brilliant, uneven career was a succession of seized opportunities and improvised roles: his was the first Fellowship awarded for Music, but his failure to compose a suitable piece for the Doctorate of Music necessary for an academic career led to him finding or inventing other ways. Eventually he helped to define what it meant to be a ‘musician’ in the new twentieth century, while along the way he was himself player, composer, scholar, linguist, impresario, Fellow, teacher, translator of opera libretti, critic, committee member and international society president before becoming Professor of Music. His eclectic, voluminous writings, from seminal books on Mozart and Alessandro Scarlatti to articles on Pfitzner or ‘The Southern Syncopated Orchestra’ are still fresh and significant. He was the perfect man to assemble and set the eclectic, accommodating style which has made Cambridge music such a continuing success, in spite of cultural crisis and possibly the most destructive and philistine government ever, the cultural life of Cambridge remains almost untouched by the mess and disarray affecting the rest of the country.

After years of running concerts at Kettle’s Yard and helping out at the International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove, beside some writing and teaching, Karen Arrandale was given a doctored square pianoforte that had belonged to Catalan composer Roberto Gerhard, a pupil of Schoenberg. She discovered inside a card addressed to ‘Mr Dent, King’s College’. As she began to uncover Dent’s incredible and hugely entertaining life story in the archives there, her own life was changed to that of dogged, devoted, enchanted biographer.

Wednesday, 8 February, 2023 - 17:00 to 18:30
Event location: 
Recital Room, Faculty of Music