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Photograph of John Stainer

John Stainer

The History of the RMA

John Stainer gave the Musical Association much of its early impetus.  After canvassing opinion privately, he invited twenty-two of the most prominent musicians of the day to a preliminary meeting, including William Pole, Sedley Taylor, George Grove, Alexander Macfarren, John Hullah and William Chappell.  The Association's inaugural general meeting took place on 29 May 1874 in the board room of the South Kensington Museum.  In July, Charles Salaman became Secretary and in August Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley (picture right) was elected President.  Seventy or more members had been enrolled by mid-1874, seventeen of whom had been involved twenty-two years earlier with the Musical Institute of London.  From 1886, the Association invited distinguished foreign scholars to become honorary members.


The first season began on 2 November 1874 with a paper read at the Beethoven Rooms in Harley Street, where the Association continued to meet until 1891.  Thereafter London meetings were generally held at King's College, or the Royal College of Music.  Early papers tended to address acoustical and theoretical aspects of music, but by the 1890s more attention was being paid to history and criticism.  For many years, meetings were held for the reading and discussion of a single paper offered by the author.  In 1965, however, on the initiative of the president, Anthony Lewis, the first weekend conference was held in London.  These conferences became annual events, and with the rapid development of music departments in British universities, the annual conference is now often held outside London.  During the 1980s single-paper meetings were abandoned in favour of focused study-days, in London or elsewhere.  From the 1970s, Northern (predominantly Scottish), Midlands, and North Midlands chapters have been established (not all have continued beyond the 1990s).  The Irish chapter meets annually, alternately in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  A Research Students' Conference is also held annually.  The Association has taken a lead in collaborating with other British societies and groups to mount large triennial conferences, and in 1997 it hosted the International Musicological Society congress at the Royal College of Music and Imperial College. 

In 1904 the Association was incorporated under the Companies' Acts, defining the legal position and responsibilities of the council.  Membership then stood at about 220.  In 1944 the status of the Association was enhanced when the president, E. H. Fellowes, received a command from the king that it should 'henceforth be known as the Royal Musical Association'.  Fellowes also initiated an effective drive for increased membership, so that it reached over 300 by the mid 1950s.  Several factors led to further growth: the expansion of music departments in British universities; the creation of a new category of student membership, and the rise in institutional and, from 1999, departmental membership.  By the mid-1970s the number of members had risen to nearly 800; after some falling off, to do with the foundation of parallel organisations such as the and with Independent 'period' conferences, membership returned in the late 1990s to a similar figure.

From its inception, the Association published its proceedings annually.  Until the 83rd session (1956-57) Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association included, besides the texts of papers, a transcript or summary of subsequent discussions. Proceedings was eventually unable to accommodate all papers read to the Association, and in 1987, after 111 years, it was superseded by the , a refereed periodical published biannually.  When rewriting its Memorandum of agreement in 1948, the Association proposed the publication of 'an authoritative national collection of the classics of British music'.  With financial support from the Arts Council of Great Britain, the first volume of Musica Britannica was published in 1951.  Originally only ten volumes were expected, but by 2000, seventy-five had been published.  In 1976, Musica Britannica was reconstituted as an independent charitable trust.

  Photograph of Thurston Dart

The first appeared in 1961 and is published annually.  In the words of its first editor, Thurston Dart (pictured left), it contains mostly 'musicological raw material - lists, indexes, catalogues, calendars, extracts from newspapers, new fragments of biographical information, and so on'.  Originally issued with support from the Fellowes Memorial Fund and the , it subsequently received support from the .  The RMA established a series of thanks to the generous bequest of royalties from the estate of Thurston Dart; and the most recent major benefaction to the Association established, from 1999, the Peter Le Huray memorial lectures.

A special publication marked the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970, when the RMA joined forces with the trustees of the British Museum to publish a facsimile of the 'Kafka' sketchbook.  To mark its own centenary, the RMA issued an enlarged volume of its Proceedings including papers read at a conference on 8-9 November 1974, and, in cooperation with the Scolar Press, a facsimile of the 'Tenbury' score of Handel's Messiah, a manuscript in the hand of J. C. Smith the elder, containing numerous markings and several recomposed versions by the composer.  In 1991 the Mozart bicentenary was marked by an international conference on London's South Bank, the papers from which were published by Oxford University Press, edited by the President of the Association, Stanley Sadie.

Adapted from Alec Hyatt King and Julian Rushton, 'Royal Musical Association', Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Macmillan, 2000).

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