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The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History

David C. H. Wright
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music
    Book Description:

    The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, better known as the ABRSM, has influenced the musical lives and tastes of millions of people since it conducted its first exams in 1890. This ground-breaking history explores how the ABRSM became such a formative influence and looks at some of the consequences resulting from its pre-eminent position in British musical life. Particular emphasis is given to how free the ABRSM has been to impose its musical view of things and to what extent its exams respond to the circumstances and musical preferences of its customers. The book's exploration of how the ABRSM has negotiated music's changing social, educational and cultural landscape casts fresh light on the challenges facing music education today. David Wright's comprehensive history of the ABRSM from its origins in 1889 to the present day represents a significant and original investigation. Not only is it the first extended account of the ABRSM, but it sets the institution and its work firmly within its historical and cultural context. The ABRSM's exams were exported all across the Empire, and this study shows how both exams and examiners made a telling cultural contribution to the idea of the 'British World'. It relates the exams to changing historical perceptions about musical education as well as to attitudes about the value of music as a social and recreational activity. By demonstrating the impact of the Board's commercial success in dominating the grade exam market, the book shows how this has had significant consequences for the organization of British musical training and for the formation and sustaining of a particular sort of British musical culture. Before his retirement, David Wright was Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music, London.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-015-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. vii-viii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  6. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  7. Miscellaneous Conventions
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  8. Introduction: The Context for a History
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) is the extramural examining body set up by the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music in 1889. The Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) joined the Board as subsidiary partners in 1947, becoming full partners in a major restructuring of the ABRSM that took place in 1985. (To avoid the tedious repetition of its acronym, I shall refer to the ABRSM variously in the text...


    • 1 Music Exams and Victorian Society
      (pp. 19-41)

      The system of grade and diploma music exams that is now so familiar to us is a product of the attitudes and social circumstances of Victorian society. To explain the origin of these exams and why they proliferated so rapidly into something of an industry requires a broad social history perspective. These exams are part of a fascinating context that sees music teaching mutate from an occupation that many considered evidence of low social standing, into the middleclass respectability of a ‘profession’. And because graded exams established standardized assessments of musical attainment, they were significant in changing music education from...

    • 2 Competing for Candidates: TCL, ABRSM and the Society of Arts
      (pp. 42-60)

      Historically, the most significant of the grade exam boards were the ABRSM and Trinity College London, and for diplomas, the two Royal Schools and Trinity. This chapter begins with a brief outline of these institutions’ origins, their characteristics and their antagonisms, and the reasons why they began to offer extramural music exams. But the very first systematic music exams in Britain were being offered to working-class musicians by the Society of Arts, nearly twenty years before Trinity’s. The Society’s involvement highlights contrasting attitudes about the purpose of music exams between the mid-and the later nineteenth century. One consequence of the...


    • 3 The ABRSM Idea and the First Exams, 1889–91
      (pp. 63-75)

      On 3 May 1889, six years after the founding of the Royal College of Music, its Director, Sir George Grove, was visited by Alexander Mackenzie, the newly appointed Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, and Thomas Threlfall, Chairman of the Academy’s Board of Directors. It had been agreed beforehand that this informal meeting should also be confidential, which is understandable, given the controversial subject the Academy team wished to raise, and the very uneasy relations that existed between the RAM and the RCM. Mackenzie and Threlfall first referred to the rumour that the RCM were contemplating setting up their...

    • 4 The Early History, 1892–1920
      (pp. 76-91)

      As far as the Board’s work in the UK is concerned, the period 1892 until 1914 was essentially one of consolidation that saw only a cautious expansion of its scheme of exams. The success of its early exams created a demand for additional ones to cater for a wider gamut of musical levels and abilities, particularly at the earlier stages, but the Board seemed reluctant to extend the scope of its examination scheme much beyond what had originally been envisaged. It is worth emphasizing quite how limited the original scheme was. Tables 4.1 and 4.2 trace the development of the...

    • 5 The ABRSM and the ‘British World’
      (pp. 92-102)

      The ABRSM’s exams contributed to the activity of cultural exchange that was constantly happening between Britain and its Empire. This chapter looks, albeit briefly, at some of what was involved with this aspect of the Board’s history. Recent historiography has brought something of a sea change to explanations about the dynamics of Empire. Some historians have moved away from the traditional focus on nations and the history of regions to explore a more integrated view based on the idea of a community of Empire. The British Empire was characterized by the endless criss-crossing of its citizens, constantly on the move...


    • 6 The Inter-War Years
      (pp. 105-128)

      The prominence of the ABRSM in the 1920s and 30s owed much to the persona of the RCM’s Director, Sir Hugh Allen. His indefatigable energy, together with his qualities of leadership, made him something of a force of nature, and his assiduous politicking ensured that few major appointments in his spheres of influence were made without his knowledge or specific recommendation.¹ He was generally looked upon as the de facto leader of music in the educational and church spheres, a widely held view that was made explicit in Allen’s obituary in The Times: ‘He became for a time the acknowledged...

    • 7 The Board in Wartime
      (pp. 129-134)

      The Second World War put considerable pressure on the Board’s capacity to maintain its examining. As Table 7.1 shows, there was an astonishing 64% increase in the number of entries by the end of the war as people returned to peacetime life. The war involved the civilian population very directly. Disruption of the railway network, fuel shortages and the heavy German bombing of major urban centres caused considerable logistical dislocation, quite apart from the constant danger to civilians. So the determination of teachers, candidates and examiners from the very outset to continue the exams as far as was possible can...

    • 8 The Post-War Board
      (pp. 135-143)

      The act that heralded a new phase in the Board’s history – the expansion of the ABRSM partnership – came suddenly, and without formal consultation or prior warning to the Board’s Governing Body. In November 1946 it was simply informed that the councils of the College and the Academy were inviting the Principals of the Royal Manchester College and the Royal Scottish Academy ‘to become co-opted members of the Board so that those two Royal Schools might be identified with the Board’s activities’.¹ This lack of prior involvement in such a major decision underlines the Board’s position as only an administrative adjunct...

    • 9 Too Much Success: the 1960s and 1970s
      (pp. 144-168)

      In the post-war Britain of the 1940s and 1950s, many felt there was a sense of cultural suffocation about British life, despite the liberating, though demanding, cultural agenda of radio’s Third Programme. The feeling of British insularity is tellingly captured by film producer Lindsay Anderson:

      coming back to Britain is also, in many respects, like going back to the nursery. The outside world, the dangerous world, is shut away: its sounds are muffled … Nanny lights the fire, and sits herself down with a nice cup of tea and yesterday’s Daily Express; but she keeps half an eye on us...

  12. IV THE BOARD REVIVED, 1983–2009

    • 10 The Reconstitution, 1983–5
      (pp. 171-180)

      Today’s ABRSM is a very different sort of institution from the one that entered the 1980s. Initiatives to develop its work in new directions have made the present Board a vigorous and vital force in music education, in striking contrast to the lethargic and routine body it had become. This chapter explains the reasons why and sets them into context. Key to this change has been that in the current phase of its history, since 1985, the Board has developed a very different and far more responsive attitude to its market. But breaking down some of the resentments of those...

    • 11 Reconnecting with its Market: the Smith Years, 1983–92
      (pp. 181-208)

      Ronald Smith brought a very different perspective to the ABRSM. His arrival as the Board’s Chief Executive – jettisoning the historic title of ‘Secretary’ – seemed to signal that the ABRSM might, at last, be prepared to accept the need for change. There was a sense at the time that the Board was too much a bastion of the independent school sector, and so Smith’s appointment from being an LEA county music adviser was all the more striking. Some saw it as a long-overdue recognition by the Board of the significance of state-school music in British music education. For the post-war development...

    • 12 Redefining its Role: the Morris Years, 1993–2009
      (pp. 209-256)

      One of the problems in bringing the Board’s institutional story into the present is the loss of a satisfactory historical perspective. Time’s distance gives more of a chance to gain a handle on events, the better to evaluate and assess them for the positive or negative significance they might have as components of the Board’s overall history. Clearly some of the initiatives that Richard Morris instigated in his time as Chief Executive have major implications for the Board’s future, although it is too early to sense their impact. A good illustration is the decision of the ABRSM to invest in...

  13. Appendix 1 Speech and Drama Examinations
    (pp. 257-258)
  14. Appendix 2 ABRSM Personalia, 1889–2010
    (pp. 259-260)
  15. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 261-266)
  16. Index
    (pp. 267-274)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-275)