Professor Cyril Ehrlich

Economic historian celebrated for his books on music
Click to follow
Cyril Ehrlich established the importance of economic history and its techniques in the writing of musical history.

Cyril Ehrlich, social and economic historian: born London 13 September 1925; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in Economic History, Makerere College 1952-61; Lecturer in Economic History, Queen's University, Belfast 1961-69, Reader 1969-74, Professor of Economic and Social History 1974-86 (Emeritus), Dean of the Economics Faculty 1979-81; Visiting Professor in Music, Royal Holloway, London University 1995-2004; Visiting Professor in Music, Goldsmiths College 1998-2004; married 1954 Felicity Bell-Bonnett (two sons, one daughter); died Oxford 29 May 2004.

With four enormously influential books, The Piano: a history (1976), The Music Profession in Britain Since the Eighteenth Century (1985), Harmonious Alliance: a history of the Performing Right Society (1989) and First Philharmonic: a history of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1995), Cyril Ehrlich established the importance of economic history and its techniques in the writing of musical history.

He particularly pioneered the study of concert life of the 19th and early 20th centuries in the UK. His vision inspired a younger generation of music historians who saluted his achievement with the pioneering 75th birthday Festschrift Music and British Culture 1785-1914 edited by Christina Bashford and Leanne Langley in 2000.

Ehrlich was born in the East End of London in 1925. Of Jewish extraction, his parents were tailors and in the 1930s depression his father's succession of short-lived jobs across southern England meant constant moves and changes of school. A long-standing friend remembers the warmth of the family and his own amazement at the father's record collection. During war service, at first in the RAF, then in India in the Education Corps from 1944 to 1947, Ehrlich drew on his youthful enthusiasm for music and records to give lectures on music appreciation.

Demobbed, he entered the London School of Economics where he was one of many brilliant students that included Bernard Levin and Ehrlich's lifelong friend Walter Elkan, later Professor of Economics at Brunel University. All came under the influence of F.J. Fisher and Karl Popper, who moderated their initial idealism. Ehrlich subsequently spent a couple of years as a research assistant at LSE, and taught evening classes. Studying and working in London in the post-war years allowed him to be a very active follower of concerts and opera. Talking to him one was always aware of his encyclopaedic first-hand knowledge of London music.

In 1952 he was appointed to Makerere College, Uganda, where he taught for nine years. During this time he completed his pioneering PhD "The Marketing of Cotton in Uganda 1900-1950" in which he demonstrated that efforts to protect poor farmers had had the opposite effect to that intended. Early on he responded to a commission to write The Uganda Company Limited: the first 50 years. Published in 1953, it was his first book-length manuscript. Later Ehrlich contributed an extended essay on the economic history of Uganda to the Oxford History of East Africa (1963).

Ehrlich's work on African economics has been rated as equal to the stature of his later musical work, but it is for his books on music that he has enjoyed a wide celebrity.

In 1961 he moved to Queen's University, Belfast, where he remained for 25 years as successively lecturer in Economic History, Reader in Economic and Social History, Professor and Dean of the Economics Faculty. Ehrlich was strongly loyal to Queen's and despite the troubles which were a constant background to more than half his time there he was very happy. Northern Ireland proved a good place to educate children, and not least of his reasons for staying may have been to maintain continuity for his children's upbringing, doubtless because of his own childhood experience.

An efficient but self-taught pianist, Ehrlich had been gripped by music from the first, and he brought a record collector's knowledge of repertoire and performances to his analysis of the history of the time through which he had lived. His book The Piano signalled a late change of intellectual direction not only in Ehrlich's personal career but also in the wider study of music. His use of economic indicators and company records to demonstrate social trends and changes in musical taste gave a new resilience to such studies. Yet his personal knowledge of music and the musical world also gave his writing authority with its wealth of contextual detail and first-hand knowledge of pianos and pianists.

As a trained economic and social historian he was concerned with what he saw as musicologists' general lack of expertise when using economic data in an historical context. This was first signalled in a paper on "Economic History and Music" in 1976. It assumed greater force at a conference on "Music in the Market Place" in 1989, although Ehrlich's approach was not necessarily welcomed by all in the musicological community, a scepticism that reinforced his determination. It marked a significant turning point.

In Belfast he had had only limited opportunities to supervise research students, but once retired he became known for his sympathetic and stimulating advice. The constant stream of visitors to his Oxford home led one, aptly, to refer to it as "the University of St Andrew's Lane".

Ehrlich's academic Indian summer reached its formal apogee with the establishment of "Music in Britain: a social history seminar". Convened with Professor Simon McVeigh at the Institute of Historical Research, London University, under the aegis of Goldsmiths College in 1999, it has become a focus for those interested in the social history of music over the last 250 years.

He was Visiting Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, London University from 1995 to 1997 and then at Goldsmiths from 1998. At the latter he was brought into contact with a circle of pioneering young musical historians in whom he fostered an interest in the social history of British music, particularly in the 19th century, out of which emerged the Arts and Humanities Research Board-funded project "The Transformation of London Concert Life 1880-1914", initiated in 1999.

His 50-year marriage to Felicity Bell-Bonnett was a notable partnership, while his three children, all professional musicians, were a characteristic source of pride.

Lewis Foreman