The Wandering Minstrels (1860-1898)

The Wandering Minstrels

The Wandering Minstrels was a highly fashionable nineteenth-century orchestra made up entirely of amateur musicians. The players - almost all of them men - were drawn largely from the ranks of the aristocracy and military. They initially came together in 1860 for their own entertainment, but soon began to give public concerts to raise money for national and local charities. Over its 38-year history the orchestra raised more than £16,000 for good causes - a huge sum in those days. The Wandering Minstrels also started a new trend, in the form of the 'smoking concert'. This was an exclusive social gathering at which gentlemen, and occasionally ladies, would meet to drink, dine and listen to high-quality music and (gentlemen only) to smoke cigars.

The players chose the name 'Wandering Minstrels' because they travelled around the country to give their concerts, mostly getting around by steam train. The name was probably a slightly tongue-in-cheek one: the so-called wandering minstrels of earlier times had been musicians at the bottom end of the social scale, who scraped a living by travelled from town to town to perform. The Victorian Wandering Minstrels, on the other hand, were at the other end of the social spectrum, and didn't need to earn a living from music. It is tempting to think that Gilbert and Sullivan's song 'A wandering minstrel I' from The Mikado was written with a nod and a wink towards the orchestra. Like many of its members, the wandering minstrel in The Mikado, Nanki-Poo, was an aristocrat (in his case the son of the Mikado of Japan in disguise as a humble musician). Arthur Sullivan was friendly with the conductor of the Wandering Minstrels, and performed with the orchestra at least once. The Wandering Minstrels were at the height of their fame when The Mikado was premiered in 1885, and it seems likely that the audience would have recognised a topical reference in 'A wandering minstrel I'.