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ESF Exploratory Workshop

Music, Culture and Politics in Early Nineteenth-Century Europe

King’s College London (United Kingdom), 6-9 May 2010

Topic and rationale

Our focus will be on the years 1815-48, and on a number of European urban centres: Budapest, Leipzig, Lisbon, London, Ljubljana, Milan, Paris, Vienna and Warsaw. We have chosen the dates because the political events marking them had important effects on the development of musical cultures, not least in new formulations of “national” culture following the defeat of Napoleon and then again in the wake of the 1848-9 revolutions. Our choice of cities has been more pragmatic: it has been guided by the strength of the scholarly work taking place concerning them, and by the availability of key scholars. Our central purpose is to discuss a number of comparative questions about the tumultuous changes taking place in musical life during the period; our answers will, we hope, have an impact on how future music histories are written.

As a correspondent in the London periodical The Musical World put it in 1838: “The nineteenth century seems peculiarly to belong to musical art. […] The history of the arts affords no example of a development of genius at once so powerful and rapid; never was any half century so fruitful.” At no other time in recent history was this sense of change and, above all, expansion in musical activities so marked; at no other time was music’s relation to its sister arts so startlingly rebalanced. Music began to be heard in different ways, to be sustained by different institutions, to be disseminated by different means. Perhaps most important of all, though, music acquired a decisive new aesthetic weight: its cultural value increased steadily during most of the nineteenth century, and perhaps in particular during this period. Our task, put at its simplest, will be to ask why these changes took place, and our means of addressing the issue will be to look comparatively at various manifestations of the phenomenon in various urban centres. It is very well known that, owing to numerous political, social and economic forces, European cities experienced these changes in markedly different ways and at markedly different speeds. We strongly suspect that examining various thematic issues across different cities over a defined time-scale will bring us closer to finding common explanations for their deepest origins.

Of course, this phenomenon of musical expansion had, at least in certain centres, been in progress for some time. As the Musical World correspondent obliquely suggests, London in the 1780s was already the site of a “rage for music”, and Parisian “mélomanie" was not far behind. However, the period between 1815 and 1848 is generally agreed to mark a decisive acceleration: a time during which an emerging taste for music of the past, a new concept of the musical “amateur” or “Dilettant” and a secularisation of the sublime combined with new technologies and rapid urbanization to create a vastly enlarged and diversified musical universe. Méhul had it just right when he complained about “un public dont le goût n'est pas fixé”. The processes whereby this change took place have in some cases already been explored (for example, with the EFS project “Musical Life in Europe, 1600-1900”): the rise of concert life and of amateur choral societies, the changing social make-up of audiences for both concerts and opera, the changing aesthetic stance towards instrumental music. The fact that all these changes were in part fuelled by the unprecedented rise and influence of the musical press has also received some attention. However, we believe there was more at stake. More than any other art, music became the area for individuals’ aesthetic experience in private or public spaces, to be enjoyed both for its own sake and to promote and celebrate sociability and social distinction. Simultaneously, individuals and organisations sought out music for the promotion of economic and political interests. The unprecedented expansion of the aesthetic sphere across the continent also opened music out to its agents (composers, performers, institutions): those seeking emotional as well as political influence and power over individuals and collectives.

The workshop will seek to address its task under the rubric of three main thematic areas, each of them forming the basis for a three-hour “seminar”. Participants in the conference will be expected to offer a brief formal response (no more than 10 minutes in duration) to one of the seminar discussion-documents below, and of course to contribute more generally to group discussion during the weekend.


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