British Music & Europe in the Age of Brexit: Abstracts and Presenters

Byron Adams (University of California, Riverside)

French Fever: French Music in Britain, 1890-1950
Sir Christopher Wren once averred, “our great English Artists are dull enough at Inventions but when once a foreigne patterne is sett, they imitate so well that commonly they exceed the originall.”  While Wren’s statement is hyperbolic, it points to the importance that foreign patterns have held for English composers from Purcell to George Benjamin. While conflicted over their debt to France, British composers who flourished from 1890 to 1950 evinced an ongoing engagement with French music. This paper traces the influence of French composers upon the work of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Britten, among others. While Elgar’s debt to Saint-Saëns and Delibes has rarely been examined, the influence of Ravel upon Vaughan Williams has been remarked upon often. However, Vaughan Williams was also profoundly affected by Debussy’s music, especially Pelléas et Mélisande. This paper will conclude with a brief investigation of Britten’s engagement with French music, especially that of Fauré.

Christopher Chowrimootoo (University of Notre Dame)

Down and Out in London and Aldeburgh: Sentimental Realism in Peter Grimes
In this paper, I will explore the tensions between sentimentality and realism in Peter Grimes. After sketching out the aims and objectives of 1930s realism, I will explore the impression it left on Britten’s 1945 opera. This will involve examining the mise-en-scene, text and music, excavating concerns with both literal fidelity and a more thematic representation of working-class hopelessness and difficulty. At the same time, I will explore how these aspirations rubbed up against and collapsed into sentimentality, in ways that undermined these mid-century aesthetic oppositions. In describing Grimes’s complicated relationship with realistic art of the early- and mid-twentieth century, I will draw comparisons with examples from across from Europe, from the operas of Puccini and Berg to the documentaries of Cavalcanti and Ruttmann.

Daniel Grimley (University of Oxford)

Austerity Symphonies: Nordic Music in the British Cultural Imagination, 1945-1965
In the two decades following the end of the Second World War, British attitudes to music from Scandinavia and the Nordic countries underwent a significant change of emphasis. Having frequently been heard as the heroic exemplar of an Anglo-Nordic nationalism (often tinged with problematic assumptions about race and national character), or inescapably tied to metaphors of landscape and nature, Nordic music was increasingly conceived as part of a modern wave, oriented more toward internationalism and away from the supposedly extreme expressions of the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde. Understood more recently as a rather conservative, traditionalist trend, this viewpoint suggests strong parallels with broader cultures of austerity in post-war Britain, and underlying concerns with economy of means, localism, and community (debates that continue to resound in British political discourse). Tracing the reception of early twentieth-century Nordic music, especially Carl Nielsen, in the writing of authors such as Robert Simpson and Hugh Ottaway, sheds significant light on shifting aesthetic and regional perspectives. In conclusion, the promotion of the Nordic symphony in the British imagination during this period is far from straightforwardly backward-looking or advanced, and offers a more complex response to its historical, musical, and geopolitical contexts.

J.P.E. Harper-Scott (Royal Holloway College, University of London)

Somewhere or anywhere? The politics of Brexit, Britten, and the middlebrow
By the late 1920s, the Conservative Party in the UK had come to see the “highbrow” as a major threat to the British state and the capitalist world order. The highbrow’s strong association with socialist movements, and with the popular Left Book Club, seemed to point to the unlikely possibility that the working classes, through reading political theory and becoming acquainted with serious culture, could rise up and overturn the foundations of Western society. Under the leadership of Stanley Baldwin in particular, the Conservatives strengthened a “middlebrow" movement whose aim (pursued through, among other things, a rival book club and a training college) was to promote an insular and identitarian view of English society and political economy, and to set up a barrier between the working classes and the dangerous isms (including modernism) of the Continent. This paper examines the fortunes of Britten’s music in relation to the "battle of the brows," then and now, draws parallels between the ideological uses of culture and identity in the 1930s and the early twenty-first century, and asks what the long view of the struggle between middlebrow and modernism, conservatism and radicalism, has to say in respect of the traumas of our present.

Charles Edward McGuire (Oberlin College & Conservatory)

Nostalgic Melancholy: Metanarratives of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in the Age of Brexit 
Basil Maine first posited an interpretation of Elgar’s Violoncello Concerto in E minor as an elegiac work in 1933, fourteen years after its premiere. In the ensuing decades, Maine’s interpretation has grown, hydra-like, to encompass a metanarrative that includes Michael Kennedy’s 1968 assertion that the concerto includes a “story” of Elgar’s creative spirit being crushed by the First World War. Should this melancholic metanarrative be the Concerto’s universal interpretation? Examining reaction to performances, editions of the score, and recordings of the work completed in the first two decades of its existence, this paper reveals an alternate interpretation for the work. As considered by many of Elgar’s contemporaries, the Cello Concerto included elegiac moments, but was not consumed by them. Indeed, many heard Elgar’s concerto as full of a quiet beauty, supported by a sense of heroism with an ultimately triumphant – even romantically transcendent – ending.

Nina Penner (Duke University)

Rethinking Regietheater and the Britain-Continent Divide in Contemporary Opera Staging
In discourse on opera staging, it has become conventional to differentiate between Regietheater (director’s theatre) and more “traditional” productions. There are several problems with this way of carving up the landscape of contemporary opera performance. The term “Regietheater” falsely suggests that it is primarily a German phenomenon. Furthermore, categorization chiefly depends on a production’s “look” not on its sound or interpretation. With a focus on staging in Britain, I propose an alternative way of thinking about the variegated nature of opera performance today, one based on the attitude the performers take towards the work ostensibly being performed. Some productions (e.g., Tim Albery’s Billy Budd, ENO, 1988) arise from similar motivations as performances of classical instrumental music: the performers aim to fulfil (most of) the prescriptions contained within the work’s score and libretto, interpreted in light of their context of creation. Others (e.g., Katharina Thoma’s Ariadne auf Naxos, a.k.a. Carry on Ariadne, Glyndebourne, 2013) are better described by James Hamilton’s (2007) “ingredients model”: scores and libretti are treated less as instructions to be followed than as optional ingredients in a new performance-work. The tendency to bill both types of performances as performances of Britten or Strauss has led to confusion, even outrage, on the part of spectators, who frequently bring the wrong expectations with them when they enter the theatre, and are predictably dissatisfied with what they find there.

Philip Rupprecht (Duke University)

Symphonies Serious and for Fun: Malcolm Arnold and the National Imagination of Genre
As early as 1952, questions of tone were raised about Arnold’s music. “It would be difficult to imagine a symphony more remote from academic pretension than Arnold’s almost willfully inconsequential, brilliantly scored piece,” Wilfrid Mellers observed of No. 1. The sentiment is echoed by Hugh Ottaway who lists Arnold – with Fricker, Hamilton, Simpson, and Milner – as a figure to watch (Guide to Modern Music, 1958). The Second Symphony’s “intriguing blend of lyricism, pathetic emotion and sheer uproariousness,” Ottaway notes, reflects Arnold’s “freedom from a sense of obligation to become a ‘significant’ composer.” Arnold’s career as a symphonist was dogged by a cluster of increasingly vehement critical dismissals: for lack of taste, invention, profundity, or for an excess of exuberance and mischief.
     With questions of tone in mind, my paper begins by sketching a national-aesthetic context for the post-war British symphony as a genre uneasily caught between competing European traditions – the imposing Austro-German legacy from Haydn to Mahler, on the one hand; and an alternative Scandinavian line from Sibelius and Nielsen. Arnold’s initial public “failure” as a symphonist, I argue, reflects critical canons of taste governed by nationalist visions only rarely articulated coherently or publicly. (There is truth to Arnold’s complaints of a critical attitude “still over-awed by the German outlook.”) In the rapturous responses of audiences, meanwhile, one reads signals of  a composer speaking across the widening gulf of the day, between the serial avant-garde and the rising tide of commercial pop-rock.

Erica Siegel (Davis, CA)

Elizabeth Maconchy and the Politics of British Musical Modernism in the 1930s
The years between the First and Second World Wars were characterized by tremendous confusion, if not a complete identity crisis, in British music as social upheavals that came in the wake of the First World War ushered in an era of rapid change and development that altered every facet of life. In recent years, musicologists have devoted increasing attention to this period, particularly in relation to aspects of modernism and nationalism. This growing body of scholarship, however, has focused almost exclusively on male composers, thus marginalizing the contribution of women such as Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994), who was widely considered to be at the forefront of the generation of British composers emerging in the 1930s.
     This paper examines Maconchy’s career and reception within the context of fluctuating attitudes towards modern music during the interwar period. While Maconchy’s music was initially praised for its radically “modern,” yet distinctly “British” idiom in the early 1930s, as the decade progressed and her reputation grew rapidly in Europe, her works were critiqued in Britain for begin too cerebral and dissonant—criticisms of the aspects of her music that were praised on the Continent. Through a detailed analysis of Maconchy’s reception both at home and abroad, I argue that the shift in the reception of her music is deeply entwined with not only public antipathy toward modern music in Britain, but ultimately growing political tensions in the years leading up to the Second World War.

Danielle Ward-Griffin (Christopher Newport University)

Eurovision Opera: The BBC and the Making of Television Opera in Europe
It is with nostalgia and perhaps even cynicism that we might now look back on the projects of the 1960s designed to make people of different countries feel European. Among these were two broadcasting initiatives intended to cultivate opera on television: the Salzburg Opera Prize and the European Broadcasting Union’s commissions. Drawing upon memos, letters and reports from the BBC Written Archives, I show how the BBC played a leading role in these initiatives, establishing key principles for commissioning, evaluating and televising new opera in Europe. These efforts often exposed national fault lines: broadcasters debated the musical merits of different styles, disagreed on how to cultivate new opera composition, and struggled to connect the screen and the stage. Ultimately, the legacy of these projects was not the formation of a European operatic consciousness, but rather the practices of co-production and exchange that came to underpin the operatic industry.