Conference Report: A ‘Musical League of Nations’: Music Institutions and the Politics of Internationalism (London, 29–30 June 2018)

This two-day symposium was organised by Sarah Collins (University of Western Australia), Barbara Kelly (Royal Northern College of Music) and Laura Tunbridge (University of Oxford), and focused on internationalist musical institutions and initiatives during the twentieth century. The presentations examined the scope and impact of such endeavours, and also the debates that these activities precipitated about music’s efficacy and appropriateness as a tool for social and political change, and about its capacity to facilitate understanding across national borders. Conducted in an atmosphere that was notably intimate and collegial, the programme featured 27 scholars based at institutions in 11 different countries; in this sense, the symposium represented a small contribution of its own to a larger history of musicological internationalism, a tradition that formed the focus of one strand of the papers. The event was hosted by the Institute of Musical Research at Senate House in London, and also received support from the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the RMA.

The International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) remains one of the most well-known projects of twentieth-century musical internationalism. It was examined at this symposium from a wide range of perspectives. Karen Arrandale (University of Cambridge), biographer of the musicologist Edward J. Dent, provided a fitting opening to the conference with her sympathetic account of the internationalist thought and strategies of this vital figure, who was president of both the ISCM and the International Musicological Society (IMS) for many years. Other papers placed the ISCM’s activities and reception in specific national contexts. Astrid Kvalbein (Norwegian Academy of Music), for example, offered important insights into the pioneering and seemingly fearless Norwegian composer and new music organiser Pauline Hall. Kvalbein’s talk underlined the ambivalence felt towards the ISCM from one of its relative ‘peripheries’, a theme that was central to the paper from Björn Heile (University of Glasgow), who drew on quantitative data, surveys and interviews to offer an overview of the ISCM’s shifting role in countries beyond Western Europe from its foundation in 1922 to the present day.

Several papers picked up on the ways in which musical internationalism could become allied with differing political ideologies. As Ian Pace (City University) reminded us, the Nazi regime in Germany embarked on its own extensive projects of musical internationalism. But in the first half of the twentieth century especially, the term ‘international’ was, of course, associated above all with the Left. Leftist internationalism was an important focus of the wide-ranging keynote from Anne C. Shreffler (Harvard University) on cultural activism in the 1930s. Among many productive suggestions, Shreffler proposed that the internationalisms of this decade could be understood through three intersecting categories: a communist or Popular Front internationalism grounded in a shared political stance; the internationalism of ‘epistemic communities’, transnational networks of experts who claimed to be politically neutral (as exemplified by the ISCM and the IMS); and the ‘forced internationalism’ of émigrés and refugees, among whom Shreffler focused in particular on the conductor Hermann Scherchen and his ambitious efforts to recreate the cultural infrastructure he had left behind in Germany.

Especially given the importance of political ideologies in shaping internationalist schemes, the topic of this conference provided fertile ground for exchange between musicologists and historians. Particularly valuable in this respect were the contributions of Patricia Clavin (University of Oxford), whose closing remarks and questions throughout the conference encouraged the clarification of conceptual categories and introduced contexts that would otherwise have gone overlooked. The broadening of perspective facilitated by this cross-disciplinary exchange is vital to situating music in relation to the broader history of internationalism. Just as importantly, it may also enable us to articulate what was distinct about music, not only in the sense of its particular aesthetic qualities and ideological entanglements, but also in terms of its institutions and economics.

But whose institutions are we talking about? As will perhaps already have become apparent, the international range of contributors may have been a strength of this symposium, but that is not to say that there were no limitations to the geographical reach of either the participants or the subject matter. In her opening address, Sarah Collins highlighted the fact that, despite the best efforts of the organisers, none of the scholars present at this event were based at institutions in Africa, Asia or South America, an imbalance that was largely reproduced in the content of the papers as well. As Collins pointed out, this situation was obviously regrettable, but it also presented a telling reminder that the institutions of musical internationalism represented specific kinds of historical projects, conceived in particular times and places, with an understanding of international musical life that was rarely global in perspective. Nevertheless, further work on different sorts of historical actors and alternative visions of musical internationalism will do much to enrich the broader conversation of which this conference forms a part.

This was just one of the lines of inquiry raised by this conference that will surely inform future research. How might we understand the enthusiasm for this topic, one might wonder, in relation to a broader shift in the humanities towards an interest in mobility, transnationalism and cosmopolitanism? Would it prove productive or stifling to attempt to police the potentially fuzzy boundaries between these terms more strictly, and indeed between ‘internationalism’ (as a political vision or aspiration) and the more neutral adjective ‘international’? And to what extent should we attempt to situate work in this area with respect to our own troubled times, which might well be characterised as exhibiting a turn away from international institutions and towards chauvinistic nationalisms? If few of the papers at this conference engaged explicitly with these larger concerns, historical case studies excavated with such consistent prowess should provide invaluable material as we continue to grapple with them.

Giles Masters (King’s College London)

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