Conference Report: Music, Medievalism, and Modernism, 27-28 June 2018, Huddersfield

It is a sort of common wisdom for us to say that the past ought to inform the future. Lest, of course, we be—as the now somewhat cliché Santayana quote would warn us—condemned to repeat it ad infinitum. But would that necessarily be such a bad thing? And at the very least, might we (or someone) even find it aesthetically, perhaps even politically or socially, desirable to visit, reimagine, or instrumentalise the past (or the aura, say, of pastness more generally)?

That abovementioned cliché speaks volumes about modernity, its attendant ideologies, and its relationship to history, or at least our common perception of that relationship. History is something modernity moves away from. Modernism, we know, is the disavowal of the past, or, in music, the dissolution of harmony: architectural brutalism, nomadic literary stream-of-consciousness, Fordist production lines. In other words, the artistic response to industrial alienation—and in some iterations, a kind of perverse celebration of it.

And yet, ghosts of a distant, oftentimes medieval, past haunt modernity interminably. A liminal period of imaginative possibility wedged between classical antiquity and the Enlightenment, the ‘medieval’ it seems to me, has, in its afterlives, been modernity’s Other. From the protomodernisms of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the utopian and fantasy socialism of William Morris, to Wagnerian Romanticism and the neo-gothic literary and architectural revivals, medievalism informs modernity profoundly. In the twentieth century this only intensified and diversified, and it is this paradox—that is, for the past to inform the overtly forward-thinking agendas associated with modernism—that inspired the conference.

The conference began, then, with a ‘Prehistories’ session, providing crucial context from musical modernity’s long dawn in the nineteenth century. Belinda Robinson (University of Oxford) spoke first about Hungarian nationalist composer Ferenc Erkel and the historically-themed opera Bátori Mária from 1840. Her paper articulated highly salient themes to which we would return many times: chiefly, the way that contemporary social and political issues might be played out on the medieval canvas. But Robinson’s insights, more significantly, sought to problematise a prevailing understanding of the contemporary relationship between past and present in art (and, here, in opera). Erkel gave no allegorical consolation (and, thus, atonement) for Hungarian nation building in his historical rendering of the story of Bátori Mária. Rather, the opera’s vision of history is tragic and cyclical: the past is not some distant repository that we merely ‘learn’ from, but it is, instead, simultaneous with both present and future, unresolved. Tadhg Sauvey (University of Cambridge) followed this up with a revealing discussion of the legend of César Franck and the cult of Franckisme. A sort of fin-de-siècle medievalism, followers of Franckisme promoted a primitivistic critique of the present and a retreat into spiritual simplicity and musical purity in the era of French Symbolist ascendency. Highly prescient, Franckisme prefigures a number of musical medievalisms that would come.

The second session concerned musical modernity specifically, demonstrating medievalism’s diverse, and contradictory, legacy in the twentieth century. John Gabriel (University of Hong Kong), for instance, took us to interwar Germany, and the medievalist origins of Gebrauchsmusik, which saw in the medieval period a truly ‘functional’ musical praxis. In particular, his paper contrasted the left-wing Hanns Eisler with the conservative Ernst Krenek: the former repurposing medieval religious didacticism and communal singing, and the latter melding twelve-tone technique with a neo-medievalist lionisation of the Holy Roman Empire as a model for then Fascist Austria. Nana Katsia (Tbilisi State Conservatoire) revealed an ongoing tradition of the medieval ‘mystery play’ in operas by Wagner, Schoenberg, and Messiaen. Arguably the beginning of European theatre, the mystery play (or, rather, the hybrid opera-mystery play as it becomes here) may have transformed beyond recognition, but it is nevertheless governed by its logics of religious ritual. In twentieth-century opera, the mystery play is not so much as preserved, but transformed.

The session then moved onwards in time to the latter half of the twentieth century: Violetta Kostka (Academy of Music in Gdansk) presented on Polish-born composer Paweł Szymańsky. A leading figure in the Polish contemporary music scene, Szymańsky, despite having a highly idiosyncratic style and sound, derives the majority of his music from transformations of earlier musical styles. Two pieces highlighted by Kostka demonstrate contrasting approaches to medievalism taken by a living composer: Miserere, a choral piece, and Three Pieces, an algorithmically generated work for three recorders and a metronome (both 1993). Finally, Joseph Wong (Open University of Hong Kong), himself a composer, provided a broad overview of musical medievalist borrowing in modern music: in Lutosławski, Ligeti, and in Takemitsu. His emphasis on stylistic diversity among composers in the latter half of the twentieth century came to highlight how reinvention and revitalisation are central to his composers’ creative processes.

A final session for the day tackled medievalism in opera: Giuseppe Montemagno (Academic of Fine Arts, Catania) delivered a fascinating paper (cowritten with tenor Giuseppe Filianoti) on Francesco Cilèa’s Gloria (1907) set in fourteenth-century Siena, and detailed its vast web of influences, drawing it, too, into a context of fin-de-siècle Symbolism and Franciscan simplicity already touched upon that morning. George Haggett (Royal Holloway, University of London) then delivered his ‘lurid’ account of George Benjamin’s landmark 2012 opera Written on Skin: a body-centred reading of ‘operatic ekphrasis’ which sees that opera’s medievalism (its source material a thirteenth-century Occitan razo) as something profoundly physical—viscerally so.

The first day culminated with a keynote from David Matthews (University of Manchester), a professor of medieval literature and a leader in the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of Medievalism Studies. That field was, in some respects, an inspiration for this conference, and it has been my intention here to bring its ideas—above all, its celebration of anachronism and co-temporality—to musicology (and, indeed, vice versa). Professor Matthews, then, provided a hugely important introduction for the mainly musicological conference: he covered the ‘long decade’ (1839-51) that he sees as constituting medievalism’s ‘high watermark’, restorative and reflective types of nostalgia, and he set down the gauntlet for what a musical contribution to the field might look like. That keynote was followed by a very rewarding set of roundtable responses: from Lisa Colton (University of Huddersfield), Edward Venn (University of Leeds), myself, and another ‘outsider’, Andrew Elliott (University of Lincoln), who works on medievalism in modern media and politics.

The second day pushed the first day’s discussion into yet new directions, and a session on ‘Medievalism in Practice’ brought together performers, composers, and practitioners to engage the realities of creating and innovating with the medieval in the present. Stef Conner (University of Huddersfield), framed that session with a critical account of historical performance practice and a defence of subjectivity. Her paper dealt with the vexed, but highly important, notion of authenticity and the considerable distance between rigid types of scholarly thought and those taken by performers who propose to embody the traditions exemplified by their medieval sources. Litha Efthymiou (University of Lincoln) delivered a first-hand account of a composer working, collaboratively, to develop a stage piece that was inspired by ancient Old Hispanic chant notation: the piece, Myisi was premiered in 2015 at the Tête à Tête opera festival.

Carmen Troncoso and Lynette Quek (both University of York)—a recorder player and a sound artist, respectively—explored their own collaborations on a set of pieces which engaged the origins of the recorder. Moreover, they offered a notion of ‘simultaneous inhabitancy’ and described the juxtaposition of elements both old and new in their music, and in the evolution of the recorder itself. Carlos Zamora (University of York), a composer from Chile ended the session with an analysis of a piece of his own—Stampide of Birds for recorder quartet—inspired by medieval estampie dance forms (and conceived in a Pythagorean tuning).

The final session of the conference (‘Medievalism on screen’) ended on a thoroughly modern (if not strictly modernist) note, with papers about recent ‘historical’ television shows. William Everett (University of Missouri) even brought popular music theatre to the mix speaking about Galavant (2014-15), a comic television musical combining Broadway tropes with medieval contexts. Strikingly, this charmingly silly series embodies (and, in the process, comments on) medievalism instructively, and refracts through its thirteenth-century lens major twenty-first-century issues, including, but not limited to, race, gender, class, and politics. This was followed by James Cook (University of Edinburgh), who, to end the conference, extended the medievalist purview to Sky’s 2018 Brittania series, a dramatisation of the Roman invasion of the British Isles. Indeed, Cook also challenged the notion of linear time here: pre-Roman Britain’s pagan population proposes an analogously barbarous challenge to Roman enlightenment, and—pitched as the show is as a sort of commentary on contemporary debates of national identity—draws much upon established medievalist musical tropes to melt a straightforward, reducible, kind of chronology.

The past is not mere history, then (or should I say, history is not merely in the past?). More than a bygone space to learn from, it continues to have a life of its own: refracting and transforming our present, and influencing the future. This conference successfully provided a forum for this reflection, refining the Call for Papers’ initial themes. At our present historical juncture, where modernity’s progress might feel in doubt, there is an added urgency in this discussion: if modernism (and modernity) seems to assume a certain unidirectional temporal flow, medievalism reminds us that, imaginatively speaking, progress is not always guaranteed—or that we may not find it where we expect to.

Alexander Kolassa is a Lecturer in Music at the Open University; he is a musicologist who writes on contemporary music and medievalism as well as sound and music in film, and a composer whose music has been performed nationally.

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