Nearly 150 participants descended on an unexpectedly sun-drenched West Yorkshire for the 20th Biennial International Conference on Nineteenth-Century Music at the University of Huddersfield, from 2 to 4 July 2018. As the principal organiser, Rachel Cowgill, stressed in her introductory remarks to the programme, Huddersfield (although it had stepped in to host the conference at relatively short notice) is a most appropriate venue for a music conference focusing on this period, boasting a rich tradition of music-making that has its roots precisely in the heritage of choral and sacred music, vernacular traditions, and brass bands in West Yorkshire going back to the mid-nineteenth century, and enlivened by waves of Irish, East-Anglian, German, Italian, Jewish, and Russian migration before the century was out.
At the opening of the conference, Julian Rushton commemorated 40 years of conference history and paid a moving tribute to the recently deceased Robert Pascall. Robert organised its first incarnation in Nottingham in 1978, thus initiating the tradition that has brought together nineteenth-century music scholars biennially ever since.
About 110 papers in four parallel sessions bore witness to the continuing vibrancy of research into the nineteenth century. Opera remains a perennial favourite at these conferences, but papers covered an exceptionally wide range, from music pedagogy, the history of recordings, domestic music-making, aesthetics, politics, dance, all the way to the musical experiences of nineteenth-century travellers. It was especially encouraging to see how (sometimes whole sessions of) papers on analytical topics have become perfectly commonplace at the conference, bridging across the (as far as the writer of these lines is concerned) entirely artificial dividing line between ‘musicology’ and ‘music theory’. Sarah Hibberd’s keynote – “Apocalypse Now! French Revolutionary Aesthetics” – sketched continuities of the sublime in French opera from the revolutionary works by Cherubini all the way into the Restoration works by Auber and Meyerbeer, establishing a specifically French aesthetic attitude towards spectacle.
As appropriate at an institution that houses the Research Centre for Performance Practices and within it, the Nineteenth-Century Performance Research Group led by David Milsom, a strong focus of the conference was on questions of historically informed performance, through a number of papers, recitals, and a roundtable on “Evidence and Artistry in Nineteenth-Century Performance Practices” chaired by Claire Holden (Oxford) which discussed, sometimes controversially, the question whether several decades after HiP went “mainstream” in nineteenth-century performance, the ‘yawning chasm’ between contemporary practice and historical evidence identified by Clive Brown as late as 2010 was still in evidence and relevant.
Apart from the RMA, the conference was generously supported by Cambridge University Press and the University of Huddersfield which also fielded a dedicated team of student helpers, both undergraduate and postgraduate. The 2020 conference will once again head across the pond, to be hosted by the University of British Columbia in a doubtless equally balmy Vancouver.
Thomas Schmidt is Dean of Music, Humanities and Media at the University of Huddersfield.