Conference Review: EMR and the Church, Durham University, 5 Nov 2018

A one-day conference entitled EMR & the Church was hosted at Durham University on the 5th of November 2018. The aim of the conference was to promote and disseminate scholarship pertaining to the relationship between composers associated with the EMR (English Musical Renaissance), the church, and theology. The conference was attended by a wide variety of delegates including academic researchers, those involved in the practice of church music, and those with a general interest in the area. Several international delegates were present, and a good number of young academics in the early stages of their careers attended. This all contributed to a lively conference atmosphere with stimulating discussion throughout the day.

The conference papers were divided into three themed sessions, with a concluding keynote presentation. Ian Maxwell (Cambridge University) and Zen Kuriyama (University of Notre Dame) both gave excellent papers in the first session; both were broadly concerned with, in the word of Maxwell, ‘the extent to which Anglican Church music fundamentally informed and directed the underlying stylistic features that identify “Englishness”.’ Following this, a three-paper session tackled the influence that evolutionary theories had on the church music of the EMR. All three papers, given by Bennett Zon (Durham Univeristy), Matt Kickasola (Geneva College), and conference organiser Christopher Blakey (Durham University), brought issues of natural theology and theological revelation to the fore, and exposed the Spencerian thread underlying the worldview of many of the most prominent EMR composers. The music and thought of Hubert Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams, in particular, was explored in this session. Katie Palmer-Heathman (Durham University) and Joanna Bullivant (Oxford University) both gave papers in the following session that explored specific historical and liturgical contexts for the church music of the EMR. The issues raised concerning Elgar’s sometimes fraught relationship with the EMR in Bullivant’s paper provoked a lengthy discussion, as did Palmer-Heathman’s research on the New English Hymnal, which prompted a discussion on the selection of hymns that brought many of the day’s themes into modern relevance.

The papers were concluded with a keynote presentation by Benedict Taylor (Edinburgh University). Taylor provided a much-needed musical-analytical approach to the music of the EMR, with a paper focussing on Hubert Parry’s symphonic poem From Death to Life. Whilst this piece cannot be regarded as ‘church music’ per se, Taylor exposed the theological issues that pervade the piece, and neatly tied many of the themes of the conference into his analysis.

Following the papers, the delegates attended evensong at Durham Cathedral – the music that evening was, conveniently, filled with EMR church music – and a dinner concluded the day’s events. All in all, the conference greatly benefited from the differing methodologies of the papers and the diverse backgrounds of the delegates. Several themes – including critiques of musical nationalism, and of ideas of ‘progress’ – unified the various approaches, and much discussion ensued due to the overlap between the papers and research areas of particular individuals present.


Christopher Blakey is a first year PhD Student at Durham University; his research is focused on the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams and the interaction of music and theology.

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