Conference Report: Cultural Intermediaries in the Nineteenth-Century Music Market

The ‘Cultural Intermediaries in the Nineteenth-Century Music Market’ conference was held in Clifton Hill House at the University of Bristol, June 23–24, 2023. It featured two days of talks by scholars from eleven countries on a wide range of behind-the-scenes activities in the nineteenth century, organized around the work of ‘cultural intermediaries.’ This term was coined by Pierre Bourdieu to refer to tastemakers in the 1970s, but it has since been used in literary and cultural studies to refer to people who had the power to intervene in the wide gap between a work’s creation and its dissemination. Participants at the conference discussed topics such as finances, copyright, taxes, self-promotion, and legacy. Most importantly, the papers and ensuing discussions grappled with how these financial and market-driven aspects of musical life intertwined with aesthetic legacies and vice versa.

The keynote address by Katharine Ellis (University of Cambridge) provided a framework that drove further conversation across the conference. Ellis discussed the failure of abbé Joseph Régnier in promoting his sacred music journal Le Chœur (ca. 1848–57) of Nancy. His journal closed after less than a decade, but the reforms for which he advocated later became popular and were enacted. Since Régnier was apparently prescient, we might expect that his journal would have been popular and successful. But his naivety in promoting his message provides a valuable lesson that the packaging of ideas influences their reception. 

Many speakers discussed publishers, moving beyond more typical biographical and documentary examinations and instead considering business models and practices. Karl Traugott Goldbach (Spohr Museum, Kassel, Germany), as an example, gave a scintillating talk on the business of Carl Zuhlener, a music publisher who some disgruntled musicians called ‘the damned score thief’ because his business copied scores and reprinted them. Goldbach also investigated how various agents in the nineteenth century worked around primitive copyright laws — even bringing evidence that theatre copyists could be bribed to illicitly copy scores from their theatres. Goldbach showed us that during the early years of the century, Zuhlener’s activities were perfectly legal, even if unethical by modern standards and bothersome to certain contemporaries. Maximilian Rosenthal (Hochschule für Musik und Theater ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’, Germany) discussed the preliminary findings of a big data project, Geschmacksbildung und Verlagspolitik, which examines the records of three German music publishers, Hofmeister, Rieter-Biedermann, and Peters, to better understand canonization and genre dissemination.

José Manuel Izquierdo König (Pontificia Universidad Católica, Chile) traced why nineteenth-century music manuscripts that were written in and made for the market in Valparaíso, Chile were shipped by boat to Germany to be printed, then sent back. The story centered on Valparaíso’s status as a tax-free port for paper goods, which means that it was cheaper for German publishers to ship paper all around the world than to open up a satellite printing shop abroad. This tax issue also helps to explain how a market for Latin and South American music developed in Germany (as seen in the records discussed by Rosenthal). It’s rare to get any glimpse into import and export practices, and these discoveries and their implications for cultural production were quite stimulating. 

Another palpable trend was to examine music happenings outside the usual capitals and business hubs: M. Belén Vargas Liñàn (Universidad de Granada, Spain), as an example, discussed music advertisements in local papers in Granada, extrapolating information about the make-up of the public. Özcegan Karadaglı (Bahçesehir University Conservatory, Turkey) examined the theatres in Istanbul and their various coteries in the press. And Giulia Brunello (Bern Academy of the Arts, Switzerland) gave a talk on the administration of Feltre’s Teatro Sociale, and how the administrators used the theatre for publicity for their town and formed ties with neighbouring cities. There were discussions of musical happenings in Australia, Sweden, China, and Ukraine as well.

Many papers featured atypical cultural intermediaries, or people who fall outside standard histories of music. Matthew Head (King’s College London), as an example, discussed how Harriet Wainwright Stewart (1759–1843) acted as her own cultural intermediary, as she was denied publishing contracts yet remained motivated to share her creations with others in imaginative ways. Ross Purves (University College London) shed light on juvenile fairy operettas, which were a genre written for school performance, often by schoolteachers for their students. Mark Everist (University of Southampton) demonstrated that the organized state-sanctioned French theatre publicity system placed posters on public urinals and he examined backlash against this practice for being unfair to women since they had to keep a distance. And in another illuminating paper, David Rowland (The Open University) showed how the practices of music engravers affect how musicians interpret printed music (in many cases, mistakenly).

One big takeaway coming out of the papers and discussions was that the habits of our field cause us to silo ourselves into certain discrete areas: most often nations, genres, or composers. But cultural intermediaries regularly crossed these boundaries as they worked internationally across genres. Moreover, the decisions they made in one area were informed by happenings in other areas, so there is great value in crossing these boundaries ourselves, or at least swapping stories and coming together to build a broader understanding of cultural intermediaries’ work. Investigating intentions and backstage actions of history instead of public-facing final achievements of ‘great men’ is promising, because it provides a way to cut across (and perhaps through) various emergent interdisciplinary concerns. This is a kind of bottom-up history, rather than a top-down one. One hopes for continued scholarship in this vein.

For a record of the entire programme, visit

Shaena B. Weitz

University of Bristol

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