‘Music and the myth of intelligibility’

University of Oxford, 10am 17 May 2013

In his 1938 poem, ‘The Composer’, W. H. Auden praises the immediacy of music, juxtaposing it with painting and poetry as arts that require mediation (‘All the others translate’) and reception (‘by painstaking adaption’). Auden’s poem is just one of the most famous articulations of the widespread idea that, of all the arts, music is the one that requires no intervention to render it intelligible across time and space (as suggested equally by Longfellow’s reference to music as ‘the universal language of mankind’). This workshop aimed to scrutinise this seductive and influential yet problematic myth with a particular focus on the period 1870-1920.

Key themes included:

  •  the rise of comparative musicology as an academic discipline in the nineteenth century and its relationship to other disciplinary historiographies;
  • the relationship between philosophy and music in the establishment of the myth of universality;
  • music and spirituality in a transnational context;
  • performers, composers and critics as agents of cosmopolitanism and internationalism;
  • concert programming and the reception of national repertoires;
  • music and the other arts (especially ballet, design, architecture, as well as literature and visual culture);
  • wagnerism, Nietzscheanism and the search for the Gesamtkunstwerk;
  • modes of writing about music (analysis, criticism, biography, appreciation, etc.);
  • music and politics (militarism, nationalism, pacifism, idealism, etc.);
  • music and the rise of new technologies and modes of dissemination (sound recording, periodical and journal culture, etc.);
  • music festivals and the culture of leisured travel;
  • music in the formation of gendered and sexual sub-cultures.

This event was convened by Dr Philip Bullock (Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and Wadham College, Oxford).


10.00-10.30:    Registration and coffee
10.30-11.00:    Welcome and introductions
11.00-12.30:     Panel 1: Music: between the National and the International
12.30-13.30:    Lunch
13.30-15.00:    Panel 2: Music and Myth
15.00-15.30:    Tea
15.30-17.00:    Panel 3: Music and the Forms of Internationalism
17.00-18.00:    Final discussion, drinks
19.00:                Dinner

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