Report: International Conference On 19th Century Music Criticism

Lucca, Italy, November 10-12, 2015: Lucca is the home of both Boccherini and Puccini, and so it seems the perfect location for a conference on the subject of 19th-century music criticism. Some 50 scholars from all over the world have gathered for three days of presentations and conversation. The event is organized by the Centro Studi Opera Omnia Luigi Boccherini, itself based in Lucca, and the Palazetto Bru Zane—Centre de musique romantique française, Venice.

This morning yours truly offered a paper on “Vibrato in the Classical Orchestra: A Nineteenth Century Case Study”. Having the opportunity to present scholarly findings in an atmosphere of welcoming collegiality, and to engage in unfettered dialogue with major musicologists, is always a great pleasure, and I was honored to be asked to attend.

The conference this year was so large that it was necessary to schedule presentations in double sessions, a pity really, since there were so many papers worth hearing. For a complete listing of the program, you can follow this link:

There have been many interesting presentations to date, and some of the most noteworthy that I happened to hear included:

–the keynote speech by Katharine Ellis from the University of Bristol (UK) on the topic “Music Criticism, Generic Contracts, and Speech Acts”, a thoughtful plea for sound methodology and critical examination of musicological evidence;

–an excellent study of Chopin’s reception in Paris in the 1830s, put together by Japanese scholar Hanae Tsukada (Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts);

–concert pianist and CUNY professor Sylvia Kahan’s fascinating comparison of musical reporting, by the same critic and yet very different in tone, at the Paris Worlds Fairs of 1867 and 1878;

–Anja Bunzel’s (Maynooth University) insightful analysis of German composer Johanna Kinkel’s response, in the form of a drinking song, to the pressures of being a female artist working in a man’s world;

–An enlightening discussion of Tchaikovsky’s work as a music critic, courtesy of Ada Aynbinder from the Tchaikovsky State Museum-Reserve in Klin, Russia.

The conference will conclude tomorrow with many more papers and presentations, including a discussion by Dutch professor Jeroen van Gessel (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen) of opera reviews in Strasbourg in the period 1886-1918; and from the Melbourne Conservatorium in Australia, Kerry Murphy’s talk, “A Counterpoint of Critical Voices”, which will wrap up the event.

The sequel to the present conference, on the topic of 20th-century music criticism, has already been planned for next fall in Barcelona, and promises to yield further observations and insights. For a working critic, these events are both rewarding, for the reasons already mentioned, and disconcerting—to realize that the reviews we write today could form the basis of scholarly analysis and cultural commentary tomorrow. They remind us that everything we do serves as a hallmark of a particular time, place, and set of circumstances, and that the only thing that’s eternal—at least we hope—is the music itself.