Les Circulations Musicales et Théâtrales, 1750-1815

I’m writing this early one afternoon in Paris. The sky is grey, the air is cold, and Nice feels even further away than a six hour train journey. I’ve decided to compose a little post on my time in this city, both to record some of the new thoughts the conference inspired and, more ambitiously, to return to the warm shores of the Mediterranean in spirit if not in person.

As ever when writing conference reports as blog posts, there’s no way I can capture even an appreciable fragment of all that was said. I’ll start, then, with a few general thoughts about the event as a whole, before talking about my own paper and, finally, a few of those ideas from other speakers I found most pertinent for my own research. As this short summary indicates, this will be a rather egotistical exercise.

First, though, the general observations. This was, with the possible exception of the BSECS annual gathering, the most interdisciplinary conference I have ever been to. The title of the event, Les circulations musicales et théâtrales en Europe vers 1750 – vers 1815, brought together scholars from history, literature, theatre, musicology, sociology and other departments. Speakers also came from many different countries: France, UK, USA, Spain, Germany, Russia, Italy, Australia, Iceland, Croatia, and others were all represented. The great variety of nationalities and disciplines meant that the differences both between research cultures and between subjects was easy to see. This is no bad thing: some of the most interesting comments on my paper about David Garrick in Europe came from a musicologist, and it was great to see the occasional flare of debate when academics in different fields disagreed over the effectiveness of a methodology or the importance of its results. Of course, such a cross-disciplinary event has its downsides (there were a few papers whose aims I had trouble understanding let alone responding to), but the overall impression was that the attendees had formed a remarkably open and supportive whole by the end of the last panel. Such camaraderie was due, as is ever the case with conferences, as much to the organisation of the thing as to its content: liberally fed, watered and housed outside of the panels, we all felt, I’m sure, so much more able to share our insights informally and formally with each other.

Now, on to my own particular experience. I had lost my voice by the second day of the conference, but this fortunately occurred after I had delivered my paper. Thanks to a very pretty slideshow, which owed its beauty to the fact that one never lacks pictures when working on David Garrick, I think I managed to get my ideas across, even if English was not the first language of many of those listening. I also kept to time, which is always a relief.

My slideshow, still a little rought around the edges, is here.

As well as being concise and comprehensible however, I was also doing something a bit different from usual with this paper: as it was based on ideas from my last chapter, I was presenting things that are still very much unformed. My paper, for isntance, made a rather awkward analogy between Garrick’s letters and travels and the actions of eighteenth-century “ministers plenipotentiary”. Needless to say, such clumsiness was picked up on in responses, but this was – to be honest – exactly what I was hoping for. Had I presented one pure and perfect chrysolite of academic research, I would have received far less feedback. As it is, I received a ton of constructive criticism, all of which will certainly improve both my paper and my future chapter. It’s taken me three years to be brave enough to offer work I know is fragile, but it’s definitely worth the risk.

Of course, I didn’t just learn from the reception of my own research. Two papers in particular stood out for offering some particularly useful nuggets of insight. The first paper was given immediately after mine by Katherine Hambridge, a postdoc musicologist at Warwick. She did a far better job than I did of complicating the concept of circulation, and, while discussing German and French melodramas, asked us all to consider the speed at which things circulated. Her paper was full of examples where a particular aesthetic phenomenon was somehow out of sync with larger cultural trends. Melodrama was, she persuasively argued, not so much a miscarriage of Romanticism (as Schlegel thought) but rather something stillborn, a peculiar kind of “post-sentimental” work. Her interest in timing got me thinking about Garrick’s relationship to Shakespeare, not least because I’d just finished talking about it: I wondered then (and wonder still now) whether one reason for Garrick’s fame might lie in his ability to stay so in tune with his time, to circulate at just the right speed. This would explain, for example, why he fell from grace so rapidly: no longer living, Garrick’s view quickly became out of date.

The second paper that helped me did so in a smaller but no less useful way. Matthieu Magne, a doctoral student in Nice, neatly summed up the cultural power of an aristocrat as someone who was able both to “circuler et faire circuler”. For my purposes, this is a good definition of Garrick during his life, and, more generally, another way in which this lowly actor, born into the middle classes, was able to achieve the status of an aristocrat in eighteenth-century Europe.

Enough. I’ll stop this summary here, tarrying only to thank any of the conference organisers who may be reading this. It was a wonderful three days.

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