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The British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies – Annual Conference

Immediately after attending the RMA Research Students’ Conference (see last OBERTO blog post), I boarded a train for Oxford and the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference at St. Hugh’s College. The theme of this year’s event was ‘Pleasures and Entertainments’; the immense scope of ideas and research which the speakers contributed within this theme was astounding, including everything from the elite women athletes of the long eighteenth century to ‘spiritual alchemy’ and the pleasures which could be gained from writing and hearing sermons.  Naturally, opera was a significant form of pleasure-seeking and entertainment in the eighteenth century.  Opera, singers, celebrity, theatre design, opera-going and opera criticism in England and abroad were all topics of papers and discussion.

St Hugh's College

St. Hugh’s College, Oxford

The first panel I attended was ‘Opera, Court Cases and Scandal’.  Olga A. Baird spoke about the late eighteenth-century composer Antonio Casimir Cartellieri and his ‘mysterious patron “Count Oborsky”’ and their activities in the Habsburg territories.  A significant part of this paper concerned Count Michal Kazimierz Oginski, who was a patron of musicians in Vienna.  At his palace in Slonim, Belarus, Oginski had his own theatre, a ballet company, and singers for regular opera performances. As a youth Obarsky spent time at the palace at Slonim, and through his association with Oginski he became a ‘pseudo-count’ and patron of musicians and composers, although he remains an enigmatic figure. Oginski’s remarkable theatre at Slonim, however, is evidence of the many places of opera performance based in remote provincial centres, purely for the entertainment of particular aristocratic patrons and their households.

After this, Bruce Alan Brown’s ‘Opera in France, Italy, and on the Moon, as Viewed by a Frenchman, Financier, and Philosophe’ examined another mystery – this time the authorship of the Lettresur le Mechanisme de L’Opera Italien (1756). This Lettre makes comparisons between Italian opera buffa and French tragédie lyrique, and questions whether Parisian audiences wanted Italian opera, if they knew why they wanted it, or if perhaps they feared it.  The paper touched on the difficulties inherent in interpreting pseudonyms in opera criticism, and deducing whether this Lettre was written by an Italian or French critic. Bruce Alan Brown’s research also provides an alternative perspective on La Querelle des Bouffons, and how debates about operatic styles functioned as a substitute for more direct political debate in 1750s France.

Still in the 1750s, but moving over the Channel, Cheryl Duncan illustrated how records of court cases give us a remarkable insight into London’s musical life. The legal disputes between violinist Felice Giardini and John Cox – engraver, publisher, and perhaps also an instrument repairer – demonstrate what varied ‘portfolio’ careers musicians enjoyed or endured during this period.  The main operatic link was through Giardini’s involvement with the King’s Theatre.

On Thursday morning I took advantage of being at such a diverse interdisciplinary conference by listening to Peter Radford speak about the astounding exploits of elite women athletes during the long eighteenth century, as well as Carolyn D. Williams’s paper on ‘card games and women’s “Intellectual Capacity”’, before attending the Mason Lecture.  This year’s lecturer was Dr Jérôme Brillaud, whose ‘Parisian Pleasure Domes: Theatre Architecture and Sensory Pleasures in Eighteenth-Century France’ charted the changing design of French theatres between 1634 and 1784.  In the seventeenth century, the examples of the Hôtel du Marais and the Hôtel de Bourgogne demonstrated the rectangular arrangement of these seventeenth-century theatres: sightlines (particularly in the loggia boxes) were compromised, and made the theatrical experience confrontational rather than creating the circular flow of energy which an amphitheatre style would encourage.  Not until the late 1740s and 50s did French architects study ancient theatres, and the theorists’ fascination with Greek theatres stimulated a move towards creating theatres in France which would stimulate all the senses.  Cochin’s 1765 grand plan for an auditorium with a truncated oval shape, promoting physical comfort for audience and actors alike, was never realised, but his design proved influential.

The amphitheatre design improved acoustics and sightlines, democratising – to an extent – the experience of attending the theatre, and provoking changes in acting technique. Brillaud then showed, with a series of exquisite slides, the private theatre of Mademoiselle Guimard (1772), Victor Louis’ theatre at Bordeaux, as well as the new ComédieFrançais.  He pointed out that as the external design of theatres became important, their civic significance was consequently enhanced. As a civic monument, the theatre became more politicised, and inside the improved sightlines meant that the entire audience (almost) had a ‘unified sovereign perspective’ in the absence of a ‘royal box’.  While Brillaud’s lecture did not extend to the experience of opera audiences, he demonstrated the significance of audience experience, and this is equally relevant to studies of opera-going culture. Ideas about energy flow and communication within the auditorium, and the interaction between audience and performers are also pertinent to opera.

Later in the afternoon, after I’d presented my own paper –in a session on ‘Salons, Circles and Polite Societies’ – I had my first experience of chairing a panel: ‘Ballads, Songs and Flute Concertos’.  In this session, we were back in the world of London’s pleasure gardens and theatres. In Heike Nasritdinova’s ‘Pleasure and Art: The Vauxhall Songs from John Worgan and T. A. Arne to J.C. Bach’, we saw how the composers of the Vauxhall songs used particular techniques to ensure the popularity of their songs, and integrate pleasure with art, rationalism with entertainment. J. C. Bach also adapted re-used arias from his operas in his songs for Vauxhall. Meanwhile Patricia McCann’s ‘“A much better Ballad-maker, than Play-wright”: A study of Thomas D’Urfey’s song collections’ took us back into the world of the seventeenth-century theatre, and the rich musical world of which D’Urfey was a part. It was bad luck, to an extent, that D’Urfey was a contemporary of Purcell, and his songs have been somewhat eclipsed by Purcell’s, but this paper demonstrated that D’Urfey’s remarkable song collections had a strong following.  Heike and Patriciaare PhD students, at Universität Regensburg and Queen’s University Belfast respectively, and so this was an opportunity to form links with more graduate students.  I was also glad that I’d been to a conference which was not exclusively musicological, and I hope to attend again in 2015.  The Society also has an Annual Postgraduate Conference, which this year will be held in Venice, in association with Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice.

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