Research Colloquium

Research Colloquium: Popularising the Popular

Lecture Theatre 1, School of Music

The speaker is Katherine Hambridge (Durham University)
The concept of the popular has been sufficiently problematised that it is now used self-consciously within the academy. But the work of tracing its historical usage and emergence in the nineteenth century, notwithstanding the important contributions made by Matthew Gelbart, Bernd Sponheuer, Derek Scott, and David Gramit, has lagged behind the attention given to “absolute music”, “programme music”, “virtuosity”, and other key terms used to categorise nineteenth century music and musical life, at the time, and since. Was it a question of venue, of statistical consumption, of style, of listening mode, of genre? And what precisely was its utility to those that wielded this term?

In my paper, I argue that the extreme self-consciousness of music and theatre critics in Berlin c. 1800 provides a useful window into the development of the nineteenth-century discourse of the popular. Reacting to the influx of Parisian “boulevard” and Viennese “suburban” theatre, writers projected considerable anxiety about their role in guiding public taste. In Berlin at this point all genres appeared at the Nationaltheater, in German: without a system of alternative theatres to separate spatially the high and low, audiences—some thought—were not distinguishing sufficiently between the works played to them. Critics became particularly conflicted when attempting to distinguish popular musical vocabularies from more elevated ones: compositional and performance practices provided an unreliable basis for such hierarchizing gestures, whether techniques of borrowing, reuse, parody, or new stylistic practices. Probing the motivations and processes driving the rhetorical fashioning of a concept of the popular, I show how one city’s music professionals negotiated the uneasy question of commercial art, popular taste, and agency in the post-revolutionary period.

Katherine Hambridge is Lecturer in Musicology at Durham University. She specializes in French and German musical life in the first half of the nineteenth century, in particular, music and politics, music theatre, and issues of genre and performance. She has published in Annales de la Révolution française, Cambridge Opera Journal, the Oxford Handbook of the Operatic Canon, and her article for the Journal of the American Musicological Society, “Staging Singing in the Theater of War (Berlin, 1805),” won the Royal Musical Association’s Jerome Roche Prize 2016. Together with Jonathan Hicks she has edited the volume The Melodramatic Moment, 1790-1820, which is forthcoming with the University of Chicago Press in Spring 2018.