University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Faculty of Music Colloquia > Spectacle, the Middle Class, and Infrastructure at the Yorkshire Grand Musical Festivals, 1823-35

Spectacle, the Middle Class, and Infrastructure at the Yorkshire Grand Musical Festivals, 1823-35

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In England, the provincial music festival was the most important means of concert music production in the 18th and 19th centuries. Through such festivals, the middle classes ultimately became arbiters of musical taste in this period. Music festivals introduced individuals outside of London to music by contemporary composers, both foreign and domestic, and shaped the genres (predominantly choral, including oratorios and dramatic cantatas) desired and celebrated by the English. Such festivals also shifted the progression of musicians from a servant class, regarded as morally suspect because of their associations with decadent aristocratic genres like opera, to a respectable middle-class profession. Finally, the charitable associations of the festivals encouraged the English to stop thinking of music as a mere pleasurable pastime and view it instead as didactic, with the potential to become a moralizing force.

In the 1820s, musical festivals went from a local to a national phenomenon, increasingly including a larger middle-class audience. This middle-class audience demanded spectacle, such as the best operatic stars of the London stage, the largest orchestras then available in Britain, and – particularly for festivals held in cathedrals – comfortable seating and concert platforms that blended pleasingly into the Gothic architectural buildings surrounding them. Creating such an interior infrastructure thus became an expensive and time consuming task, and caused one of the primary objections to holding festivals in this era: that the modifications required to turn a cathedral into a concert venue would somehow damage its fabric. This fear allowed George Markham, Dean of York Minster from 1802 to 1822 to block festivals there until his death.

Were Markham’s fears justified? What were the potential damages to a cathedral’s fabric that creating such a visual spectacle might incur? The construction undertaken for the Yorkshire Grand Musical Festivals held partially in York Minster from 1823-1835 provides a case study of the extensive infrastructure creation thought necessary for contemporary festivals held in cathedrals. As this paper will show, this festival required substantial and intrusive building work in the nave, frequently limiting access to the area for months before the festival commenced. Using contemporary documents including lithographs of the festivals published as commemorative souvenirs, the minutes of the festival’s organizing committee, correspondence and bills for services rendered from laborers, as well as architectural drawings, this presentation will trace what the Yorkshire Grand Musical Festival’s organizers imagined was required to create a sublime visual spectacle capable of creating comfort, ensuring the solidification of class divisions, but most of all, matching the expected vocal pyrotechnics from the solo singers engaged at these concerts.

This talk is part of the Faculty of Music Colloquia series.

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