full name / name of organization: 

A Conference organised by
Friday & Saturday May 15th & 16th
Université de Caen Basse Normandie (France), MRSH, Room 006.
Organisation: Gilles COUDERC & Marcin STAWIARSKI

The English oratorio, that particular form of non-theatrical music drama,
based on the Bible, which combines elements from English masques, anthems,
French classical drama, Italian opera seria and oratorio, and German
Protestant oratorio, with extended choral interventions, is essentially the
creation of Handel, as Italian opera was dropping out of fashion in London.
Its almost accidental birth in 1732 resulted from the Bishop of London's
refusal to allow the revival of Handel's Esther and the use of Holy Writ on
the opera stage. The new work was instant success and encouraged Handel to
compose oratorios which later provided fodder for English choral societies,
with hundreds of performers meeting for the 1791 Handel Festival to
celebrate his music. The creation of music festivals or meetings such as
the Three Choirs and the foundation of choral societies in cities, villages
and later factories proved a ready market for this democratic and popular
art form, regarded as a sure means to achieve moral salvation and secure
social peace. The rise of English choralism, prompting the comment that
England was divided in two classes, those who sing and those who don't,
resulted from the invention of Tonic Sol-fa which made sight-singing easier
by the Congregationalist minister John Curwen (1816-1880), from the
expansion of the railways and from cheaper printed music. In the 1850's,
London's Crystal Palace became the venue for epic performances of oratorios
by Handel, Mendelssohn, Spohr, Gounod, Dvorak and their English imitators.
To become a respectable British composer, it was essential to aim at the
oratorio market, or its secular version, the dramatic ballads or choral
symphonies commissioned by such festivals as Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool
or Norwich. The English musical Renaissance of the late 1890's, with Parry
and Stanford, then Elgar, Delius, Holst and Vaughan-Williams, developed
from within this tradition, much derided by G.B. Shaw. If choralism
decreased after 1918 as new form of recreations emerged, like the cinema,
and the demand for higher standards of performance increased, oratorios or
choral symphonies successfully lived on with Walton, Tippett and Britten,
not to mention Paul McCartney, or their American counterparts, Weill,
Copland and Bernstein.
The popularity of such essentially choral music, fitter to represent a
nation than opera or instrumental music, raises several questions involving
aesthetics, religion, politics and sociology. How to create drama without
the theatre, especially with the choral symphonies, particularly those
based on anthologies of poetical texts? To what extent has the rewriting,
adaptation, translation or collation of biblical texts or poetical works,
like those of Walt Whitman for example, contributed to building a national
identity, a national music or to social engineering? Has the choral
movement, instrumentalised for moral and political purposes, helped the
masses access high culture?

Abstracts should be sent before March 1
Gilles Couderc or
Marcin Stawiarski

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Received on Mon Dec 01 2008 - 02:46:32 EST