Of Programs and Prima Donnas: Investigating British Music with the Musical Festivals Database

By McGuire, Charles Edward | Notes, March 2017 | Go to article overview

Of Programs and Prima Donnas: Investigating British Music with the Musical Festivals Database


McGuire, Charles Edward, Notes


ABSTRACT

This essay introduces the digital humanities tool, the Musical Festival Database (MFD, www.musicalfestivals.org). The MFD is a fully-searchable, relational database that aims to help students and scholars investigate the performing personnel and musical repertoire for musical festivals held in Britain between 1695 and 1940. Using three case studies, the essay demonstrates possible applications of the data already present in the MFD from festivals held between 1784 and 1834: an investigation of whether or not a repertoire designation--the "Westminster Abbey Selections"--meant a specific group of compositions or a philosophical programming choice at festivals; illumining how a festival concert as planned and as executed might differ in terms of performers and repertoire; and tracing how and why the repertoire of a particular soprano, Angelica Catalani, changed over the course of eighteen years of singing at British festivals. Such case studies, and many others made possible by the MFD, can reveal a great deal about both the mechanics and social history of British music.

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How might the digital humanities help us rethink the work of performers and the European music history canon? Over the past few years, the digital humanities have been evolving into a complex field of study with diverse aims and methods. Defining what the digital humanities has been, is now, or may become is the subject of a wide-ranging and ongoing prognosticatory conversation. At this point, the results of the conversation are preliminary at best. Recent attempts to explain the field acknowledge that "digital humanities" itself is "increasingly becoming a buzzword,' " and that it is frequently much easier to show examples of digital humanities projects than to explain what is in essence a moving target. (1) Jeffrey Schnapp, Todd Presser, David M. Berry and others describe a "first wave" of digital humanities, which concentrated on the digitization of analog resources, including books, pamphlets, paintings, and the like. This movement was democratic, allowing for the wider distribution of primary-source knowledge (provided one had access to the Internet and the sometimes required subscriptions to scholarly sources). They describe the "second wave" as "creating the environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with [that] knowledge." (2) As differing humanistic fields have different methods of study and evaluation of texts, the tools available from the digital humanities--including making resources available, via scanning, automatic transcription or translation, or otherwise; large data aggregation and analysis; GIS (geographic information system) location mapping, graphic interface with text and data; and many others--differ greatly depending on the discipline. Consequently, some, like Laurent Pugin, advocate for the formation of specialized discipline-specific digital humanities subfields, including digital musicology. Pugin recently published a short article noting the firstwave nature of digital humanities work in music, stating that "Digital access in musicology is still overwhelmingly linked to images ... obtaining or accessing high quality data sets remains a serious hurdle, especially on a large scale, in a similar way to accessing sources a couple of decades ago. It is a major hurdle that needs to be removed if musicology research is to be taken to the next level." (3)

This article describes how a new research tool, the Musical Festivals Database (www.musicalfestivals.org; hereinafter, MFD), proposes one second-wave solution to the problem Pugin identifies within digital musicology. The MFD is a huge, high-quality data set. It is a fully searchable, relational database of performance venues, personnel, and repertoire at British musical festivals held between 1695 and 1940. Its use by scholars and students can divulge a great deal about the mechanics and the social history of the British musical festival as well as European musical history in general. …

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