Performing History: Bach Pianism in Britain, 1920–35

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Riley, Pierre 

The canonical repertoire of Western art music – and, by association, the pantheon of its progenitors – exists both as history and in the living, sounding present. It undergoes reinvention and renegotiation through performance and related activities, prompting reflection on how to account for its multi-faceted ontology. This study applies an array of methodologies to the task of describing and contextualising performance acts with the aim of gaining a more nuanced understanding of one repertoire in one historical time and place.

The early decades of the twentieth century were a time of sustained interest in Bach’s music in British musical culture. That interest was manifested with exceptional intensity in the performing, editing, and recording of his keyboard works by pianists. Such a range of phenomena, along with attendant discourses, reveals a historically and culturally situated portrait of the composer as he was understood in Britain between 1920 and 1935.

The research questions underlying this enquiry fall into two categories: those related to Bach, and those related to the interaction of performance and history. (1) How did the events of the decades preceding the 1920s shape the way in which Bach and his keyboard works were perceived in Britain? (2) How, by whom, when and where were Bach’s keyboard works performed live, recorded, edited, discussed, taught etc. in Britain during the 1920s and 1930s? Then, (3) How does this range of activity form a more broadly conceived historical narrative? (4) How does the historical context enrich our understanding of the performances themselves?

Although it attends to performances and, more generally, to the concerns of the performer, this study is not limited to describing historically situated practices. It seeks more nuanced perspectives on issues such as wider patterns of Bach reception in the twentieth century; how canonical repertoires come to be understood, appreciated, and performed across borders and through time; and finally, how history may be written on the basis of performance events.

Rink, John
Performance Studies, Bach, Performance History, Archival Recordings, Criticism
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada)