Francis Poulenc and the Anti-Sublime

Tuesday 19th February 2013 (16:30-18:30)

Refreshments will be served. Open to everyone - admission free.  

Speaker: Stephen Downes (University of Surrey)

‘Francis Poulenc and the Anti-Sublime’

Abstract: It may seem neither revelatory nor provocative to claim that Poulenc’s music can be understood in aesthetic terms as exhibiting the ‘anti-sublime’, as subverting or inverting in particular the aspiration to, or revelation of transcendent unities that are central to the sublime as espoused by Idealist philosophers and romantic artists.  However, much refinement in our understanding of the ambiguity and complexity of Poulenc’s music, in both technical and expressive manner, can be gained through close scrutiny of variant types of the anti-sublime aesthetic.

In particular, this paper will explore notions of humour, the gothic, sentimental and the grotesque as aesthetic concepts in which the traditional sublime/beautiful aesthetic binary is undermined, debased or reconfigured.  This will be demonstrated through close reading of examples from the music of the 1930s, in particular the Organ Concerto, the Sextuor and La Bal masqué.  The methodology and terms of reference generate fine-grained hermeneutic and analytical insights in which the tired critical cliché of Poulenc as ‘half monk, half guttersnipe’ is refined and revitalised.

Stephen Downes is Professor of Music at the University of Surrey, UK.  He is the author of Szymanowski, Eroticism and the Voices of Mythology (2003), The Muse as Eros (2006), Music and Decadence in European Modernism: The Case of Central and Eastern Europe (2010), Hans Werner Henze “Tristan” (2011) and After Mahler: Britten, Weill, Henze and the Problem of Romantic Redemption (2013).

He has been awarded the Wilk Prize for Research in Polish Music by the University of Southern California and the Karol Szymanowski Memorial Medal by the Szymanowski Society.  He is currently working on a collection of essays on music aesthetics for Routledge and a Szymanowski Companion for Ashgate.

Department of Music

The University of Nottingham
Lakeside Arts Centre
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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