SMI Plenary Conference, Dublin, 2020

Online Conference: SMI 2020

The 18th Anuual Conference of the Society for Musicology in Ireland took place on Zoom from Thursday 29 October to Saturday 31 October, hosted by the School of Music, University College Dublin. 

The conference schedule can be found here. The full programme with abstracts and biographies can be found here.

Registration is now open: go to

Keynote Speaker: Professor Julian Johnson (Regius Professor of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London)

The blasphemy of talking Beethoven in 2020: Listening again to the Heiliger Dankgesang

The third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132, might have made a good anthem for the year of Covid, not just because of its subtext of illness and convalescence, but also its links to confronting mortality alone, in isolation, and in a world where so many former certainties have been lost. This lecture is about listening – specifically to the Heiliger Dankgesang – but it’s also about how musicologists talk, write and think about such music. More than that, it’s about whether we even can, or should, talk about such music today. Because, in 2020, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, talking about Beethoven has once again become deeply problematic.

While acknowledging the urgent political contexts for musicology’s current crises, this lecture argues that any worthwhile musicology is one that preserves the constitutive tension in its name – i.e., between the realm of aesthetic thought and experience on the one hand, and the realm of discourse on the other. To be true to that idea, I make room for the aesthetic presence of music, exploring the ways in which the Heiliger Dankgesang reflects on the tension between the sensuous and the linguistic, the sonorous and the discursive.

In this, Beethoven’s ‘song’ exemplifies a wider idea: that the muteness of music is not a lack that requires redeeming by discourse. On the contrary, by inverting the usual signifying order – privileging sound over syntax – music exerts its own specific critique. As Kant acknowledged in Beethoven’s lifetime, music resists the violence done to the sensuous particular by the discursive concept. My lecture thus concludes by returning to wider contextual issues to make an (unfashionable) case for the persistence of the aesthetic. A truly critical musicology, I argue, would resist the current silencing of music by an essentially sociological discourse. Far from being the domain of some ‘otherworldly’ withdrawal, it is precisely the aesthetic within music that enacts its radical potential.

Julian Johnson is Regius Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London, having earlier been a Reader at the University of Oxford and Lecturer at the University of Sussex. He was for many years an active composer, a background that continues to shape his musicological work. He has published widely on music history and aesthetics from the late 18th century to the present, and is the author of six books, including Webern and the Transformation of Nature (1999), Who needs classical music? (2002), Mahler’s Voices: Expression and Irony in the Songs and Symphonies (2009), Out of Time. Music and the Making of Modernity (2015), and After Debussy. Music, Language, and the Margins of Philosophy (OUP, 2020). In addition to being a regular speaker at international academic conferences, he is committed to fostering a wider public understanding of music. For the last 25 years he has been a frequent guest on BBC Radio and given numerous public talks for leading orchestras and opera companies. In 2005 he was awarded the Dent Medal of the Royal Musical Association and, in 2013, became the first holder of the Regius Chair of Music at Royal Holloway. In 2017 he was elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy.