Diversity and the British String Quartet Symposium

Diversity and the British String Quartet is a wide-ranging collaboration between the Villiers Quartet and the University of Oxford, supported by TORCH as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme. In Oxford, it is led by the Faculty of Music’s Dr Joanna Bullivant and Professor Samantha Dieckmann. The project has used the British string quartet as a focus to explore larger debates around inclusivity, access, and identity in classical music in Britain, debates that are particular urgent and resonant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, and controversies over representation and British musical identity at the Last Night of the Proms following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

While the British string quartet may level accusations of elitism and exclusivity, throughout its history it has attracted an extraordinary diversity of composers and performers, and continues to do so. Consequently, the Diversity and the British String Quartet has sought to explore these issues through a combination of research, new music commissioning, and educational work. In education, we have worked with young people aged 14-18 around the country to compose their own string quartets, working with professional performers, academics, and composers. In research, we have simultaneously evaluated the impact of the project on young people in terms of changing their perceptions of classical music and their own relationship thereto. In commissioning, the Villiers Quartet have commissioned five contemporary British composers to write From Home quartets, exploring the experience of writing music in Britain in the current historical moment.

This live-streamed symposium is the culmination and public presentation of these activities through a series of talks, workshops, and performances. In terms of performances, the symposium’s daily concerts will feature an array of rarely heard British quartets, plus the world premiere performances of works by the From Home composers: Florence Anna Maunders, Philip Herbert, Robert Fokkens, Alex Ho, and Jasmin Kent Rodgman. The student quartets created during the project will also be performed. In addition, expert speakers from the music industry and academia will address a range of issues in the history of the British string quartet and contemporary issues. They include Laura Tunbridge, Des Oliver, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, Roz De Vile, Nate Holder, Leah Broad, Amanda Harris, Florian Scheding and Paul Watt.

As advocates for British music, the Villiers Quartet bring to light the stories of British composers largely ignored within the chamber music canon. With the leadership of Dr. Bullivant and Prof. Dieckmann, the Villiers Quartet present these composers and explore difficult truths around why these impassioned voices have been overlooked, and they collaboratively reflect with researchers, students, educators, and audiences on Diversity and the British String Quartet.

This project has been generously supported by TORCH as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme, Arts Council England, the RVW Trust, The David Willets Fund for Teaching Innovation, and supporters of the Villiers Quartet’s From Home Commissions Fund.

You can find full details of the Programme on the TORCH website.