New Intellectual Histories of Music

Thursday 9 November, 3:30 to 5:00 p.m.

Tomas McAuley (University of Cambridge)
and David Trippett (University of Cambridge), Co-Chairs

This seminar explores the notion that music history can be told in terms of changes in our ways of thinking. In contrast to late twentieth-century scepticism towards intellectual history in many quarters of the humanities, the editors of a recent landmark collection stated confidently: “it is difficult to remember a time when intellectual history figured so centrally in the larger historical enterprise.” Recent moves in musicology arguably bear out this turn, engaging in particular the difficulties—and opportunities—of writing intellectual histories of a frequently nonverbal art-form.

This seminar seeks to assess the current state and future direction of what it calls “new intellectual histories of music”; to reflect on the historiographies underpinning such histories; and to ask what music can offer the intellectual-historical enterprise more generally. Pre-circulated papers engage specific moments within the history of music framed in relation to intellectual history, as well as offering methodological reflections on the opportunities and challenges that such approaches might afford. The seminar is not restricted to any particular period or genre, but aims rather to bring into dialogue scholars from a diverse range of backgrounds in order to address an issue of methodological relevance to the field as a whole.

The four full papers are now available: please log in to the AMS web site for access.

Session abstracts

Constructing Antagonists: Eduard Hanslick, Heinrich Schenker, and the “New Musicology”
Alexander Wilfing (Austrian Academy of Sciences)

Even though the term “New Musicology” does not designate a homogenous movement, bound by a unifying methodical perspective, New Musicologists do in fact share common ground in their rejection of “Old Musicology,” characterized by archival research, musical editions, and “objective” musical analysis. Thus, the “New” was defined by the “Old” that had to be overcome. The main targets were easily identified: formalism, positivism, and the “ideology of autonomy,” manifested in the American tradition of Schenkerian analysis. New Musicologists constructed a historical narrative of musico-aesthetical formalism from Kant’s Critique of Judgment to Schenker’s writings with Hanslick’s On the Musically Beautiful as an essential intermediary. According to this view, Hanslick repudiated any semantic aspects of “pure” music, thereby becoming the “origin” of formal analysis, laying the theoretical foundations of Schenker’s method. In contrast to this historical narrative of musical formalism, I will argue for a more complex function of Hanslick’s treatise regarding the institutional establishment of New Musicology, largely driven by polemical attitudes towards a retrospectively constructed adversary.

Initially, I will explore Hanslick’s ambivalent relationship to musical analysis, which forms no vital part of his theoretical framework, awarding musical analysis a purely negative function in his novel concept of scientific aesthetics. Even though Joseph Kerman’s opposition to organicist concepts of music finds an ample target in On the Musically Beautiful, Hanslick’s position as the historical predecessor of Schenkerian analysis has to be questioned. This will be done by a close reading of Schenker’s “Der Geist der musikalischen Technik,” which has sparked a vigorous debate between different readings of Hanslick and Schenker. This debate is ideally suited to highlight Hanslick’s function in recent discourse on “formal analysis,” revealing how individual interpretations of Hanslick’s monograph are partly driven by ulterior motives regarding “musical formalism.” Finally, my analysis will show how Hanslick’s function as the prime example of an antiquated conception of “pure” music is largely based on reductionist interpretations of his text for the sake of constructing a refutable antagonist to “New Musicology.”

Hearing Modernism: Entanglements of Intellectual History and Reception History
Alexandra Kieffer (Rice University)

The premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in late April 1902 occasioned a maelstrom of critical responses in the Parisian press—over a hundred reviews over the course of a few months and eighty-eight in the month of May alone. Listening to Pelléas was, for many of its early reviewers, a disorienting experience that pushed up against the limits of intelligibility. The reviewer for the large daily Parisian newspaper Le Petit journal could make no sense of it at all: “I confess in all humility,” he wrote, that the opera “is a work of art in which I hear nothing.” As historical documents, these critical responses open a unique window into the tension between the experience of music and the making-intelligible of that experience through discourse.

These responses were also, I argue, a flash point in the intellectual history of music in early-twentieth-century French discourse, as the experience of Debussy’s music itself spurred new engagement with ideas about the category of music and its ontological difference from speech and non-musical noise. In this paper, through a series of three short case studies drawn from the early reception of Debussy’s music, I consider the tangled relationship between reception history and intellectual history. While intellectual history, most straightforwardly, is a history of ideas, music’s intellectual history must contend with the extent to which the experience of music is a continual participant (if often an implicit one) in the discourse of musical ideas, even as musical experience often cannot be made fully intelligible in discursive terms. In this regard, intellectual histories of music—as they trace the give-and-take between frames of intelligibility, by which music participates in the circulation of ideas, and the listening experiences to which those frames of intelligibility are (always incompletely) applied—can contribute to a broader conversation in the humanities that is interrogating in new ways the relationships among experience, affect, and language. Such an approach, additionally, offers an alternative to the tendency in recent accounts of aesthetic experience to reify a problematic dualism between live, ephemeral “presence” and the inert historical artifact.

The Rise of the Humanimal: From Schumann to Ravel, via Barthes
Michael Puri (University of Virginia)

The recent heightening of concern about the relation between humans and their environment has been expressed not only in the coinage of “Anthropocene” but also in the development of the posthumanities, an interdiscipline within which critical animal studies has played a central role. In an attempt to continue guiding musicology toward the posthumanities in general and animal studies in particular, I propose new ways to conceive of music as a medium for the interrelation of human and nonhuman bodies.

I begin with a fresh reading of Roland Barthes’s “Rasch,” an essay in which the author not only deplores the way professional pianists—“trained, streamlined by years of Conservatory or career”—cancel out the most idiomatic aspects of Schumann’s music, but also develops a vocabulary for these behaviors, postulates a virtual body to perform them, and invites us to inhabit this body. The behavioral spectrum involved turns out to be quite broad, stretching from the ostensibly human (speaking, singing, dancing) to the ostensibly nonhuman (snarling, swarming, slithering), while also emphasizing the involuntary motions common to both (flinching, ingurgitating, tumescing). Thus, according to Barthes a full experience of Schumann’s music allows us to commune not just with the composer’s body, but with all bodies across the animal kingdom—to accede to what some are beginning to call the “humanimal.”

The interspecies bridge built in “Rasch” is also advantageous for music historiography, insofar as it creates an unexpected rapprochement between German romanticism and French modernism. For example, the sudden outburst in the middle of Ravel’s “Oiseaux tristes”—presumably the moment the “sad birds” startle and take flight—is a strikingly literal instance of the instinctual flinching that, for Barthes, generates the Schumannian intermezzo. In addition to these new crosscultural genealogies, detailed consideration of other pieces from Ravel’s Miroirs and Histoires naturelles reveals that their careful tracking of animal behavior not only produces compositional innovations but also makes them as much sympathetic zoomorphisms of the human as the ironic anthropomorphisms of the animal that they are commonly assumed to be.

Musical Discourse and the Production of Ideology
Jeremy Coleman (University of Aberdeen)

This paper seeks to explore notions of the production of ideology as a sort of unregarded flipside to intellectual histories of music which nonetheless deserve a central place in them. To that end, it considers examples from late eighteenth-century music history, focusing on semiotic features of the so-called “Viennese Classical style” as a heuristic device for ideological production in historical context, a project that has hitherto eluded even recent methodological advances in musicology. If the paradoxical challenge of “thinking conceptually about the nonconceptual” betrays a quintessentially Romantic conceit of nineteenth-century musical culture, an understanding of intellectual history in late eighteenth-century music may rather start from the point of view of “signs” and of public discourse according to which Enlightenment thought was broadly structured.

This paper begins with a critical survey of intellectual histories of music of this period (e.g. Blažeković and Mackenzie, 2009), on the one hand, and music analyses that draw on “topic theory” (e.g. Monelle 2006, Sheinberg 2012, Mirka 2014), on the other. As I shall argue, not only was the musical discourse of Viennese Classicism constituted of signs with a variety of extramusical reference (predominantly to class and social life), the very system of signification—that of a semiotic “kaleidoscope” which rendered society in various “types” within a single coherent musical discourse of free exchange and equivalence—itself is a production of bourgeois ideology (Cf. Eagleton 1984). Moreover, I re-evaluate the distinction between “extroversive” and “introversive” semiosis (i.e. between the extramusical signs and immanent “grammar” or “syntax”) to suggest what it may offer to accounts of music history at this time seen from the perspective of ideological production.

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