The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century

PDF The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century © Oxford University Press 2020

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  1. Michael Allis
  2. Paul Watt
  3. Sarah Collins
The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Rarely studied in their own right, writings about music are often viewed as merely supplemental to understanding music itself. Yet in the nineteenth century, scholarly interest in music flourished in fields as disparate as philosophy and natural science, dramatically shifting the relationship between music and the academy.

An exciting and much-needed new volume, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century draws deserved attention to the people and institutions of this period who worked to produce these writings. Editors Paul Watt, Sarah Collins, and Michael Allis, along with an international slate of contributors, discuss music's fascinating and unexpected interactions with debates about evolution, the scientific method, psychology, exoticism, gender, and the divide between high and low culture.

Part I of the handbook establishes the historical context for the intellectual world of the period, including the significant genres and disciplines of its music literature, while Part II focuses on the century's institutions and networks - from journalists to monasteries - that circulated ideas about music throughout the world. Finally, Part III assesses how the music research of the period reverberates in the present, connecting studies in aestheticism, cosmopolitanism, and intertextuality to their nineteenth-century origins.

The Handbook challenges Western music history's traditionally sole focus on musical work by treating writings about music as valuable cultural artifacts in themselves. Engaging and comprehensive, The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century brings together a wealth of new interdisciplinary research into this critical area of study.

Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century
Paul Watt, Sarah Collins, and Michael Allis

What determines the way we talk, write, and think about music of the nineteenth century? In periods of intensified disciplinary self-reflection such as our own, these activities attract ethical and political imputations that lend the question a high degree of urgency. At other times, this question seems almost peripheral or incidental, and its history is at best a marginal concern. After all, many view music as primarily a sounding art, and therefore one that engages us first and foremost through the experience of listening or participation. When we analyze music, and begin to think about formal structure, style, and meaning, and when we consider these things with reference to contextual and historical factors and their broader social significance, we are typically taken to be reflecting on different facets of these ways of experiencing music. When, however, the activity of reflection itself becomes the object of study, we are conventionally held to be no longer dealing with music. The implication then is that the history of the “idea of music” is not a legitimate topic of musicological reflection when it is considered separately from specific musical works or musical experiences.

This prevailing view issues from a skepticism toward approaches that seem to abstract their object of investigation from social context and conditions of production. It is commonplace, for example, to look critically upon histories of music that cast it as if it were abstracted or autonomous in this way. It has often been argued that this type of history necessarily favors elite musics and Western (particularly European) cultures, promotes a linear view of music history in terms of progressive development, and fetishizes musical texts as embodying timeless truths. In one sense, the history of ideas about music is often viewed in a similar way. Creativity does not occur in a vacuum, we are told, and treating ideas as if they somehow float above social reality and interact only with other ideas along their own autonomous historical trajectory is perhaps an even worse scholarly crime than writing an autonomous history of musical style, because at least the latter deals with music “itself.”

A similar form of skepticism can be seen across the humanities over the last half a century at least, where it has been directed not only against formalist approaches but also against intellectual history. Intellectual history has often been criticized for focusing on the ways that ideas are presented (including discursive conventions, the use of language and rhetorical patterns), in preference to the practices and larger forces that shaped those forms of representation. This is not merely a question of text versus context, because discursive conventions are themselves a type of context, just as the idea of musical “style” is a contextual category. It is more a question of whether ideas are simply a reflection of other, putatively more “real,” things—like forms of social organization, the movement of money, the division of labor, or the everyday activities of people—or whether they are in fact indistinguishable from these things, or entirely separate from them. Intellectual history has sometimes been seen as assuming that ideas inhabit a separate realm from social life, and conversely social history often assumes that ideas are mere reflections of social life (McMahon and Moyn 2014).

Increasingly, however, intellectual history is adapting itself to its onetime rival social theory, and showing how ideas should be seen neither as merely a reflection of, nor a realm above, material conditions. For example, Samuel Moyn has described the “powerful tendency to idealism in intellectual history” and pointed to the work of Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort to help move beyond the representation/practice divide by viewing ideas and concepts as constitutive of the “social imaginary”—the means by which social and individual realities are constituted. Moyn’s revival of the “social imaginary” as a category for intellectual historians calls us to “take seriously Marxism’s concern with the role of representations in the social order without reducing the former to the latter, understood as something in which representations play no role except as legitimating afterthought” (Moyn 2014, 116). There have been analogous calls from within musicology (particularly from studies of improvisation) to think beyond the “music and society” dyad and construe musical performance as modeling social relations, rather than merely reflecting them. Yet it is rarer for ideas about music to be accorded a constitutive role in material affairs.

One of the aims of this Handbook is to bring into focus the history of writing and thinking about music and the texts and practices, networks and institutions, and discourses that have shaped and sustained it. Part of what makes this project timely is that there are a range of sources now available to scholars that were simply not widely accessible a generation ago. This is due of course to the steady onward march of digitization, which makes rare sources more widely obtainable and brings to light professional networks that might not otherwise be visible, even as it carries its own pitfalls—such as the inherent selectiveness of digitization and the latent assumptions of search engines. To wit, digitization is by no means a value-neutral innovation. Equally, special interest groups, private collectors, and amateur groups with access to rare recordings, ephem- era, and local knowledge have become more accessible to scholars through internet networking. These changes carry the potential to give us a much fuller picture of how ideas about music are embedded in wider discourses on narrating the nineteenth century. The types of documents, practices, and networks explored in the chapters that follow have been routinely marginalized or considered to be of only supplementary interest to the study of music “itself,” but here we place them center stage in an effort to promote future work that grapples with the question just outlined with respect to intellectual his- tory, reimagining the relationship between representations and practices.
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