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Music as Autobiography

FWF Lise-Meitner-Programm M 1896
Projektlaufzeit: 2016–2017

Leiter: Prof. Dr. Mark Evan Bonds, MA
(in Verbindung mit Univ.-Prof. Dr. Birgit Lodes)

(Bildquelle: www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/20/deus-ex-musica)

Deutschsprachige Projektbeschreibung

Precisely because it lacks words or visible images, music has always been perceived as an ideal venue for the expression of emotions. But whose emotions? Western responses to this question have changed radically and more than once since the eighteenth century. Enlightenment critics and composers thought of expression as the objective representation of an emotion or series of emotions, crafted in such a way as to evoke a calculated response in listeners. The belief that a composition might reflect its creator’s own personal emotions or innermost self was an assumption that did not take hold until the 1830s, driven by a convergence of philosophical, cultural, technological, and economic changes. New conceptions of the self, the rising prestige of the emotions, and the growth of a mass-market music culture combined to foster the perception of music as a form of emotional autobiography. By interpreting difficult new works as the outpourings of a unique individuality, listeners were able to gain access to an increasingly diverse and challenging array of musical idioms. Composers, in turn, encouraged the notion of music as autbiography by advocating an aesthetic of subjectivity in their strategies of self-promotion and in their own writings on music. But in the early decades of the twentieth century, this aesthetic collapsed almost as quickly as it had begun: many leading composers and critics returned to an outlook that openly acknowledged artistic expression—and art in general—as a construct. This renewed conception of expression as a detached, rational artifice became a key element of modernist aesthetics, from the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s through the high modernism of mid-century. The perception of a musical work as a manifestation of its composer’s innermost emotional life has nevertheless proven remarkably resilient: even when acknowledged as a useful fiction, the notion of life-as-works and works-as-life retains a powerful hold on the Western imagination.

Music as Autobiography is a 120,000-word monograph that traces the changing concept of music as an expression of the self. The burgeoning field of the history of emotions rarely considers music, and in spite of the current robust debate among philosophers about the nature of musical expression, scholars have given remarkably little attention to the history of the idea of expression. Music as Autobiography will be the first study of its kind in any language to consider these issues longitudinally, and the first to draw extensively on fields outside of music—including philosophy, literature, drama, and the visual arts—to present a comprehensive account of how attitudes toward the relationship between a composer’s life and works have changed over the past three centuries.


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Universität Wien
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