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Salons 1 & 2 • Sunday morning, 10:30–12:00

Foundational Concepts in the Nineteenth Century

Brian Hyer (University of Wisconsin-Madison), Chair

Matthew Boyle (Indiana University)

Harmonic Materialities: Syntactic and Statistical

Miriam Piilonen (Northwestern University) 

Charles Darwin vs. Herbert Spencer: Reinterpreting a Historic Debate About the Evolutionary Origins of Music

Abstracts

Harmonic Materialities: Syntactic and Statistical

Matthew Boyle (Indiana University)

Discussions of primo ottocento opera have long understated its harmonic qualities. I contend that this persistent attitude is the residue of a historic shift in the meanings of harmony. In the decades surrounding 1800, and, largely fuelled by the theories of Rameau, harmony began to describe primarily the rules governing chordal objects. It subsequently shed its prior usage as a descriptor of texture. Before discarding its textural meanings, harmony did not stand solely as a prime exemplar of what Leonard Meyer called syntactic parameters in music. Harmony instead encompassed both syntactic and statistical parameters equally, uniting the spiritual and the material. The writings of Sulzer, Burney, Rousseau, Stendhal, Fétis, and the Italian pedagogical tradition preserve these antiquated meanings of harmony. Harmony, in short, once was used to describe musical syntaxes and musical textures, usually in one of five ways: as chordal, as instrumental, as contrapuntal, as timbral, and as a measure of euphony. The conservative tradition of ottocento opera demands re-expanding the semantic scope of harmony to its pre-Ramellian borders. Instead of emphasizing metaphysical chromaticism, Italian operas placed aesthetic attention of the material qualities of harmony. I examine the harmonic materiality of two sets of conventions: a timbrally luxurious messa di voce gesture and the haptic sensualism of pizzicato accompaniments. Such an attitude suggests paths of dialogue between music theory and recent trends in operatic criticism which prize the material, bodily, and drastic components of musical experiences over the compositional, technical, and the hermeneutic.

Charles Darwin vs. Herbert Spencer: Reinterpreting a Historic Debate About the Evolutionary Origins of Music

Miriam Piilonen (Northwestern University)

In this paper, I compare Charles Darwin’s evolutionary music theory and Herbert Spencer’s lesser-known (and often mischaracterized) ideas in order to explore the implications of combining music theory and evolutionary theory. In 1857, two years before the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer published “The Origin and Function of Music” in Fraser’s Magazine. Darwin’s own perspective on the evolutionary origins of music did not appear until The Descent of Man (1871), where he placed the origins of music in the spontaneous formation of rhythms and cadences in animal courtship rituals, corresponding to the pre-linguistic phase of human evolution. By contrast, Spencer proposed a theory of origins where music represents a specifically human stage of evolutionary advance, beyond linguistic acquisition. Where Darwin understands music as an unconscious proto-language that emerges alongside the instinctual urge for domination and sexual reproduction, Spencer describes the biological activity of music as an advanced province of the human species, which alone possesses the emotional “force” and “variation” necessary for musical expression. For Spencer, what is primal is not sexuality but rather the unique receptivity of a musical body to emotions, both pleasurable and painful. In sharpening the distinctions of this evolutionist debate, I show that both Darwin and Spencer invoke music to delineate a human-animal boundary, such that the formal features of music become entwined with the limits and potentials of the human species.