Elephants in the Music Room: The Future of Quirk Historicism

This post is part of a series published in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society, held this year in Louisville, Kentucky. We hope these glimpses into musicology scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts over the course of the meeting.

In a special issue of Representation on quirk historicism in musicology, authors Nicholas Mathew and Mary Ann Smart describe the recent tendency of music scholars, in the wake of New Historicism, to avail themselves of objets trouvés and historical micronarratives for interpretation, noting that:

Despite a suffix that suggests kinship with taxonomic enterprises such as zoology or the earliest phases of anthropology, musicology may rank as one of the most permissive of humanistic fields. In journals and at conferences, philological research and source studies rub shoulders with work on the philosophy of music, close readings, reception history, and microhistory. Yet, as in literary studies, one central question has troubled the field for at least a quarter-century: that of the status of the “texts” (musical works, as notated or performed) whose interpretation and explanation traditionally anchored much musicological writing. As both the canon of works that merited this type of attention and the analytical tools used to explicate them were destabilized, scholarly energies turned toward narrating historical accounts of musical environments. In the wake of this suspicion of close reading, many musicologists became collectors of curiosities, assembling and scrutinizing disparate objects, events, and documents in order to understand how past communities of listeners and practitioners used music, why they created and cared about the kinds of music they did. Read the full special issue introduction (free PDF download).

Nicholas Mathew is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Political Beethoven (Cambridge, 2013) and co-editor, with Benjamin Walton, of the collection The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini.

Mary Ann Smart is Editor of the journal Representations and teaches in the Music Department of the University of California, Berkeley. She is also the author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and editor of Siren Songs: Representations of Gender and Sexuality in Opera. Her new book, Waiting for Verdi, will be published by the University of California Press in 2017.

Published quarterly, Representations provides sophisticated, readable essays on the workings of culture, both past and present.