Anne Leonard (University of Chicago), ‘The Universal Language as Romantic Echo: Representing Musical Creation’

The notion of music as a universal language, an art form immediately intelligible to all, is difficult to reconcile with the understanding of musical composition as an esoteric, mysterious occupation, reserved to a select few.  Traditional portraits of composers at work—with attributes of music score, instrument, and writing implement close at hand—tend to conceal more than they ostensibly reveal about the actual work of composition.  Moreover, some of the most celebrated composer portraits make no reference at all to the activity of writing music, as if complicit in drawing a veil of mystery over the creative process.This paper will argue that a complex Romantic legacy concerning the sources of musical inspiration left in its wake an ambiguous iconographic record, resulting in mixed messages about music’s intelligibility.  Among early-twentieth-century examples, Max Klinger’s iconic (albeit highly idiosyncratic) Beethoven Monument presents the composer as apotheosis, not as musical craftsman.  More pertinent to the concerns of working composers might have been Arnold Schoenberg’s more modest Self-portrait Seen from Behind (1911), which, despite all that the turned back seems to hide, draws upon a rich corpus of Beethoven imagery to suggest that the composer’s true work may be less writing than thinking—often while walking outdoors—and listening.  My paper will address the notion, found in E. T. A. Hoffmann and other Romantic writers, that the composer’s job is not to invent a new language but rather to recover a lost one, imperceptible to ordinary mortals.  While this conception seems to challenge music’s status as a universally accessible language, it also opens up the possibility of musical communication through a kind of mystical connection between like-minded souls.  Yet the composer, even in being uniquely equipped to summon up that connection through music, is still no closer to giving away any secrets.

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