Well played

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Well Played by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Review of Gillen D’Arcy Wood, Romanticism and Musical Culture in Britain: Virtue and Virtuosity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 17 December 2010, p. 32.

Franz Liszt attributed his poor British reception to a critical ‘aristocracy of mediocrity’ that despised his virtuosic display on a point of moral as well as aesthetic principle, and he was not wholly wrong. The British certainly considered virtuosity – the summum malum of that already problematic arena, musical activity – troublingly effeminate and cosmopolitan, liable to corrupt the upright: in short, and in a decidedly negative sense, virtuosity was often seen as ‘foreign’. We flatter ourselves, British or not, that we can see through such crude xenophobia these days, and recent scholarly reconfigurations of the status of the virtuoso in industrial bourgeois culture, to which Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s book makes an original contribution, have tended to grant the figure of the virtuoso a less marginalized place in cultural history.

Late Georgian Britain despised virtuosity for different reasons: some considered it a symptom of aristocratic sybaritism, others felt that its mechanical nature threatened the existential security of the upper and middle classes, which was rooted in literary education and self-consciousness. These contrasts are focused nowhere more sharply than in the works of Jane Austen, the subject of Wood’s fifth chapter (the most notable success of his interdisciplinary approach), where she and Beethoven are ‘fellow technicians of the Romantic-humanist subject’.

The reading hinges on a reconsideration of Georgian bourgeois women’s education. Mary Wollstonecraft and others had criticized the expectation of women’s ‘accomplishment’ (of which piano playing was a central emblem) as mere captivating display that hindered the development of more empowering intellectual and moral virtues, and this has customarily been read into Austen’s presentation of figures such as Jane Fairfax (in Emma), whose superior pianistic ‘execution’ (external virtuosity) is the enemy of ‘taste’ (interior virtue). Wood regards this ‘opposition between virtue and virtuosity less as an actual description of the world than a kind of discursive compulsion’. Taking his lead from musicological studies of the role of Broadwood’s pianos, and Beethoven’s adoption of them, as a force behind the denigration of virtuosity in histories of music, Wood argues that Jane – who Emma judges to have both ‘taste’ and ‘execution’ – transcends her status as mere automaton in the act of playing late Beethoven on a Broadwood piano. Wood still considers virtuoso display to be an enemy of women’s spiritual emancipation, but not in the sense in which it has sometimes been taken. Music of the sublimely ‘interior’ stamp of Beethoven’s late style enables women like Jane and Emma to obtain an autonomous ‘inner life’ as a reward for submitting externally to the practice of ‘accomplishment’, as long as that accomplishment can be kept short of the cheapening excess of virtuosity. (The question of the relative value of internal as opposed to external freedom – the restricted freedom of a prisoner, one might say – remains unresolved.)

A historiographical insight – perhaps gained from musicology – is that an aversion to virtuosity, or ‘virtuosophobia’, has both strongly influenced and been concealed by accepted histories of literature. Specifically, Wood argues that Hazlitt’s opposition between ‘virtuoso’ Byron and ‘plain’ Wordsworth has acquired the status of an identifiable generational split in literary Romanticism, when the basis for that ‘split’ is dubious. Wordsworth excoriated the ‘inane phraseology’ of other poetry, and rejected accusations of stylized effeminacy by claiming to be ‘a man speaking to men’. From Hazlitt on, critics have broadly accepted this reading proposed by the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, yet the poems that follow do not enforce this authoritative masculine voice. Their variety of point of view and sensual richness are obscured by a too-literal acceptance of Wordsworth’s proscriptions; his poetry, Wood argues, is as richly and perhaps femininely stylized as Italian opera. Byron and Wordsworth are closer than we might think, and the former’s creative pyrotechnics, whose complex effects on Liszt’s contribution to high Romantic poetic-musical relations are considered in the final chapter, are recast as part of an aesthetic continuum traversed by ‘plain’ and ‘stylized’ alike.

The virtuoso has been elevated within musical history, and this book extends the favour to literature. Yet nothing in recent scholarship has fully exonerated virtuosity from the charges historically laid against it, and there are still reasons to think that the phenomenon focuses issues of moral concern. Perhaps it no longer does us aesthetic harm, but virtuosity compels us to address other uncomfortable realities. The acquisition of exceptional performing skills demands a considerable investment of money and time that is practically impossible for those on average or lower salaries, with the result that musical virtuosity in particular remains an index of the privileged status of the leisured middle class. Music university admissions processes that require of candidates a high level of performing skill – as opposed to an ordinarily well-developed humanitarian mind, as in musicology’s sister disciplines – are consequently on quite shaky moral ground. Virtuosity’s value is complicated by its place in the socio-economics of education that Wood’s analyses, which demonstrate its meaning for women in particular, help to diagnose. Our veneration of, or distaste for, virtuoso performers continues to give clear evidence of our ideological investments.

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