In his landmark study Inventing Eastern Europe (1994) the historian Larry Wolff documented the first attempts to partition the continent imaginatively into western and eastern domains. This partitioning, he argues, was undertaken by writers from the hubs of the European Enlightenment, who traveled into Imperial Russia and wrote about their experiences abroad. In their accounts of travel these writers “intellectually combin[ed]” easterly geographies and peoples “into a coherent whole” and compared that whole with westerly spaces, thereby “establishing the developmental division of the continent.” While Wolff's analysis retains a central place in discourse on the Enlightenment, I suggest that its picture of Europe's mapping is limited by its ocularcentric readings of period texts, and that a different picture emerges if we consider what travelers heard alongside what they saw. Focusing on accounts of listening provided by such travelers as Johann Gottfried Herder, the Hebraist Johann Joachim Bellermann, and the grammarian Gotthard Friedrich Stender, I discuss the way in which the aural registers of their experiences alternately enrich and confound ocularcentric accounts of Europe's imaginary partition. Where travelers saw foreign peoples and scenes, they sometimes heard familiar musics; where they saw an undifferentiated mass of individuals, they often heard a diversity of voices. Drawing on work in sound and media studies, anthropology, and ethnomusicology, I suggest that travelers’ habits of listening deeply inflected their ethnographic imaginings, and vice versa—a situation that reveals the inventing of Eastern Europe to have been a more complex and conflicted project than is generally acknowledged today.
One can regard the little peasant songs of the Latvians as the earliest inklings of Latvian poetry. Uniquely, the majority of them consist of two strophes without rhyme, and almost all of them are sung to a single melody. … Their fullest kind of vocal music consists in a group of maidens singing together. Some of them join each other in voicing a simple “O!” on a single pitch underneath, as if to create a kind of droning bass, with which the whole landscape sometimes resounds. Never will we Germans take such pleasure in the loveliest music as the Latvians take in their songs, especially while feasting and drinking.1
Writing in Hamburg on May 4, 1761, the pastor Gotthard Friedrich Stender put the finishing touches to a book that had been his obsession for much of the previous two decades, which he had spent in missionary service in the Polish Duchy of Courland. His project, from which this quotation is taken, was a grammar and lexicon of the language spoken by many of Courland's peasants, which he penned in the hope of enabling future travelers to spread the knowledge of Christ more effectively among them. With his missionary background, Stender was typical of many writers of the German Aufklärung, whose pastoral assignments brought them into foreign spaces in which they conceived their life's work. His grammarian project was rooted in his conviction that practical learning, philosophical discourse, and social activism were inherently intertwined, a conviction famously given voice in the 1760s and 1770s by Johann Gottfried Herder and the young Immanuel Kant. Like those figures, Stender strove to bring the power of reason to bear upon knowledge acquired through lived experience, and in that way to create new work by which to further the “understanding and improving [of] human society.”2
The path Stender took to completing his project was likewise typical of the Aufklärung: he traveled, and he wrote. In fact, as one recent study suggests, the Enlightenment itself was largely produced through encounters with peoples and places at considerable distance from westerly hubs of European commerce and education, for it was within foreign spaces that one met and could even hope to transcend the limits of existing knowledge and understanding.3 Across the continent travel took many forms, and the literature produced by voyagers catered to diverse markets. In England, the “Grand Tour,” documented in writing, was widely held to complete the education of a proper gentleman. In Russia, travel abroad was restricted to aristocrats, who penned accounts of the ease with which they moved through France in order to attest to their cosmopolitan bona fides. Meanwhile, Lutheran missionaries from German cities fanned out across the hemisphere and beyond, producing memoirs of their evangelizing and lexicons of local languages. Back at home, wherever that might be, books produced by travelers were read in bookshops, coffeehouses, and academic societies, which constituted what Charles W. J. Withers calls “sites of practice” for emergent Enlightenment discourse. In such locales people gathered to discuss and compare newly published reports of travel, reading them for “geographical data” from which they “fashioned theories … about the human condition.”4
The journeys about which travelers wrote often began with a voyage across the Atlantic. But in the case of German writers, especially, the spaces explored also lay closer to home—in “la partie orientale de l'Europe,” as a Parisian journal described western Russia in 1797, reporting on the travels of a German pastor.5 Part of the attractiveness of Russia for the Aufklärung derived from geographical proximity: the University of Königsberg, for example, home of Kant, lay just a short distance overland from the Russian border. But proximity took other forms as well. Riga and its environs had been governed locally by German-speaking nobility since the Middle Ages, and from Courland northward almost to St. Petersburg Lutheranism was aggressively peddled to peasant communities. As one German missionary wrote of northwestern Russia in 1794, “the region does not produce as many theologians as it needs, so it is not at all difficult for outsiders to secure a post in [the Russian provinces of] Livland or Estland.” All one needed, he explained, was theological training and a willingness to learn a local language.6 Indeed, as John H. Zammito writes, the road from Königsberg to Riga formed a virtual axis along which individuals and ideas seemed to travel freely.7 Herder, the theologian Johann Georg Hamann, and Kant's publisher Johann Friedrich Hartknoch were just some of the figures who lived, worked, and studied on both sides of the Russian border.
What is perhaps more surprising about Stender's work than the fact of his traveling in itself—and a key feature to be explored in this article—is the method he used to acquire his knowledge of the language about which he wrote. Namely, he listened, chiefly to peasants singing. Long held to signal the primacy of the eye over the ear in an imagined hierarchy of the senses, the Enlightenment's ostensible ocularcentrism has lately been challenged by a number of historians. As Mark M. Smith has pointed out, “nestled in the very guts of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, with all its appeals to the beauty, power, and authority of the eye, was a quieter but nonetheless very real preoccupation with non-visual senses.”8 Some have argued that listening in particular played a key role in shaping eighteenth-century thought about such a range of topics as culture, politics, perception, and reason.9 As I will suggest, the writings of German travelers to Russia powerfully attest to the centrality of listening for the discourse of the Aufklärung. When Stender traveled to Courland in the 1730s, when Herder was posted to the Domkirche in Riga, they went in search of knowledge that would enable them to contribute to the betterment of their contemporary worlds. Both found that knowledge, I will argue, through lived, embodied, sensual experience: by looking, and also by listening.
As these and other writers ventured into Europe's northeast, recording their understanding of what they heard and otherwise sensed, they unwittingly contributed to a broader project described by the historian Larry Wolff as the “inventing” of Eastern Europe.10 Like their fellow travelers to Africa or the Americas, travelers to Russia ventured with their eyes and ears attuned to the sights and sounds of difference. From their impressions they constructed portraits of peoples and spaces often radically different from those of familiar locales. In doing so, they effectively delineated “enlightened” Europe from its shadow—“the more or less of civilization,” as one among them wrote11—and contributed to the coalescence of the very notion of a European “West.” That notion, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot observes, “implied from its inception two complementary spaces, the Here and the Elsewhere, which premised one another and were conceived as inseparable.”12 Often, as Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman write, from such “determinations of difference” there has arisen the “impulse of colonial desire,” and although Germany became a colonial power only in 1884, the German “imperialist imagination” was awakened in the Aufklärung itself. It was also within Enlightenment discourse that cultural difference first came to be conceived in racial or biologically determined terms, and that music, like language, came to be heard as embodying or exhibiting racial difference.13 Summing up this confluence of literary, aesthetic, and political commitments, Wolff observes that in eighteenth-century accounts of travel “Eastern Europe defined Western Europe by contrast, as the Orient defined the Occident.”14
Underlying many such comparisons was contemporary discourse about what is often called “stadial” or “conjectural” history, which held that differences perceived presently among the world's peoples could be mapped onto a single, imaginary line believed to plot the historical evolution of humankind as a whole. Accounts of travel were written and read as contributing to a “chart of the world that was at once chronological and geographical,” as Withers writes, the historical evolution of worldwide humanity being theorized in terms of “geographical evidence”—directly perceived—“of actual human difference.”15 To the theologian Hamann, Herder's mentor from Königsberg, the sounds of the singing of Russia's eighteenth-century serfs constituted what he took to be echoes of Homer's ancient monotonic recitation.16 For Stender, as we have seen, the songs of Courland's peasants were the “earliest inklings” of the poetry they would someday learn to write. Later, he described those same peasants’ songs as “comparable to the bardic songs of the most ancient Germans.”17 What all of these writers heard as they traveled they plotted onto the arc of history, with present-day differences keyed to different stages of a universal line of cultural evolution. Their stadial histories were precursors to what the anthropologist Johannes Fabian calls the “denial of coevalness” in later anthropology: “a persistent and systematic tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse.”18 Invariably, that other time was historical, antecedent to the traveler's own. In this sense, the division of Europe into West and East was at once geographical and “developmental,” as Wolff points out.19 To voyage from Hamburg to Riga was to travel backward in time, the sounds heard in that easterly locale both echoing and providing direct, sensible access to those of earlier ages.
One of the goals of this article will be to claim a central place for listening in this project of inventing Eastern Europe—not to argue for a privileged role for listening within it, but to explore the places and functions of listening alongside other modes of sensing and experiencing, especially the more widely studied registers of looking and seeing.20 In doing so I aim to enhance our understanding of “listening as a way of knowing” in the German Enlightenment (to adapt the words of Steven Feld), and particularly of the roles that listening played in shaping the way German travelers experienced encounter as they ventured east.21 To this end I will point especially to cases in which the aural registers of experience confounded expectations. Where travelers saw foreign peoples and scenes, they sometimes heard familiar musics. Where they saw an undifferentiated mass of individuals, they often heard a diversity of voices.
With respect to Herder, specifically, I will argue something more. It has recently been held that anthropology as a field of inquiry originated in the German Enlightenment. Some have suggested that Herder's ethnographic work constituted a signal contribution to the “birth” of the field itself.22 Surveying this history, David Howes points to a strongly visual bias in much of twentieth-century anthropology, culture itself often being treated as a “text” to be “read” by the anthropologist. In contrast, he and others have sought to model an alternative “anthropology of the senses,” which embraces the breadth of embodied sensory experience—including listening alongside looking—as a means of approaching and conveying anthropological understanding.23 In fact, Howes contends, to attend to nonvisual forms of sensing is to bring one's work in line with modes of inquiry that characterized the discipline before the advent of the “reading culture” metaphor and its visual, literary orientation—namely, in the nineteenth century, when Franz Boas and Eric von Hornbostel first experimented with sound recording in the ethnographic field.24 Here I suggest that attending to listening goes back farther than that, to the emergence of self-consciously anthropological modes of discourse in the German Enlightenment. When Herder envisioned dissolving speculative philosophy into anthropology in the 1760s and 1770s, the anthropology he imagined was a sensuous one. It was foremost an anthropology of listening, an anthropology of the ear, and it was conceived within the broader, deeply sensual project of inventing Eastern Europe.
Sounding Landscapes, Silent Histories
What characterizes the Russian nation above all is the uncultured song one hears everywhere among them. It is not just the coachman racing along in his wagon who sings and cries out with joy, or the spirited waterman piloting his boat. Their bellowing voices also resound in the midst of labor, and nothing will exhaust their lungs. Soldiers, in the most extreme heat of summer, belt out their loud songs as soon as they return to barracks from their exercises, and they accompany themselves with a clanging triangle or on cymbals in the janissary style. Most frequently of all, one hears folksongs in the evenings from the inns, where men and women gather together in great numbers to seek release in beer and spirits from the toils of the day.25
Since the beginning of extensive travel to northwestern Russia with the end of the Great Northern War in 1721, visitors from German-speaking Europe fixated on the sounds of difference. Like the pastor Karl Philip Michael Snell, many of them wrote, often disparagingly, of the sounds produced by Russia's peasants, whose musical and other cultural practices, they believed, awaited the ostensibly civilizing process of missionary conversion. (Evangelizing sometimes took place via musical means—and, as we will see, could have musical consequences.)26 The individuals whom travelers encountered spoke and sang in a bewildering array of languages, and geographers probed the relations among them as they sought to bring order to their mental mappings of the empire's inhabitants. Russia's Estonian speakers belonged among the Finnish peoples, it was held, and its Latvians might have descended from Old Prussians; those peoples residing farther to the east, near the Volga, were Slavs.27 Wherever Snell and others ventured, however, they remarked on the seemingly constant music making of Russia's peasants. Like contemporary travelers to Africa who described the inseparability of dance from music among local populations, they saw the perpetual singing of diverse Russian peasants as a common denominator among them, an index of the cultural—and possibly racial—difference of the empire's peasant population as a whole.28 As the pastor August Wilhelm Hupel wrote of Russia's Estonian-speaking peasants in 1781, “Song and dance are their most common pleasures in every season of the year.”29 Or, as Stender remarked of the region's Latvians, “No feast, no wedding, no midsummer celebration, no harvest festival, no talkus (that is, when a group of people from the surrounding area are called together for a day's work and fed), no working with linen or spinning on the farm or any such thing can take place without singing their little songs.”30 For all of these writers, Russia's peasants were singing peoples, and the landscape itself resounded with the musics they made.31
But are there in fact other ways of reading these travelers’ accounts? Might their remarks on music making indicate rather that sound, and especially musical sound, was something particularly valued—and therefore widely noticed and remembered—by the travelers themselves? After all, Stender was not the only missionary to suggest that listening to music might be useful to the project of learning local languages: such arguments had been widely traded in the pastoral community since mid-century.32 Or was music making an activity in which resident peoples sometimes engaged, in easterly as in westerly locales, precisely because there was an encounter taking place? Especially an encounter with a curious outsider, one only too eager to hear the locals sing? Consider this account of singing and listening by the pastor Garlieb Merkel, which he inscribed in the form of a drama or play:
A noble boy, together with his teacher, once dropped in on a Latvian wedding. He wore a pelt of polecat skins with the tails left on, as is customary. He had barely entered when a mischievous maiden intoned:Our gracious young nobleman is wearingA pelt made of rats’ tails.Chorus: Rats’ tails.One day he'll become a cat himself,And pick us off, the little mice.Chorus: Pick us off.33
Merkel's account makes uncommonly plain a complex of circumstances that surely informed a great deal of the German travel literature of the period. What was heard on the journey, amid an encounter with another, was constituted in the condition of encounter itself. What a singer voiced was shaped in exchange between her and her listeners. (Even if a listener says, “Just ignore me, and sing as if I'm not here,” she is impressing her presence upon the performance sounded in that moment.)34
As we will see, however, travelers did not always acknowledge their encounters in their accounts of listening. Sometimes traces of encounter were erased. At other times ostensible accounts of encounter turn out to have been borrowed from the travel writings of others, and thus were not, or not directly, accounts of encounter at all. These circumstances alert us to the inherently literary nature of travel writing in the period. Like all accounts of experience in the field, travelers’ accounts were works of fiction, in the broad sense described by the philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. They were configured in processes of remembering, retelling, and imagining—in this case, in the process of transforming auditory experience into writing.35 This condition has a number of implications for our readings of Enlightenment travel literature today.
First, even if we have no reason to doubt that an encounter took place, we must remember that all such encounters were episodic, and all written accounts selective. A traveler could only have memorialized in writing a tiny fraction of the encounters he had had over the course of his journeys. The encounters inscribed could only have constituted a handful of individual moments of encounter, selected from within and among experiences or conditions of encounter that might have lasted hours, days, even years.36 Second, there is the fact that all such accounts were produced by elite, literate authors, writing from an etic (or outsider's) perspective. Moreover, it seems that every German writer on travel in Russia during this period was male. For these reasons these travelers’ recollections of sounds and sights cannot necessarily be taken as representative of the experiences or practices of those who inhabited the spaces traversed.37 Then there is process of inscription itself, by which I mean, to adapt the words of Lisa Gitelman, the making of “legible representation[s] of aural experience,” in this case through the means of writing, most often via prose description.38 Such acts of inscribing consist of attempts to convert sound into something other than sound—namely, into marks on a page, from which sound cannot be recovered directly.
In recent years a number of scholars—ethnomusicologists especially—have sought to move our attention beyond the marks on printed pages and toward the richness and immediacy of live performance, precisely as a way of comprehending those modes of experience and understanding that a written inscription cannot render.39 But the situation is complicated with respect to the accounts of eighteenth-century travelers, for to memorialize their experiences of listening they had only the means of writing, usually in the form of prose descriptions, and their inscriptions are all that we have today to tell us about the sounds of the landscapes they traveled. In some ways their inscriptions are akin to the various modes of transduction widely probed in the field of sound studies. Like all transductions, the traveler's inscription converted the experience of sound into something soundless. In the process it “radically transformed” the range of potential significations and meanings borne by the sounds transduced.40 One historian has recently argued that “any form of writing that purports to represent speech … is in some sense phonographic … in the sense that [written words] inscribe something that has been or could be spoken.”41 Yet that historian writes of tragedy and epic, not of accounts of listening. Except in the handful of cases where a traveler recorded what he heard in musical notation (we will consider some such below), the sounds inscribed by eighteenth-century travelers cannot be played back. Unlike transductions via some mechanical or electronic means, the written inscription into prose is a one-way conversion. The silence of the inscription is absolute.42
Taken together, these aspects of travel literature and its production—its origins amid experiences of encounter, its recording of aural experience in written form—might help us to assess the limits of the understandings we can hope to attain from our readings. Most importantly, as a handful of scholars have cautioned, we must be careful not to read any listener's account as a literal record of sounds produced in the historical field.43 But although the sounds of eighteenth-century spaces may be irrecoverable today, their written inscription assures that something else has been gained. To adapt a point from Michel de Certeau, the inscriptions left by early travelers open possibilities for historical understanding. Unlike voice, a written inscription outlasts a performance by years or even centuries. It preserves a trace of a singer's singing long after her voice has fallen silent. In this way the traveler's account “denies loss by appropriating to the present the privilege of recapitulating the past as a form of knowledge.”44 When we read or perform from an inscription made by a traveler, the document that we hold in our hands is the work of a creative, literate, etic listener. While denying our longing to know what he heard, it can help us to understand how he heard it, how he tried to fathom his aural experience at memorable moments of his journeys. And it can help us to appreciate just how and why he sought to preserve a memory of that experience in a medium that would outlast his encounter and his journey, even his life.
While I was driving slowly along the sandy shore, a mighty rushing sound arose in the air. A storm was gathering in the upper regions, but down below it was only audible; the lake remained still. That stillness, in contrast to the mighty rushing high above me, made things even more terrifying than if waves were being kicked up. Over distant pine woods on the right, dark clouds hung, split by lightning. Above the lake on the left, darkness rolled down from the heavens like a pall covering the shore a mile away. … The terrible armies began advancing toward each other slowly. On the left, thunder resounded in the thick woods and rolled over the obscured coast on the right. … Ever more closely the black-armed combatants engaged each other, and ever more swiftly the lightning was overtaken by the thunder. Not a raindrop fell; on the ground, everything was still. The storm raged only above us.45
When the Weimar-born author and diplomat August von Kotzebue described this storm above Lake Peipus at the beginning of his journey from St. Petersburg to Naples, he added his voice to a chorus of others who recalled their passage across the Russian border as heralded by inclement weather.46 In describing its sounds, however, Kotzebue appears to have been unique. In sharp contrast to travelers to the Americas who commented with wonder and terror on the sounds of the tropical forest, German writers on Imperial Russia rarely remarked on the nonhuman sounds they heard, or even on the nonmusical sounds.47 (They sometimes described even the sounds of language in musical terms: “Latvian language was already half poetry,” one literary voyager wrote; “it sounded … like table bells.”)48 This paucity of commentary on nonhuman sound might reflect the missionary nature of much German travel, with its attendant interest in language, song, and the relationship between them. It might also owe something to the fact that the topography and fauna of western Russia were not markedly different from those of Prussian spaces just across the border. As Andrea Wulf writes of Alexander von Humboldt's voyage to Russia of 1829, completed a quarter-century after his celebrated return to Europe from the Americas, “though pleasant enough … the scenery looked a little too similar to the countryside around the Humboldt family estate at Tegel. … The roads were made of clay and gravel like those he knew from England, while the vegetation and animals were more or less ‘ordinary,’ he thought. … It was all slightly disappointing.”49
In contrast to Humboldt, Kotzebue was a dramatist by vocation, the author of hundreds of popular plays, and his narration of an epic battle between thunder and lightning exemplifies what Karin Bijsterveld calls the “dramatization of sound” evident in historical documents and artworks alike. Such dramatizations, Bijsterveld writes, typically serve one purpose, that of “rhetorically strengthening” the author's “position” as an author—as witness, creator, or narrator.50 The move, in other words, is a literary one, and it was an essential part of the literary project of inventing Eastern Europe. Significantly, Bijsterveld's words turn our attention to the authors themselves. I have suggested that travelers’ accounts of listening should not be read as literal records of sounds in the field. But how did writers on Eastern Europe adduce auditory experience in their work, and to what ends did they do so? How did dramatizing their accounts of listening help them to assert and vie for authority?
As Withers notes, claims to authority in travel literature typically took the form of an author attesting to “having seen”—or, I would elaborate, having heard, smelled, tasted, or felt—“the phenomena in question.”51 It was a question of a writer convincing his readers that he was there. Kotzebue asserts such presence by placing himself explicitly in the scene he describes (“While I was driving slowly along the sandy shore …”), and thus he invokes an authenticating trope that many others employed. “While traveling [in Estland] at harvest time,” the diplomat Friedrich Christian Weber wrote in 1721, “I encountered harvesters in the field … and everywhere I heard an uncultured singing, which these people performed during their work.”52 Often a writer's presence is not explicitly announced but implied in the vivid or unexpected details of the account, as in Merkel's play-like narration of a wedding, quoted above. Always, however, the issue of presence was central to establishing a writer's authority, and the recounting of auditory experience was often crucial to his attempts to convince his readers that he himself had witnessed what he described. Not all who claimed authority to write on Eastern Europe were travelers, however. Genres blurred (Stender's grammar included personal narration; Merkel recounted his experience of a wedding within an ostensibly historical study) and every traveler and would-be traveler likely read the travel writings of others.53 Some who traveled did not witness all the things about which they wrote, and the authority of any witness could be contested or usurped by others. In short, the project of inventing Eastern Europe was crowded with figures vying to shape it, each of whom wrote and read in ways that reflected his experience and aspirations.
In order to get a sense of some of the ways in which listening was invoked in the service of broader literary or political projects we might consider the case of the pastor August Wilhelm Hupel, whom we have already met in passing. Hupel, who worked for years in Estland, was an associate of Herder who supplied the latter with transcriptions of Estonian folksongs. Like both Herder and Kant, Hupel published prolifically with Hartknoch's firm in Riga, and he shared those figures’ vision of the Aufklärung as a politically engaged and deeply critical project, one that regarded the institutions of slavery and serfdom as crimes and sins against humanity itself.54 In his many writings on Russia's serfs Hupel emphasized their capacity for cultural expression, and especially their inclination toward singing and other forms of music making. In doing so he sought to minimize rhetorically the cultural distance between Russian peasants and his German readers, readers who identified with and often resided within Europe's ostensibly enlightened, westerly spaces. In the second volume of his Topographische Nachrichten of 1777 Hupel wrote the following of Estland's tavern life:
In every inn where this lovely instrument [the violin] welcomes guests, there is a considerable amount of traffic on festival days especially. The wretched zithers and the violins that the Latvians like playing at their festivals were introduced to them by the Germans. In their dances, old and young pair off together, often men with men and women with women. One pair follows the other quite closely, around and around in a circle and with little variation. They happily welcome German onlookers to join the dance. The Estonians always observe 3/4 or 3/8 time, take small and somewhat shuffling steps, and stomp the ground a little more forcefully on the third beat. The Latvians’ dance is somewhat different and redolent of an unartful polonaise, and they have a kind of contredanse as well.55
In this passage the dancing described by Hupel was not simply dancing by local peasants. Rather, it was dancing by Latvians or Estonians in the presence of Germans. The scene he depicts is one in which German visitors listened and moved to the playing of local musicians, and in which those musicians likely responded in their performance to the movements of the dancers who listened, dancers who were in part German. The scenario he describes attests to an idea of communication advanced by the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind: “not … the transmission of thought from the speaker to the listener through the medium of words”—or the simple, one-way transmission of sound from the musician to the listener—but rather “a collective performance, founded upon an affective dynamic for which both the speaker and the listener are responsible.”56 The back and forth of cultural encounter was, moreover, clearly historical in this case, for the instruments on which the inn's musicians played had reportedly been introduced by earlier waves of German travelers. In Hupel's account nearly everything that was voiced, played, and heard in the tavern was constituted in exchange between Russia's serfs and German visitors. We do not know if Hupel joined the dance himself, but his analysis of meter and the Estonians’ stomping suggests that he at least imagined embodying their music with his own movements.
Even an account of encounter as vivid as Hupel's did not escape repurposing by another, however, and we find just that in a translation of this passage published some two decades later. In the second edition of his two-volume View of the Russian Empire (1800) the English historian William Tooke borrowed directly from Hupel's Nachrichten, though without mentioning the traveler's name:
Every kroug [sic], where guests are invited by the sound of this charming instrument, is sure to be much frequented, especially on holidays. The miserable horizontal harp, and the fiddle, which the Lettes are extremely fond of at all their festivals, were first introduced among them by the Germans. In their dances the couples consist of old and young, frequently man with man, and woman with woman; one couple following quite close at the heels of the other, so as to allow of but few variations. The Esthonians [sic] keep always a 3/4 or a 3/8 time, make short sliding steps, and at the third stamp rather harder on the ground. The lettonian dance is somewhat different, and more like an artless Polonoise; they have also a species of country-dances.57
Note what is missing from Tooke's borrowing: Hupel's German dancers have disappeared. Tooke deleted the sentence that I have italicized in the quotation from Hupel. In Tooke's text the sounds and movements of the dance are no longer configured in encounter. His deletion transformed Hupel's prose from travel literature (one person's reports—Nachrichten—about things heard and seen) into a history (a “view,” as he called it) of the Russian Empire itself. He replaced the authority of the traveler (one who was there) with that of the historian (one who has read). And in the process he restored the cultural distance between Russian peasant and enlightened reader that Hupel had sought to dissolve. In Tooke's book Hupel's inscription no longer attests to what peasants performed one day in the presence of Germans. Rather, it is transformed into an account of what Russia's peasants simply do.
If Tooke's work exemplifies the recasting of another's account of listening in relation to a different set of ideological commitments, a more complex set of questions is raised in the case of the Hebraist Johann Joachim Bellermann. After returning to Erfurt from a period of residence near St. Petersburg, Bellermann published his Bemerkungen über Rußland in 1788, a volume comprising letters penned while he was living and working abroad. In a letter of October 1781 Bellermann recounted at length his impressions of Russian music, including this one on song:
Russian national song is simple, artless, and without much variation. Folksongs feature few if any excursions into distant keys. Almost all of them either begin in minor and end in major (a third above the tonic) or begin in major and end in minor (on the sixth). … Most songs are so monotonous that someone who did not know anything about music would take them all to be one and the same, since variations of rhythm, key, and meter are hardly noticeable. This unvarying nature of song extends throughout the better part of Russia. For example, the folksong “Bella litza krugla litza” is sung in the same way by Russians in Riga, Reval, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Siberia, and elsewhere. Everywhere it is concluded with a bright, jubilant cry, with a screeching “Ha!” in the upper octave.58
To his account Bellermann appended an inscription of the melody of “Bella litza,” printed using alphabetic notation for lack of the time required (so he explained) to set it on the staff (see Figure 1). He described his notation in prose as follows: standard font indicates a quarter note, italics indicate eighths, and a point set under a letter indicates a half note. A line above a letter indicates a pitch at or above middle C.59
Bellermann's impressions of music in Russia were widely read in his time. In September 1788 the Musikalische Real-Zeitung of Vienna reprinted the entirety of his letter concerning music, serialized across three issues.60 It is therefore curious to find this very same melody published elsewhere a decade before Bellermann compiled his book, and three years before he reportedly penned the letter in which he described the tune. That earlier source, likewise a collection of letters by a German visitor to the Russian Empire, is the Briefe über Rußland (1778) of a Saxon lieutenant, one J. H. C. Meyer. Meyer described the melody in question as “a folksong common to all Russians from Riga to Kamchatka,” and he published it as shown in Figure 2.61
To be sure, there are differences between the songs published by Bellermann and Meyer. Meyer does not supply a title or incipit text for his song, and his score departs in places from what Bellermann's alphabetic notation would indicate. But the departures are minor. Much of the time the melodies unfold identically, and they are even notated in the same key, with the same accidental in the sixth measure. Moreover, both authors describe its resounding from the Baltic to Siberia. Nowhere in his book does Bellermann mention Meyer or his Briefe, so the coincidences between their accounts must prompt some fundamental questions. Is it possible that Bellermann and Meyer unknowingly relied on the performance or testimony of a single, shared consultant in the field? Or did Bellermann look to Meyer's text as a source for his own account? And if that was the case, did Bellermann really hear this song himself, sounding (as he recounted) all around him as he traveled the Russian countryside? We cannot answer these questions, of course. What we know for sure is that the questionable veracity of Bellermann's account—as it seems today—did not detract from the impact it made upon the inventing of Eastern Europe in his time. Published and read across German-speaking Europe, from Erfurt to Vienna, it was Bellermann's account, rather than Meyer's, that made the more profound impression on the discourse they both sought to shape.
Foreign and Familiar
The Russian has a musical ear. Testimony can be found in their folksongs, which all seem to be of a kind, but which accommodate endless variation in their melody. These Russian peasant songs, as I will call them, are often sung canonically and varied, and adapted to fit the texts they are set to. When several [individuals] sing together, one or two will usually accompany the singers with a kind of shawm, an instrument with a cutting, penetrating tone, which can be heard resounding for miles across the water. … With respect to their melodies, some of their other folksongs bear an astonishing similarity to old English and Scottish songs, of the sort one finds in The Beggar's Opera. With the first of these nations as with the other, there is the same impulse to sing, though it is more pronounced in Russia.62
Like many German travelers to Russia, the lieutenant Meyer ventured with his ears attuned to the sounds of his surroundings. But as his account of listening confirms, the sounds a traveler experienced in Russia sometimes confounded his expectations of difference. (Such moments of recognition were not only aural; recall Humboldt's disappointment on finding that Russia's roads resembled those of England.) Wolff suggests that the project of inventing Eastern Europe consisted foremost in “picking out the resemblances” in easterly spaces so as to fashion those spaces into coherent wholes, while simultaneously “failing to note the differences that marred the pattern.”63 But Meyer's account reminds us that listening could work against this kind of inventing. To him, a group of Russian peasants produced sounds both foreign and familiar, as an apparently undifferentiated group of individuals (“der Russe,” as he wrote) sang in both expected and unexpected ways, confirming his assumptions about cultural difference while also suggesting a surprising commonality. Indeed, the traveler's impulse to differentiate often conflicted with his grasping at the familiar—a search for the familiar that, as others have noted, served many ends for travelers of the period. “To assimilate the unfamiliar into the realm of the familiar” could “help absorb the shock of the different in distant lands,” Brian Dolan notes.64 Alternately, as Sarah Keyes observes, travelers sometimes “imposed a new regime of hearing on the [foreign] landscape,” thereby “render[ing] unfamiliar territory recognizable, knowable, and therefore capable of being possessed.”65
Perhaps the most remarkable testament to hearing the familiar in the foreign is found in the writings of Gotthard Friedrich Stender, whose description of the singing of Courland's peasants we considered at the beginning of this article. In the passage quoted there Stender contrasted the sounds of Latvian song—with its unrhymed strophes, droning bass, and repetitive melodies—with what he called “the loveliest music” of his fellow Germans. He then went on to explain that the variety of song to which he was referring was one the peasants called a “dseesma,” and elsewhere in the volume he defined the dseesma in German as “Lied, Gesang, Psalm.”66 But in that same volume of 1761 Stender also described another kind of Latvian song, which the locals, he reported, called a “siņģe,” a “peasant song” that “continues with its opening material, over and over as imagination dictates.”67 In the lexicon appended to his grammar he defined the siņģe simply as a “song” (“Singlied oder Gesang”).68 Two decades later Stender described the siņģe somewhat differently in a revised edition of his lexicon, defining it in German as “Gesang, Ode, Arie”—words that seem to suggest narrative and tuneful qualities, as opposed to the laconic texts and monotonous sounds he heard in the dseesma.69 In yet another study he published several siņģe texts to illustrate his description of the form. One of those texts he prefaced with the following statement: “This second siņģe, against drunkenness, I composed myself, imitating to the fullest the unrefined taste of the peasantry.”70 Where the sounds of the dseesma had struck Stender as bracingly foreign, the siņģe sounded not foreign but familiar—so much so that he felt competent to try his hand at composing one himself. Soon he would produce a whole volume of his own, newly composed siņģe texts, adapting the moralizing message of his preaching (“against drunkenness”) to the structures and sounds—the rhymes and “unrefined taste”—of peasant song. Published in 1783 under the title Siņģu lustes (Joys of the ziņģe), Stender's volume stands as an enduring testimony to the colonizing of a form of musical expression in the name of the ostensibly civilizing project of missionary conversion, of Enlightenment.
For Stender, Meyer, and many others, to listen in Europe's easterly spaces was to experience impressions of bewildering difference alongside moments of uncanny familiarity. And yet, if we trace the reception of Stender's work over the course of later decades, and especially its entry into emergent Romantic discourse of the nineteenth century, we can see how his accounts of familiar wonders gave way to images of overwhelming difference. In the 1800s, following Stender's lead, an expanding circle of Lutheran pastors collected Latvian vernacular songs as aids to acquiring local languages. A monumental product of such efforts was the volume Latweeschu ļauschu dseesmas un siņģes (Dziesmas and ziņģes of the Latvian people, 1844), published by the pastor Georg Friedrich Büttner. Büttner's collection included the texts of 2,854 songs, which he hoped would provide his fellow clergy with a “source of authentically Latvian texts” for use in their grammarian studies.71
Büttner's title followed Stender's division of Latvian songs into the categories of dseesma and siņģe. But he included only about two dozen siņģe texts in his volume—that is, only about 1 percent of its contents. Of the relative lack of siņģe texts he simply stated that dseesmas “seem to the collector to be of exceptionally great worth.”72 He did not elaborate, but a review of his collection in Imperial Russia's German press praised Büttner's work precisely for its near exclusion of the form. “That the siņģe is of much more recent origin [than the dseesma] is apparent in the relatedness of the very name to the German verb ‘singen,’” the anonymous reviewer noted.73 He or she then invented a history of the siņģe that accounted for its ostensible impurity and modernity: “The songs of the Germans, Lithuanians, and Russians, all richer melodically [than the dseesma], met with approval, were gladly taken up, and were soon preferred to [the Latvians’ own] monotonous national songs. It is perhaps this circumstance alone that accounts for the origin of … the siņģe.”74 Smitten by the sounds of German song, the review continued, Latvian singers had spun their dseesma texts into extended series of strophes, in order to fit them to tunes they had newly composed in imitation of German melodies. “But what we ended up with,” the critic charged, “was something far less than the ancient dseesma.”75
To German writers of the eighteenth century, seeking difference as they traveled the globe, the familiar sounds of the siņģe came as a surprise, even as an enchantment in a foreign space. But as a discourse of authenticity emerged in Romantic conversations of the nineteenth century the sounds of the siņģe were reimagined, its tuneful familiarity to German ears now signaling Germanic origins and the form itself heard as testament to histories of corrupting contact and exchange.76 Where inscriptions of encounter had once been essential to accounts of listening in the easterly spaces, by the mid-1800s encounter itself came to be considered grounds for inauthenticity, its sounding traces in the siņģe sufficing to warrant the form's exclusion from discussion, study, even singing. Indeed, the erasure of the siņģe as an expressive form was an enduring legacy of the German Enlightenment. Amid the first stirrings of national conversations in Russia's Baltic provinces there appeared in 1860 the first collection of Latvian folksongs to be compiled by writers who identified themselves as Latvian rather than German. These writers thanked Büttner for his model and included just one siņģe in their collection, to which they appended a note, printed in Latvian, in which they recapitulated the invented history of the form as a foreign import or corruption. “This siņģe comes from the ancestors of the Moravian Brethren, who were German,” the collection's compilers wrote. “It was translated into Latvian and does not originate among Latvians themselves.”77 In 1872 the first volume of Latvian vernacular songs to include both melodies and texts was published. That collection contained no siņģes whatsoever.78 By this time, the second decade of the so-called Latvian national awakening, the erasure of this historic form of Latvian expressive culture was complete.79
An Anthropology of the Ear
Know that I myself had occasion to experience the living remnants of these ancient and uncultured songs, rhythms, and dances among living peoples—peoples from whom our customs have not yet managed to take away language, songs, and manners, only to give them something garbled or nothing at all in return. Know that when I heard such an ancient song unfolding in its uncultured way, I almost always thought of the words of the Frenchman Marcel: “Que de choses dans un minuet!” But really, what would such peoples have to gain by exchanging their songs for a garbled minuet, or for the little rhymes that a minuet calls to mind?80
In the midst of reflection on James Macpherson's ostensibly ancient Ossian poems, alongside the first of his many statements on the intrinsic value of peasant songs, Herder claimed, as many had done, that he had heard such songs himself, resounding in the Russian field. Like those of other travelers, his account of listening attests to the persistence of stadial theory in discourse on the empire's peasants, whose songs he heard as “remnants” of varieties of musical expression that had long since vanished from Europe's westerly spaces. But Herder's lines also point to new currents in conversation about vernacular song. They reveal his awareness of a dark side to the cultural exchange that had brought violins and German melodies to Latvian serfs. They evince what Bohlman calls “anxiety about loss”—Herder's sense that “our customs” had not yet engulfed Russian peasant communities but threatened to do so at any moment.81 Moreover, in comparing peasant song favorably to the sounds of a “garbled” minuet, Herder turned the derogatory comments of many contemporary travelers on their heads, baldly proclaiming that the songs of Russia's peasants constituted no less meaningful a mode of cultural expression than the musics of German or French composers. The sounds produced by Russia's serfs sounded different from those of a German orchestra, to be sure. But that difference, he held, did not correlate to value, and it certainly did not authorize the colonization of peasant communities.
Herder left the locale of his listening undeclared. It is widely believed to have been the shores of the Jägelsee, today's Lake Jugla to the east of Riga, where he escaped from that city in the summers of 1765 and 1766, just as he was discovering Macpherson's work.82 But despite his stating, in his Ossian essay, that he had once listened to peasants singing, he made no claim to having heard for himself the hundreds of vernacular songs he would later publish, nearly all of which he either reprinted from elsewhere or received from friends who had inscribed them in the course of their own travels. Even the extensive commentary on the experience of listening that he included in the second volume of his Volkslieder (1779) was cobbled together from statements previously published by others.83 In fact, as Zammito notes, Herder made his signal contribution not as a writer but as a “reader and systematizer” of travel literature. In other words, he was a theorist. “While travelers rarely had the leisure or the learning to generalize theory out of their particular exploits,” Zammito writes, “it was the readers and systematizers of the enormous travel literature who both created standards for ethnographic reports … and also elaborated a general theory, an ethnology, out of these reports.”84
In the first decade or so of his career much of Herder's theoretical project consisted in bringing travel literature into dialogue with contemporary discourse on Popularphilosophie, a movement that sought to make philosophical inquiry accessible and useful to the project of educating and enlightening humanity as a whole. What he envisioned along these lines was radical: the dissolving of academic philosophy into a new discipline altogether, into a “science of humankind,” which he called “Anthropologie.” “How can philosophy be reconciled with humanity and politics so that it will be useful to them?,” he asked in one of the first essays he penned after arriving in Riga in 1764. His answer? “All of philosophy, if it is going to be of the people, must take the people as its focus. And if one shifts the perspective of worldly wisdom in the same way as the Copernican system evolved from the Ptolemaic, what new and fruitful developments will await us, once our entire philosophy has become anthropology!”85 As Zammito observes, the discipline Herder imagined was one in which philosophers “come down from the heavens and take up human causes.”86 In the words of the historian John K. Noyes, it was one in which philosophy “stop[s] talking down to its readers (the public), as if it knows something that the public cannot experience themselves.”87 For Herder, it seemed that human experience was most effectively studied not by starting with abstract theories but rather from the ground up, beginning with listening to the utterances of peoples previously dismissed or excluded from academic exchange. “Oh philosopher,” he urged dramatically in 1765, “go into the fields and learn the wisdom of the farmers!”88
Crucial to Herder's vision of anthropology was the study of vernacular song, which he regarded as providing “cultural documentation of how, since the beginnings of time, humanity had interacted rationally and deliberately with the natural environment.” In accord with the empirical, rationalist tendencies of Enlightenment discourse as a whole, such documentation, he believed, would enable the anthropologist to “explore cultural practice as a matter for empirical research.”89 These explorations gave rise to Herder's famous statements on, even celebrations of, the diversity of expressive cultures encountered across physical geographies, and a respect for cultural peculiarity that harmonizes uneasily, if at all, with the universalizing tenets of stadial history that informed much of his work.90 Like Hupel, Herder summoned his experiences of listening in order to minimize rhetorically the cultural distance between Russian peasants and German readers, to emphasize their common humanity as attested in their shared propensity to sing.91 As many writers on Herder have noted, his words to this end had potentially explosive political implications in Imperial Russia.92 As he left the empire in 1769 on a ship that would carry him from Riga to Nantes, he acknowledged this fact in a line that would remain unpublished until after his death. “Today,” he wrote, “everything must be connected to politics.”93
It is sometimes suggested that Herder's contribution to the early history of anthropological discourse has been overemphasized.94 It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that he was one of many engaged in such inquiry, and that all German travel of the Aufklärung contributed to the coalescence of colonial imaginings. What I wish to explore in the remainder of this article is a particular role Herder assigned to listening in his work of the 1760s and 1770s, and a related aspect of his anthropological program that seems to have passed unnoticed. Namely, I will suggest that the “science of humankind” he glimpsed in Riga was grounded theoretically in the experience of hearing people sing. It was, in short, an anthropology of listening, an anthropology of the ear.
As early as his Ossian essay of 1773, in one of his first statements on vernacular song, Herder drew a contrast between “living” (“lebendig”) songs as voiced and heard, and the “lifeless” (“tote”) nature of songs inscribed in writing or read from the pages of a book:
Know that the more uncultured a people is (that is, the livelier and more spontaneous, for this word means nothing other than that!), the more uncultured must their songs also be—that is, the livelier, the freer, the more sensual, the more lyrically inspired, if they have songs! The further removed a people is from artificial, learned ways of thinking, speaking, and writing, the more resistant must their songs be to being written down and transformed into dead letter-verse.95
In his anonymously published Alte Volkslieder of 1774 he continued along these lines, extolling the value of travel literature for sparking new imaginings of the world's inhabitants, while also emphasizing the limits of the understandings that such writings can afford. “That we know of more peoples on the Earth than our ancestors did is an advantage of our time,” he wrote. “The map of humankind has been enlarged tremendously. What was geography for the Greeks and the Romans, and what is it today?” And yet, Herder proceeded to ask, how have we come to know the world's peoples? “Merely from the outside, through caricatured copper etchings and reports that resemble those copper etchings? Or from within?”96
In order to approach something like an insider's perspective, he argued, it does not suffice merely to observe members of a community, or to read about them in the prose of others. One must hear them sing. “We attain a true image of their manner of thinking and feeling, of their soul and of their speech, not through the foreign claptrap produced by every European fool who comes riding through, but through evidence of their own true character, which we find in their songs!” He continued,
All peoples living in natural conditions are singing peoples. And however their song is, so they are. For song is the repository of all their learning and religion, the stirrings of their soul, the peculiarities of earlier times, the joys and sorrows of their life. Nature has provided them with a consolation, which human artifice can hardly supplant: love of freedom, love of indolence, and rapture. All of these things are expressed in song. Nature created human beings as free, joyful, and singing. Art and craft make them reserved, distrustful, silent.97
In these essays from his Riga years through the early 1770s Herder's statements on listening and writing, on travel and song and anthropology, were fragmentary, unconnected to and unbounded by any overarching theory of listening and learning. But as he worked to compile his monumental volumes of Volkslieder while residing in Weimar in the later 1770s he would elaborate these scattered ideas and texts into something approaching a coherent program.
Shortly after his Alte Volkslieder appeared in 1774 Herder revised its prefatory remarks, shifting his earlier emphasis from “Erdkunde” (geography) to “Völkerkunde,” the study of peoples or ethnology. “The map of humankind, in terms of ethnology, has expanded tremendously,” he wrote again in 1777. “How many more peoples we know in comparison to the Greeks and the Romans!” From here he extended his earlier statements into a full-blown critique of ocularcentric accounts of travel, of accounts that “draw” and “depict” what a visitor has seen in the course of his journeys. “The pragmatic writer on history and travel describes, draws, and depicts,” he argued. “He always depicts things as he has seen them—one-sidedly, in accord with his understanding and learning. And thus, he lies, even if he has no intention of lying.”98 As an alternative, Herder proposed that travelers attempt to understand the utterances and life-worlds of those they encounter by listening, especially to their songs. “The only means of countering this,” he wrote, referring to the “lies” born of attempts to understand by observing, “are both easy and obvious.” He went on,
All peoples living in natural conditions sing and create; what they create they sing about, and they sing about what they create. Their songs are the archive of the people, the treasury of their learning and religion, their theogony and cosmogony of the deeds of their fathers and the events of their history, the cast of their heart, the picture of their domestic life in joys and sorrows, from the wedding bed to the grave. … As natural history describes plants and animals, so do peoples describe themselves here.99
In his Volkslieder of 1778–79 Herder left no doubt about the importance of sounding and voicing to this project of self-describing, or about the centrality of listening to the anthropological endeavor he imagined. “The essence of song is singing, not painting,” he stressed. “Its completeness resides in the melodic course of passion and of feeling, which one could describe as a manner of singing [Weise], according to the old expression. If a song lacks this—if it has no tone, no poetic modulation, no sustaining sense of unfolding, if it consists instead of pictures and juxtapositions of charming colors, however many it might have—then it is no longer a song at all.”100 Looking back on his experience of listening as he departed Russia in 1769, Herder was profoundly impressed, a recent assessment suggests, by “the power of presence, of the affecting resonance of the places sung of in the songs he so admired.”101 A decade later, in his Volkslieder, he made a plea for attending to resonance more broadly still, to the sounds of the songs intoned by individuals encountered wherever they might sing.
In these passages from the 1770s Herder came close to a position advocated in relation to anthropology and musicology by the ethnomusicologist Steven Feld, who emphasizes the potential of attending to “the soundingness of hearing and voicing” to help one comprehend something of the “embodied sense of presence and of memory” in the utterance itself. Feld continues, along lines to which Herder's words also seem to point, “Voice is evidence, embodied as experiential authority, performed to the exterior or interior as a subjectivity made public, mirrored in hearing as public made subjective.”102 When Herder wrote of folksongs as expressing “the stirrings” of the singer's “soul” he too spoke of a subjectivity made public, a subjectivity whose audible resonance the listener receives and transforms within herself. And yet, however striking such affinities to present concerns might be, there is a measure of irony at the heart of Herder's project, for there is a gulf that separates his statements on sounding and listening from the methods he used to compile his Volkslieder. While living in Russia in the 1760s he attested to having listened in the field, and he likened the inscribing of song via writing to the death of sounding expression itself. But when he turned to assembling his monumental volumes of folksongs in the following decade he traded the field of anthropological encounter for his library. He no longer listened, but read.
As Noyes remarks on Herder's work as a whole, “scholarship has long since known that in Herder's aesthetics and his politics, all paths lead to contradiction.”103 To the widely pondered contradiction between his celebration of diversity and his clinging to universalizing stadial theories of history, we might add the contradiction between his theorizing an anthropology of the ear and his contemporaneous withdrawal from the sounding space of anthropological encounter. Yet it remains a fact that his earliest theoretical contributions were inspired by listening in Russia, and in that regard his early work stands as an enduring testament to the centrality of listening to the project of inventing Eastern Europe in the discourse of the German Enlightenment. Like many, Herder was struck by echoes of the familiar alongside the foreign, and by the diversity of sounds and expressive forms produced by the inhabitants of easterly spaces. And like that of many, his work would have been unthinkable without the experience of travel, of encounters with individuals whose musics inspired imaginings of other worlds, while simultaneously calling to mind the sounds and sentiments of home.