Happening upon the title Animation, Plasticity, and Music in Italy, 1770–1830, one might suppose that the book places music in a rather esoteric conceptual configuration that held cultural relevance only for the delimited place and time. Do not be so fooled. In this work of sensitive and imaginative scholarship, Ellen Lockhart demonstrates a previously unrecognized centrality of the animated statue—the stone human figure that comes to life—to the development of Western aesthetic thought and operatic practice. Deftly traversing a wide range of sources, Lockhart shows how the animated statue ties together a rich late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century world of musical theater, aesthetic theory, nationhood fantasies, sciences of the body, and notions of self. From such starting materials as the Pygmalion myth, the commedia dell'arte tradition, and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac's Traité des sensations (with its thought experiment of a statue gaining one sense at a time), the animated statue became a “means of understanding the relation of human senses to the self and to the very matters and materials of the fine arts” (p. 10). Lockhart uses this discovery to make a vital contribution to a growing musicological literature that takes seriously the historicity of the senses and multimedial conditions of music, and to make the language of animation and plasticity newly available as a resource or topic for musicological inquiry.
Though consisting of five chapters, the book falls rather neatly into two halves. The first half (the first two chapters) focuses on the eighteenth century, and the interrelated roles of the animated statue on the musical stage, in Condillac's empiricist philosophy, in conceptions of Italy, and in theories of language and the fine arts as sign systems with distinctive capacities to impact spectators. The second half turns to the early nineteenth century and continues to trace developing theories of artistic media and conceptions of Italy, but branches out from the musical stage and its animated statues to follow the animated body (now escaped from myth and thought experiment to refer to actual, biological people) into fiction, medical writings, and music criticism. Thus, though not obvious from the title, Lockhart justly observes (with deserved nods to such scholars as Elisabeth Le Guin, Bruce Holsinger, and James Davies) that “after all, ‘the body’—however much I have avoided this now-outdated formulation of nominative singular with definite article—is ultimately the subject of this book” (p. 10). Indeed, while it is addressed to a musicological audience—the introduction begins by leading the reader from familiar Beethovenian territory to the less familiar Italian terrain where the chapters will dwell—this book should also convince any cultural historian with an interest in the body of the value of musical sources and expertise. Lockhart's interpretive virtuosity with regard to musical texts, informed by a deep knowledge of stylistic and generic conventions, makes possible this view of the ways in which philosophical speculation, scientific investigation, and musical performance mutually informed one another as their participants explored what it meant to be an embodied person.
Opera historians may find a particular narrative thread of the first two chapters to be of special interest, in that it offers a prehistory to the one traced by Mary Ann Smart in Mimomania.1Mimomania examines an early nineteenth-century synchronization of music and gesture in opera that loosened over subsequent decades, transforming opera's bodies from well-defined physical presences into more nebulous auras. Lockhart shows how this synchronization resulted from an impulse to reform opera seria that had been channeled through animation-inflected theories and practices. Italian choreographer Gasparo Angiolini is a star of this narrative. In search of a perfect sign system and taking inspiration from Condillac, Angiolini developed a new style in his pantomime ballets, made up of “analogous pairs of sights and sounds arranged in series, at least somewhat to the detriment of musical regularity” (p. 36). Chapter 2 shows how such “musical mimophony” made its way into opera via the Italian reception of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's melodrama about a statue come to life, Pygmalion (p. 76). Along this pathway also traveled a song style based on the rhythms of speech, conceived as a revival of the voice of the ancient bard. These two facets of “‘melodramatized’ opera,” Lockhart argues, are audible in operas by Donizetti and Bellini, respectively (p. 13).
Braided together with the thread leading to opera are lively accounts of eighteenth-century theories regarding the sign systems of music, language, and gesture and their optimal deployment on the theatrical stage. The authors of these theories saw them as intimately bound up with questions of Italian identity. Angiolini's synchronized gesture and music, for instance, answered an Enlightenment fantasy of a linguistically and culturally unified Italy, its people imagined as statues finally awakened by appropriate aesthetic stimulation. The expressive power of song had to do with the melodic nature of Italian speech as well as Italians' uniquely sensitive sensorium. In analyzing these discussions, Lockhart not only relates semiotic theory and stage practice, but also lays the groundwork for understanding discourses on the arts as theories of media, a framing that will pay dividends particularly in chapter 4 and in the book's conclusion. She saves for the latter a reckoning of the historiographical significance of the media concept. Writing that the imagery of plasticity and animation “pervaded not only criticism of acting and musical performance but also theories of aesthetics and understandings of music, sculpture, and the other fine arts as media—that is, as diverse materials endowed with communicative powers and a degree of mysterious charisma that are in intimate relation with the bodies around them” (p. 154), Lockhart argues (following Barbara Johnson) that this medial thinking articulated a relation between person and thing that was new to the late eighteenth century, and that defines the modern category of prosthesis.2 It thereby becomes possible to read Animation, Plasticity, and Music as being ultimately about the interfacing of bodies and art objects—and to see, in turn, how this music historical work might interface with other histories of bodies, fine arts, and technical media.
In the Napoleonic era, Lockhart notes, the Pygmalion myth largely disappeared from music-theatrical stages, but “persisted as an imagery in theories of the arts, within novels, and in criticism, where it provided an apparatus for understanding musical performance and its effects and accounted for aesthetic engagement itself as entailing a mode of self-making through sense percepts” (p. 153). Thus, the second half of the book finds the lasting influence of the animated statue in often surprising places—surprising either because seemingly distant from musical theater and aesthetics (as when we venture into Luigi Galvani's electrical experiments), or because seemingly removed from Italy (as when we delve into G. W. F. Hegel's writings, or Dr. James Graham's Temple of Health in London). In fact, these chapters suggest a reversal of the words “Music” and “Italy” in the book's title, so as to read “Animation, Plasticity, and Italy in Music, 1770–1830.” For while Milan and Rome receive special attention as fertile sites for animated statues, it is arguably the idea of Italy, and its articulation through sound, music, and variably motile bodies, that proves more significant than locality.
Chapter 3 introduces the “plastic” as an inflected version of animation that emerged in the early nineteenth century, and that reflected a shift from the stage to actual people “who have something of the statue about them” (p. 88). Such people were characterized by a new duality of existence—both biological and marmoreal, belonging both to the ancient past and to the political present—as well as by a special kind of voice. Chapter 3 deals largely with fictitious instances of such people, including those in Germaine de Staël's Corinne, ou l'Italie (1807) and Hegel's Italy-indebted discourse on “plastic individuals,” and the ostensibly transcribed but (it turns out) artfully transfigured voice of an improvvisatrice. In chapter 5 we encounter historical performers of a “plastic” nature, the spotlight falling on Italian opera star Giuditta Pasta and the new language of “electrifying” performance that contemporaries used to describe her. From “the incautious and utterly sociable modes of experiment pursued by electrical science in the years around 1800” and “early notions of a pseudomedical sympathy between electricity and music” (p. 133), Lockhart gathers the evidence to clarify Pasta's electrical performance style, marked by a thunderous voice and by sudden gesture held in momentary paralysis. She additionally identifies several compositional elements shared by moments that critics deemed “electric” (“usually, though not always, buried within recitative … they consist of isolated tutti chords followed by the voice singing a cappella”), which could be considered to make up an “electrifying topos” (p. 148); we shall return to the status of this topos within Lockhart's argument shortly.
The boldest chapter, in terms of drawing implications from its sources that challenge our intellectual habits, is the fourth. Here, Lockhart argues that when the Pygmalion myth disappeared from the stage, its themes went into narratives of the blind, deaf, or mute. Such narratives, in an inversion of Condillac's animation of one sense organ at a time, were in fact about the “inanimacy” of single sense organs (p. 119); further, as Condillac's arguments were adapted by medical writers, the absence of a sense implied significant cognitive differences, which in turn had aesthetic implications. The absence of one sense suggested greater, compensatory acuteness in others. Thus, the blind would possess well-developed “mind's hands” (p. 122)—a tactile imagination, which apprehended objects temporally (as in tracing a finger over a line), as opposed to synoptically (as in seeing a line all at once). They were also thought to be specially inclined to instrumental music, a fact deployed to dramatic ends in works like Camillo Federici's play La cieca nata (1799). Discovering that in such sources “the blind, for whom no auditory recognition could ever be confirmed or completed by sight, found [textless] musical universes to be eminently navigable” (p. 127), Lockhart advances a model of tactile listening that makes use of the ability to perceive objects as diachronic unfoldings. She demonstrates how this tactile listening might work using a Beethoven string quartet—a surprising repertoire choice until one considers its suitability to, first, Lockhart's historical argument against circumscribing French and Italian thought as “the mundane or corporeal antithesis to German idealism” (p. 130), and, second, her implicitly ethical argument for cultivating an alternative listening stance. Thus, she encourages us to “keep the tactile imagination active as a possibility for listening—and, simultaneously, to suspend those comprehensive visual modes of knowing” (pp. 129–30).
Lockhart's prose sparkles with color and wit; in a typically lively turn of phrase, she suggests that Condillac, in developing his perceptual theory, was intellectually “fencing with two foils extended in opposite directions” (p. 113). We might adapt this evocative image to consider Lockhart's leading intellectual fencing partners. Two historiographical targets loom large: opera histories that make Gluck and Mozart the pinnacles of eighteenth-century practice; and histories of instrumental music that fashion the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century as the period of instrumental music's transformation into autonomous works and first strivings toward the absolute. Lockhart asks us to unlearn Italy's marginal position in eighteenth-century music history, to notice the Italian operas and other musical stage works that were culturally dominant at the time. She also shows us other motivations for, and manifestations of, the changing status of instrumental music—its gaining of superiority over words by joining with gesture, for instance, and its valorization as an animating force.
There are also fencing partners who go unannounced, yet with whom Lockhart's work productively tangles. One such partner might be Carolyn Abbate: where Abbate offered a provocative transhistorical take on music as animating force in In Search of Opera, Lockhart demonstrates the cultural specificity and historical contingency with which the concept of animation became central to fine arts discourse circa 1800, and with which the idea of music as a “giver of animacy” developed (p. 156).3 She also complicates histories of acousmatic listening, where unseen sound is largely associated with the supernatural or transcendent, through her argument that opting for blind listening circa 1800 could mean “listening in tactile fashion … search[ing] not for the imperceptible divine but rather the half-perceived mundane” (p. 129). Thirdly, though she is not alone in this, it remains significant (especially for the period in question) that Lockhart refuses to be satisfied with analytical strategies that treat music as though it were communicated between disembodied minds. Instead, she approaches music, on the basis of her sources, “as one material within an array of mutually imbricated media, conceived in complex relation to the eyes, ears, hands, and viscera” (p. 156). What this means in practice is exemplified by her discussion of Pasta: after persuasively identifying “an electrifying topos” in Bellini's Norma, she dismisses “such an exercise [as] surely miss[ing] the point” (p. 148). The point—for the historical actors in question as well as for Lockhart—cannot concern the text alone, but must involve the body: for Pasta's contemporaries, the language of electric shock and animacy served to identify a force located in features, “precisely not of the work but of the performance” (p. 150).
The presentation and withdrawal of a viable “electrifying topos” is exemplary of yet another singular feature of this book: the scholar for whom Lockhart reserves her sharpest critical lens is herself. She wrestles with studying music that is today neither remembered nor admired—operatic “moments whose musical beauties did not resist decay” (p. 45) or “through-composition that seems unstable or even bafflingly ugly in the absence of its visual counterparts” (p. 153). We have surely entered the darkest night of the musicological soul when she writes, “one must ask: why tell the history of forgotten music at all, or indeed that of any music?” (p. 10). Such bedrock self-questioning interacts with a constant awareness of writing for a future of shifting scholarly values. (Her above-quoted reference to “the body” as a “now-outdated formulation” hints at the forms this awareness takes.) The result is a book that not only fulfills a familiar paradigm-shifting demand of the discipline (using previously untapped sources to deepen our understanding of a particular cultural moment, as well as to revise larger music-historical narratives), but articulates a new kind of scholarly consciousness: it comes into the world not as a monument but already as a ruin—showing the contingency of its time and place, aware of the changing winds of fashion. The future that Lockhart seems most reluctant to imagine is one in which her book has equipped readers with new figures to think with, and with an expanded sense of aesthetic possibility. Yet this is precisely what the book achieves: by the end, one is left wondering not what animation and plasticity have to do with music, nor in what respect late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Italy matters to broader music historical developments, but how we ever thought we could understand this period or the longer history of aesthetics without attending to the statue that comes to life. Like the ruin pictured on its cover, this work seems destined to endure.
Mary Ann Smart, Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
Barbara Johnson, Persons and Things (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
Carolyn Abbate, In Search of Opera (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), esp. xiii–xiv, 5–13.