Music shorthand systems devised by Michel Woldemar, Hippolyte Prévost, and August Baumgartner adapted the quill strokes of speech stenography to the seemingly analogous domain of music. Eschewing conventional staff notation in favor of cursive lines that indicated pitch, register, interval, and duration, music stenographers endeavored to record in real time instrumental improvisations and fleeting inspirations that would otherwise have been lost forever due to a lack of recording technology. To advocates of such methods, more efficient technologies of musical writing were indispensable for capturing fugitive musical thoughts and acts: music stenography aided Hector Berlioz, for example, in the composition of his Requiem. For others, including Rossini, Fétis, and contributors to the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, the claims and merits of stenography were a source of controversy as well as fascination.
Grounded in a corpus of seventy music stenographies that have been largely ignored by musicologists and historians of technology alike, this article asks how musical intuitions became musical texts, thereby entering print-based networks of circulation. Although the importance of “genius” and “work” as historical concepts regulating the production, ontology, and reception of nineteenth-century music has long been acknowledged, the material basis of these concepts has been overlooked until recently. The efforts of musical stenographers demonstrate that the inscription and circulation of material texts provided the means by which musical inspiration could be registered and stored, constituting a material substrate on which such idealist concepts depended. Whereas historians of sound recording have focused on seismic historical and cultural shifts wrought by the introduction of the phonograph in 1877, the preoccupation with capturing music in the decades preceding and following this date suggests an alternate conception of text-based sound recording.