Andrew W. Mellon Graduate Fellow in the Humanities
2010—2011 Forum on Virtuality
Technologies of the Invisible: Optical Instruments and Musical Romanticism
To early Romantics, music revealed distant worlds, inner lives, and spirit realms. Though musicologists have traditionally viewed these as metaphors for the noumenal reality of idealist philosophy, they in fact have a material basis in the telescopes, microscopes, peepboxes and magic lanterns of the eighteenth century. Tracing music’s interactions with optical instruments in popular entertainment, opera, and musical discourse from 1770 to 1820, I demonstrate that early Romantic aesthetics and listening practices grew out of music’s associations with optical images, and that they solidified a new attitude towards mediated perception and virtual realities. Whereas Enlightenment era thinkers worried over the capacity of instruments to deceive, early Romantics embraced the sensations delivered by instruments as closer to truth than the gross corporealities of unmediated experience.