One of the most enjoyable elements of studying for a PhD is the fact that it presents many opportunities to travel. Admittedly, these trips can often be less than glamorous; a stay in a dodgy hotel in Hull and getting lost in the wastelands of Taunton have not really been high points of my academic career so far.
However, since I started work on my thesis two years ago, I have been lucky enough to visit several new corners of the UK to work in archives and give papers at universities; I even managed to find a good excuse to visit Venice for a conference last year. None of these adventures, however, were quite as appealing as the prospect of a research trip to archives in New York City and Washington D.C.
I work on opera singers of the nineteenth century and, over the course of my research, it quickly became clear that a significant amount of relevant sources were held in American collections. After compiling a list of these sources that numbered into the hundreds, I applied for funding from the Royal Historical Society and the Royal Musical Association in order to make a research trip possible. I was lucky enough to be successful on both counts and so, armed with my list of sources, I boarded a plane for New York City last month.
This was my first ever trip to the US and I was very much looking forward to experiencing research life stateside. My plan was to spend two weeks utilising various collections within three institutions: the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library in New York and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.. My work started several weeks before I left the UK, as a painstaking amount of organisation was needed to arrange access to so many different sources. Within the New York Public Library alone I needed to view material from ten different collections, each of which has its own librarian and several of which are located within different buildings across New York. Because of this, I was a little apprehensive when I turned up at New York Public Library on my first morning in the city.
New York Public Library
I had expected the library to be similar to the British Library, which is where I do most of my research in the UK. The feel, however, was quite different. To start with, the sheer beauty of the New York Public library stands in stark contrast to the far more modern St. Pancras site. Despite this grandeur, though, the feel of the library is much more informal. Indeed, it felt more like a local library than a central library; crowds of tourists wandered around taking photos, community groups and teenagers were using the reading rooms and there was always an interesting event going on in the foyer.
I spent a week at the library and, thanks to many helpful librarians, managed to navigate my way around its various divisions. I found far more material than I had anticipated, including very many prints and (literally!) thousands of newspaper articles about British opera singers I am working on. These newspaper articles, located on a database, proved a little bit of an issue as they were tricky and painstaking to save. I am still working through hundreds of PDFs that I saved to my laptop, but the material they contain is extremely rich. The sheer amount of newspaper sources has led me to re-evaluate my thoughts on the celebrity status of these singers, as they clearly had a far greater international profile than I had previously imagined.
I especially enjoyed my time in the Pforzheimer Collection, which contains archives relating to Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. This beautiful room looks like a Victorian gentleman’s study and I loved working at an antique desk, complete with a bust of Shelley to keep me company. As I worked in this area, accessible by appointment only, tourists took photos through a glass door. I also spent a day at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts division, next to the Met. It was excellent to work so close to the opera house and I especially enjoyed the beautiful items that the library displays, in particular the belt that Sarah Bernhardt wore when she played Cleopatra.
The Met by night
Sarah Bernhardt’s Cleopatra belt
After a week in New York, I travelled to Washington D.C. to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library. I fell in love with Washington, which looked especially lovely with the famous fall colours out in force. A taxi to the Folger took me past several famous landmarks before stopping opposite the Capitol, where the library is very centrally located. This library is also extremely beautiful, packed with fascinating portraits and other theatrical relics. Over a few days, I worked through several collections of important letters, pamphlets and playbills. I especially enjoyed an expedition to the basement, hunting for a dusty old volume; bookcases stretch as far as the eye can see with a phenomenal amount of literature on Shakespeare and the stage. The material at the Folger is extremely rich and I certainly plan to return.
View from the Folger, looking towards the Capitol
The Folger Reading Room
David Garrick’s chair, complete with Shakespeare medallion attributed to Hogarth
The Folger’s cavernous basement
I headed back to New York for my final week, which I spent at the Morgan Library. The list of materials I had requested to see was so lengthy that I almost sent the librarian’s systems into meltdown, but the staff were extremely helpful and I managed to get through mountains of material over five days. These sources proved extremely rich; letters to and from key singers revealed much new information about their personalities and careers. Many of these letters form part of the extensive Gilbert and Sullivan collections held at the Morgan. Some were extremely touching, describing family tragedies and desperate situations. It was peculiar to spend hours engrossed in these letters, written in nineteenth-century London, before walking out onto bustling Madison Avenue. A favourite discovery was an album compiled by one of Queen Victoria’s servants, containing letters to and from the Queen as well as notes from dozens of key figures of the age; these included politicians, authors, artists and society figures. The album even contained a scrap of the Queen’s wedding dress and some of her artwork. After spending a week in the Morgan’s reading room, I spent some time exploring the rest of the library and Museum. The building is stunning with a library that has to be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, rammed full of rare books and fascinating artworks.
The Morgan Library
My trip to the US was extremely fruitful; over a month after returning, I am still sorting through all of the material that I located! Many of these sources will feature prominently throughout my thesis, but especially in a chapters dealing with the themes of celebrity and touring. It was a surprise to discover just how many sources pertinent to British culture of the nineteenth century are held in America. I would certainly encourage others working on this period to explore what material is held in these institutions. This is very easy to do through their online catalogues, which are detailed and easy to use. I certainly plan to return to the US for future research and have already located certain collections that will be pertinent to my planned postdoctoral research. Watch this space!
New York Public Library by night
If there is one occasion when you hear me sigh: “Sounded like a good idea at the time”, it’s usually when I’ve accepted a conference invitation for mid-semester. Going to a European capital, catching up with old friends and meeting new colleagues are wonderful prospects – six months before the actual event. Back in April, there was optimism a-plenty that I would not just find the time to jet to Vienna and back again, but also to write a fairly original paper on a topic only marginally related to my established research interests in opera and German national identity. Four weeks before the event the flights were duly booked, but the confidence about the presentation had largely evaporated. How did I ever think that I could contribute something meaningful to Christoph Willibald Gluck – Mythen, Bilder, Diskurse, when the line-up featured specialists from the critical Gluck editions at Frankfurt and Salzburg? How would my paper on Gluck and German national opera slot into a programme which also featured presentations on Gluck’s 19th-century biographies, the concept of operatic reform or the image of Gluck as a classicist? I vividly saw myself playing “quotation bingo”: erasing from my paper one quotation after the other as the preceding speakers bagged all the juicy soundbites from Herder, Brendel, Marx et al. So it was with some apprehension that I set out on 22 October for Vienna, my paper completed (or at least written) for better or worse, largely thanks to a kind colleague who had taken on my first-year lecture.
And then it all turned out completely different. The conference itself was impeccably organised by Profs Michele Calella (Vienna), Klaus Pietschmann (Mainz) and Thomas Betzwieser (Frankfurt) and took place in the cosy new rooms of the Österreichische Gesellschaft für Musik (Austrian Society for Music), nestled between the State Opera and the art gallery “Albertina”. As it is customary for symposia on the continent, participation was free, which meant that the conference was attended by a good crowd of students, opera lovers and members of the general public, so conspicuously absent from many conferences in this country because of forbidding fees for bad coffee and limp biscuits. (Actually Michele Calella’s conference assistants spoiled us with home-made muffins.) Discussions were lively, vigorous and well-informed, and we made full use of the 45-minute slots allocated to each presentation. As the topic of Gluck reception was quite new to me, I learned a lot about performances of Gluck in Sweden during the reign of Gustav III (Jens Duffner), Russian culture wars over Gluck (Yuliya Shein), or Debussy’s attempts to erase Gluck’s pernicious Teutonic influence from the annals of French music (William Gibbons).
The highlights for me, however, were two presentations with quite dry-sounding titles: Melanie Unseld’s paper on the Gluck master-narratives in 19th-century biographies of the composer, and Arnold Jacobshagen’s musings on operatic reform and reform opera in 19th-century music historiography. Both speakers took their departure from a special branch of the German intellectual tradition that plays a small role in Anglophone musicology: Begriffsgeschichte, i.e. the history of technical terms and concepts, and Gattungsgeschichte, the history of musical genres. Both historiographical tools have been side-lined in recent years because they seem to sit badly with the myth-busting, hegemony-exposing impetus of the New Musicology, and because in the wrong hands they guarantee hours of unalleviated boredom. (I vividly remember a university seminar presentation I attended as a student where the unfortunate speaker started his analysis of theological messages of a specific Bach cantata by explaining the etymology of “cantata” in the early 17th century, working his way towards the 1720s with excruciating slowness.) The Gluck presentations by my senior colleagues from Oldenburg and Cologne, however, superbly demonstrated how a careful dissection of historiographical concepts illuminates our understanding of music’s place within the wider intellectual tradition of an era.
Melanie Unseld, who has wrote her Habilitation on music history and life writings, investigated a selection of early Gluck biographies, distilling a catalogue of narrative stereotypes (in academic German parlance now called a “Narrativ”, with a long final syllable) such as the humble origins of the artist in a Bohemian village, the misunderstood genius in philistine Vienna, the triumph against adversity in the Parisian querelles. Such narratives sound familiar enough, but Gluck’s “real” life story, as far as it can be reconstructed today, is singularly unsuited to the familiar fairy-tale of the musical genius à la Beethoven. With the help of the narrative tropes, however, the non-Beethovenian aspects of Gluck’s career simply vanish from the storyline: his shrewd business sense (Gluck died a very wealthy man indeed), his uneventful private life (no “immortal beloved” but a marriage that appears to have been as happy as anybody’s), or the fact that he continued writing traditional operas and even ballets after he had allegedly invented reform opera. Melanie Unseld then exemplified her theoretical reflections with a two-page anonymous biography of Gluck written sometime in the 1850s or 1860s, where Gluck is hailed as Wagner’s predecessor but, strangely, his short stay in Copenhagen receives much more attention than decades of Habsburg service in Vienna, playing to the interests of a North-German and progressivist readership.
The title of Arnold Jacobshagen’s paper sounded similar to Unseld’s, but he tackled the operatic reformer from quite a different angle: by tracing the very term “reform” to its origin in late-15th-century theology and church politics. As Jacobshagen argued, thanks to the historiography of the Reformation the term “reform” was understood as a genuinely German form of improving things with gradual and careful steps. In Enlightenment writings, the term was often still used in its French spelling – réforme – but towards the end of the century increasingly construed in opposition – or even as an antidote – to the dangerous French revolutionary tendencies which threatened to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas French music historians customarily hailed Gluck as a revolutionary of French opera, German music historians celebrated Gluck as the master of operatic reform. The dialogue between these seemingly straightforward terms – reform and revolution – suddenly opened up a whole vista of historiographical configurations where not only Gluck, but all 19th-century attempts to push ahead with new artistic development appeared in a new light.
My paper came straight after Unseld’s and Jacobshagen’s, and I have to admit feeling rather self-conscious that my paper lacked a comparable theoretical or methodological foundation, as I placed Gluck in the development of German national opera before and after Wagner. Although no German writer of the 19th century seriously doubted Gluck’s essentially German nationality and national character (see also Eric Schneeman’s inspired blog post about this issue), there was no denying that he had never written a German opera (or even just an opera in German), but concentrated his creative efforts on Italian opere serie and French tragédies. Nevertheless Gluck’s name was often invoked to ward off the dangerous enthusiasm for contemporary Italian opera, playing as it were the bible and garlic to the Rossinian vampires. But that does not mean that his music was a pivotal or even permanent presence on the German stages, nor that young composers invariably looked towards Gluck for guidance and inspiration; Wagner was not the only one for whom Gluck was comfortably dead and buried. Whatever the academic merits of my paper (it can be read in full on academia.edu), at least most of the jokes came off and I introduced a running gag to the conference: Gluck and the German forest. For the published version in the conference proceedings – the organisers will make us work a bit more for the comfortable hotel and the opera tickets – I feel sorely tempted to replace my rather misguided conference title “Zurück in die Zukunftsmusik” with the snappier “Gluck im deutschen Wald”. Side-lining Wagner in a discussion of German national opera is, after all, sometimes not a bad idea.