ROMANTICISM AND MUSIC CULTURE IN BRITAIN, 1770-1840 by Gillen D'Arcy Wood, Reviewed by Marshall Brown

By Gillen D'Arcy Wood
(Cambridge, 2010) x + 295 pp.
Reviewed by Marshall Brown on 2010-12-10.

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The broad goal of this book  is to engage the most current musicological scholarship of the Georgian period--with its particular emphasis on subjectivity, gender, and the marketplace--in dialogue with literary Romanticism, and from there to construct original, revisionary arguments about Romantic-period writers and literary culture more generally.  In addition to radically expanding our understanding of Romantic anti-theatricality, the book embraces a wide range of themes dominant in eighteenth-century, nineteenth-century, and Romantic literary studies of the last two decades, including cosmopolitanism and transnationalism; masculinity and the feminization of culture; the rise of the periodicals; nationalism and the politics of spectacle; Byronism and Romantic self-fashioning; the rhetorics of sociability and literary performance; women writers and the professionalization of literature; the aesthetic modeling of liberal subjectivity; and the embourgeoisement of British culture.

Not many books review themselves, but this one does.  Apart from minor shifts in pronoun and tense, the above paragraph is taken verbatim from Gillen Wood's introduction (p. 18) and sums up much of the book's accomplishment.

Fortunately, it is all true.

Wood's book comes to me as something like an old friend.  I was deeply impressed by an early form of its first chapter when I published it in Modern Language Quarterly; I thought the manuscript splendid when I read it for Cambridge University Press, apart from minor defects that have since been entirely rectified; and rereading it in print I am awed by it.  The book is better served by its subtitle than by its bland main title, and would be better served yet if it carried as sole title Wood's felicitous neologism virtuosophobia, which should take pride of place over Lisztomania (obliquely the topic of the last chapter) to characterize its era.  But Wood is too sincere, too unvirtuosic, too virtuous to foreground his moments of fantasy.  Everything about his book's surface is steady, serious, easy to take, rational.  Everything about its essence is brilliant, inventive, sparkling.  Generally speaking, the books I like best are those that stimulate me to argue with them, books that make me think.  With Wood there is no argument.  Practically all I feel impelled to do is report and praise.

Wood's real topic is Britain and British identity;  music is the vehicle, not the tenor.  Music, however, proves far more central to British culture than I would have suspected.  The 1784 Handel commemoration, says the first sentence of the first chapter, "was the largest musical event in recorded European history up to that point" (p. 20).  The Broadwood piano company "was one of the largest consumers of wood in London" (p. 165) at the moment when Beethoven purchased one to take the place of his Viennese piano and when Jane Austen's Frank Churchill sent one to cement his secret courtship of Jane Fairfax.  Austen herself left "nearly fifteen hundred pages" of music at her death, "some half of it copied out meticulously in her own hand" (153).  In short, even if music was only a hook for British self-definition, much hung on that hook.

The "and" in Wood's subtitle is disjunctive: virtue is British, virtuosity is international and, by virtue of its mobility, increasingly alien.  His portrait of the forging of a resistant identity is very much in the spirit of a very different book, David Simpson's Romanticism, Nationalism, and the Revolt Against Theory (1993).  Each chapter studies an episode and aspect of British fear, resentment, and distrust of virtuosi.  The virtuosi are a heterogeneous cast:  the castrati who sang Handel's operas; the Italian soprano Angelica Catalani, who was a rock star of the 1800s and 1810s, with fees that helped to provoke ticket price riots in 1809 (the Covent Garden Old Price Riots) and that nearly bankrupted  the King's Theatre in 1816, creating an opening for new management and for the 3-decade-late London public premiere of Don Giovanni; Franz Liszt, who toured England to startling hostility and even more startling indifference in 1840-41; and Lord Byron, on whom Liszt modeled much of his public persona.  And then there were the more virtuous female virtuosi:  Esther Burney, the prize daughter of the great music historian Charles Burney and the sister against whom the novelist Fanny defined her persona; Jane Fairfax, who proves more fair in character than Emma was willing to admit; and the many successful professional women performers in "a period when a third of public piano concerts in London were given by women" (169).  These examples suggest some of the problems with virtuosity.  It was unsettled and unsettling, riskily sexual, foreign, and expensive.  Expensive, actually, first of all.  The attacks on virtuosity sprang from many enthusiasms:  for the simple Handel of the oratorios, for domesticity, for the poetry of a man speaking to men, for  interiority, for organicism, and for intense, heartfelt listening.  But Wood finds the wellspring in  a revolt of the middle classes against aristocratic privilege.  Embourgeoisement is thus the master theme of this masterful book, with all the other topics linked to it. 

Taking class as the central issue links the work with Wood's earlier Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860, which acknowledges more explicitly that the "principal concern is with issues of class, specifically with the inseparability of Romantic sensibility from the self-constituting presumptions of a cultural elite" (13).  Here Wood balances the books by documenting music as the art of the bourgeoisie.   Fanny Burney's ponderously Johnsonian late prose is seen as a riposte to her father's fawning sociability, and  from Wood's intensive researches in the periodical press and in Leigh Hunt’s seldom-noticed work as an opera reviewer, Don Giovanni emerges as a manifesto for both artistic and social earnestness.  Here as with all six chapters, little-remembered battles prove astonishingly vibrant and revelatory of class tensions permeating British society.  Gender is highlighted  in the equally brilliant and innovative chapters on Austen and on Wordsworth, the latter occasioned by five Metastasio translations the poet published in 1802-1803.

Methodologically, this book is literary sociology of the highest order.  Wood says that his last chapter aims to re-create  "the specific historical texture of the Byronic Liszt in Britain" (189), and the equivalent could be said of all the chapters.  Thick description triumphs here, with a rich mix of biography and reception history contributing the history, while brilliant bits of close reading supply textural specificity.  The research is remarkably thorough; Wood draws on dissertations from a number of institutions, on memoirs from throughout the nineteenth century, on scholarship going back to World War I, and (as the introduction correctly says) on a well-worked vein of the best musicology.  The notes are a gold mine, at least for work available in English. .   The prose is crystalline, and every sentence adds a new piece to the puzzle, often a new perspective.

Thick description, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz promoted it, aimed to provide (relatively) unbiased portraits of a culture.  It did not deny internal dissent, but often subordinated it to its integral pictures.  Wood's work is far more dynamic.  Targeting cultural tensions, he shows how  the new bourgeois and feminized sensibility took aim at aristocratic, foreign, and masculine predilections.  The Handel chapter, for instance, contrasts the reactions of William Cowper and Anna Seward.  While  Cowper proclaimed the old guard's hostility to  the democratic tenor of the Handel festivities of 1784,  Seward celebrated the event,  which Wood then links to her very successful, long forgotten poem of the same year, Louisa, to represent emergent Romanticism.

But hold on here.  The dissenting Cowper on the side of the aristocrats?  The saloniste Seward a spokesperson for the masses?  Urban Cowper vs. rural Seward?  Surprisingly, yes, and documented in thick textural detail.  The tensions of an emerging sensibility are never simple; the vectors shift, and the conjunctures are rarely just what one might expect.  So, too, the Wordsworth chapter contributes  the startling picture of the poet of rural simplicity translating Metastasio's intricately refined poetic diction--transforming it as he goes, as Wood shows in a brilliant comparison with other Metastasio translators.  Then the chapter rings remarkable changes on Wordsworthian gender dynamics that are too often reductively portrayed as either recalcitrantly masculine or mincingly feminine.  While the book offers six variations on a single theme,  each episode is sharply individualized in this fashion.

As a result, I despair of remembering the whole book,  even after eagerly rereading it.  This is definitely a book to buy and to keep consulting.  An elaborate index helps, but it's not elaborate enough.  It lacks a slew of key terms that are insightfully introduced and discussed at one point or another, including cosmopolitanism, genius, galant, ancients and moderns, fashion, ornament, taste, connoisseur, indirect discourse, mobility, tonality, seriality.  Yet the chapter titles are elegantly memorable and highlight  their own set of pregnant terms.  For the record, and as an illustration of Wood's stylistic economy and inventiveness, they are (following "Introduction: Virtuosophobia"): "Seward's Handelomania," "The Burney Baroque," "Wordsworth Castrato," "Cockney Mozart," Austen's Accomplishment" (a particularly revealing term, it turns out), and "The Byron of the Piano."

For all its complexity, I would call this book interdisciplinary but not multidisciplinary.  It draws resourcefully and flawlessly on musicological studies, both sociological and hermeneutic, with brilliant comparisons of process in Austen and Beethoven and of stylistic gesture in Byron and Liszt.  But it's technical only on the literary side.  There are a few well- discussed illustrations, but not a single musical example.  The methodology and the originality are exclusively literary.  That's probably a good thing; there aren't many readers for actual musical analysis.

And when it comes to summing up, the question remains: what  kind of story is Wood telling?  Indeed, one wonders whether he is telling a story at all.  The first five chapters link virtuosity to aristocracy.  But with Liszt the linkage grows slippery.  In London Liszt cultivated  the somewhat dubious, adulterous ambiance of Lady Blessington and the Comte d'Orsay, where his flamboyance was regarded not as a genuinely  aristocratic stance but as social-climbing bourgeois philistinism.  Heine and others, before and after, took a similar view of Liszt.  Is this a new and dramatic turn of the screw in virtuosophobia, now turning against the bourgeoisie, or is it merely a different angle on a persistent theme?  It is also hard--or at least challenging--to track the stages of a story told with overlapping chronologies. Since the 1817 production of Don Giovanni, for instance,is said to have grown  out of earlier tensions, it is examined before  Austen,  and the book as a whole remains a tapestry rather than a narrative.  Its ending does not answer the question about what kind of story it tells.  By way of conclusion, which the original manuscript lacked, Wood offers  a brilliant fantasia about nightingales that moves from Hans Christian Andersen back to Keats and then forward to Stravinsky.  These seven pages display remarkable resourcefulness and inventiveness, but they open out on fairy lands rather than summing up accounts and balancing the books.

An elegantly sober manner and unflagging diligence underlie the book's many virtues.  But to my mind the constant surprises and--it bears repeating--the brilliant execution make this a consummately virtuoso performance.

Marshall Brown is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington and editor of Modern Language Quarterly.

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