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Musical Biography and the Myth of the Muse

Wiley, C (2015) Musical Biography and the Myth of the Muse In: Critical Music Historiography: Probing Canons, Ideologies and Institutions. Ashgate Publishing, Farnham, pp. 251-261. ISBN 978-1-4724-1419-9

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Abstract

My intentions in this chapter are to examine the ideologies that historically emerged from biographies of some of Western art-music’s most treasured personages precisely by marginalising the secondary characters that Catherine Peters has described as being those ‘lived in the shadow of the main subject, often paralleling or contrasting with it’. I aim not to question the portrayal of the principal protagonists so much as that of specific females with whom they were associated, and whose union was presented as deriving from shared artistic bonds, with the woman assuming the role of the composer’s ‘muse’. Though silenced and largely invisible throughout much of the text, these ancillary figures typically came into view at critical junctures in the biographies, as signifiers of the productivity and increasing creative power of their accompanying male composer; moreover, they were depicted as having inspired that person to acts of artistic greatness. While in some respects, such practices may reflect the generic expectation for biography to provide an engaging, novelistic reading experience, in the field of music – in which female ‘heroes’ were very few and far between, and little cultural space existed for anything more than a select handful of exalted men – an ideologically-loaded pattern developed in the course of the nineteenth century over and above that recognisable in other disciplines. This is the model to which I refer as the ‘myth of the muse’ or, to repeat a term I have used elsewhere, the ‘muse paradigm’. Following the lead of recent scholarship on mythology, in this context the word ‘myth’ is used not to denote a widely-held misconception with limited factual basis, so much as the ways in which information has been selected and reported to facilitate the dissemination, perpetuation and elaboration of cherished narratives that functioned to reinforce particular cultural values within their interpretive communities. This chapter has been drawn primarily from my ‘Re-writing Composers’ Lives: Critical Historiography and Musical Biography’, 2 vols (PhD diss., University of London, 2008), and is based on a paper delivered at the Radical Music History Symposium 2011, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, 8–9 December 2011.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects : Arts
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Authors :
AuthorsEmailORCID
Wiley, CUNSPECIFIEDUNSPECIFIED
Date : March 2015
Copyright Disclaimer : Copyright 2015 Ashgate Publishing. Reproduced from Critical Music Historiography: Probing Canons, Ideologies and Institutions, Eds Kurkela, V and Mantere, M. Farnham: Ashgate, pp. 251-261 ISBN 978-1-4724-1419-9
Uncontrolled Keywords : music, musical biography, gender studies
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 08 Jul 2016 09:36
Last Modified : 08 Jul 2016 14:39
URI: http://epubs.surrey.ac.uk/id/eprint/803216

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