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Filling in the Blanks: Music and Performance in Dante Gabriel Rossetti

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 533-560 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0030

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While the enigmatic woman staring out from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Blue Bower (1865) continues to fascinate first-time viewers, the unusual instrument she fingers—a Japanese koto—is no less intriguing. The painting is certainly not unique among Rossetti’s oeuvre; indeed, one of the most striking features of both his art works and his poems, as many scholars have noted, is the frequent inclusion of musical imagery.1 The pictures are filled with bizarre instruments and odd scenes of music-making, while the verses are replete with musical terminology, titles, and allusions. While Rossetti’s interest might be attributed to the Victorian mania for collecting and exhibiting musical artifacts—what Christopher Small terms the “presumed autonomous ‘thingness’” of music2 —his blatant disregard for historical accuracy in his visual depictions and poetic descriptions belies this explanation. Moreover, Rossetti had very little musical training; in fact, according to his assistant Henry Treffry Dunn, he was “indifferen[t] to music” and never played on any of the instruments he collected.3 Why, then, did he repeatedly turn to music as an artistic paradigm for his paintings and poetry? I argue that Rossetti utilizes music, one of the most performance-oriented of all art forms, as a vehicle for positing his aesthetic theories about temporality and the interactive relationship between artist and viewer. In so doing, he challenges the long-held conception of art as material object and re-envisions it in terms of process—a model that operates through temporal constructs and requires the participation of an audience for its completion.4

Music’s unique character as a performative art form that is actualized in time through the participation of a listener is particularly well suited to Rossetti’s conception of art as a process. The Victorians themselves recognized the importance of the performative act: William Pole’s treatise The Philosophy of Music (1895) characterizes music as a “mass of useless hieroglyphics until he [the composer] can get them interpreted and made known by the process we call performance.”5 Contemporary performance theory further supports this notion. A musical score, Christopher Small explains, is not music; it is merely a “set of coded instructions” to the performers for bringing music (that which is absent) into existence (presence). “If a musical work exists in the relationships between the sounds as performers make them and as hearers hear them,” Small continues, “then it exists only in performance. Its identity and whatever meaning it may have are embodied in the act of musicking itself” (p. 113). His attention to relationships is insightful in highlighting the two key components of musical performance: its temporal sequence (the relationship between sounds) and its dependence on interaction with a listener (the relationship between performer and audience).

Rossetti’s emphasis on sequential progression in time is not surprising. Thanks in part to the popularity of physicist Hermann Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music following its English translation in 1875, music was commonly understood by the Victorians as sound waves propagating through space in a time-dependent manner. But Rossetti is also interested in the interrelationship with the audience that such temporality implies. While the sound waves are initiated through the performative act, the task of converting these impulses via the brain into what we identify as musical sound is left to the listener. Without this translation process on the part of the listener, there simply is no music. Logically, then, as Richard Schechner asserts, “the performance is the domain of the audience,”6 since the involvement of the listener in deciphering the sounds is essential to the creation of a musical work’s meaning. Similarly, Alice Rayner suggests that the term “audience” refers not to a group of people, but to an “act [of listening]”7 —a distinction Rossetti seems to have understood in his approach to performance. Using music as a model, Rossetti’s aesthetic project is thus to re-envision art such that the temporal process of unfolding and the audience’s participation are as crucial to a work of poetry or painting as they are to a piece of music.

Schechner’s theory of...

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