- Musical Biography: Towards New Paradigms
Developments in musicology have an infelicitous tendency to lag some years behind those elsewhere in the humanities, and the burgeoning field of biographical theory is no exception. Jolanta T. Pekacz's edited volume, which unites eight distinguished (predominantly North American) scholars drawn primarily from the disciplines of musicology and history, therefore represents [End Page 215] a valuable addition to existing research.1 Proceeding via a series of individual case studies that crystallize around European, notably German, biographical endeavors of the last two centuries, this pathbreaking collection of critical essays on musical biography is broad in scope. Sources considered in the course of the volume include periodical articles, music criticism, conference presentations, travel writings, correspondence, archival materials, and films, rather than merely confining enquiry to biographies in the conventional sense of the term.
At the same time, I was soon led to wonder whether the subtitle "Towards New Paradigms" is the most apposite description of the anthology's contribution to scholarship. While two of its authors offer articles dealing with contemporary biographical projects—Michael Saffle on Alan Walker's multi-volume Liszt biography, and John C. Tibbetts on Renato Castellani's epic 1982 film biography The Life of Verdi2 —the majority of the volume comprises critical reflection upon historical case studies, and as such seems to look towards the past much more than the future. By way of explanation, the editor offers (8) that the first stage in activating new directions for the enrichment of musical biography is a thorough examination and re-evaluation of the assumptions that have heretofore underpinned traditional modes of life writing. Nonetheless, the volume is rather limited in its discussion of the implications for future scholarship of the findings of its various studies; in this respect, I remain not entirely convinced that its endeavors to "help forge new approaches to musical biography" (book sleeve) are successfully realized. Certainly I find the subtitle somewhat misleading in that it sets up expectations of a text whose primary purpose is to specify ways in which musical biographies might be more appropriately written in future, whereas this essay collection explicitly aims to extend alternatives without prescribing such limitations (16).
Even if exploration of "the rich potential of the new theories and methods for writing musical lives" (8) does not emerge particularly strongly as one of the volume's central concerns, the application to musical subjects of ideas that arise from the critical literature on biography that has flourished in preceding decades is undeniably a point of departure. Several of the authors skillfully intertwine discussion of biographical theory with that of their specific field of study. James Deaville's examination of the pioneering late nineteenth-century collective biography of women musicians by Marie Lipsius ("La Mara"), the renowned German writer on music, is especially successful in this regard. I did not, however, find this theoretical underpinning to be consistently woven into the fabric of the volume as a whole. In some chapters, such as that by Toby Thacker, the relative absence of reference to biographical theory renders its relationship to existing humanities research unclear. [End Page 216] Similarly, Marian Wilson Kimber's illuminating study of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's personal travel writings—and their subsequent employment in a biographical text written by her son Sebastian—would doubtless have been further enriched by drawing upon the substantial theoretical bibliography on women's auto/biography.
A slightly more stable grounding within contemporary musicological scholarship would also have been welcome in a volume that professes to offer a "sense of the current directions in research on musical biography" (16). Reference to one particularly significant monograph devoted to the subject, Hans Lenneberg's Witnesses and Scholars, is confined to a couple of allusions in footnotes. Since Lenneberg discusses at length the dependence of music lexicography of past epochs on autobiographical materials, and also includes an interesting section on La Mara, use of his research would have strengthened Deaville's chapter if none other. Likewise, the one international conference on musical biography in...