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Reviewed by:
  • Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations
  • Nancy Newman (bio)
Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations. By Ruth A. Solie. California Studies in Nineteenth-Century Music 12. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 223 pp.

What about other listeners?" Ruth Solie asked in her passionate response to Pieter van den Toorn's attack on feminist musicology generally and Susan McClary in particular. The exchange was symptomatic of the debates fueling music studies in the early 1990s. Van den Toorn's argument against feminist scholarship was predicated on the pursuit of musical meanings that are "beyond the reach of metaphors, analogies, and symbols." Solie countered that van den Toorn's "defense of musical formalism" was the result of "his own mode of connection to musical works." Challenging music scholars to go beyond individual (and self-absorbed) responses to "the music itself," she asked:

What about other listeners whose interest is "ignited" instead by affect, by representation, by resonance with personal history, by bodily response? Have we no interest in learning from such listeners? Are the formal details always and everywhere to be privileged?1

An untiring desire to learn from others flows like an undercurrent through the six essays of Solie's volume Music in Other Words. The collection spans nearly the entire nineteenth century, from the reception of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to female opera attendees circa 1900. The "other words" of the title come from a large array of Victorian-era writers, including novelists, diarists, journalists, and other articulate observers and music makers, both well known and obscure. The book's wide range of subjects and objects is itself evidence of an insatiable and undaunted intellectual curiosity, one that [End Page 65] has previously found an outlet in edited volumes and individual articles. Two of the essays in Music in Other Words are new versions of previously published articles, and excerpts from two others appeared in literary journals. It is a pleasure to see these writings, along with new work, brought together in a single, handsome book, the first to bear Solie's name as author. And when the undercurrent of inquiry into others' experience manifests itself in the brilliant and original center chapter, "'Girling' at the Parlor Piano," one feels buoyed by Solie's determination to shape a culturally informed study of music.

A prolific writer, speaker, and organizer, Solie is one of the primary figures in feminist musicology, a theorist of difference who has made a difference. It may therefore surprise some that only half the chapters appear focused on women. But, as this review describes, issues of gender, race, and class are central concerns in all of the volume's diverse essays. Readers of this journal will find such an approach entirely consistent with the perspective described in Solie's article "Defining Feminism: Conundrums, Contexts, Communities," which appeared in the first issue (1997). As Solie pointed out, by the mid-1990s feminist studies had expanded to encompass a wide range of theoretical concerns and subject matter: "Feminism in music scholarship is a critical theory of music and of music history that engages broad questions of social context, representation, and meaning" (7). She enumerates a "litany of convergences" between feminist theory and the so-called new musicology, including postmodernism's emphasis on "situated knowledge" and an inquiry into the ideological foundations of cultural production. Music in Other Words demonstrates how such ideas can be brought to bear on nineteenth-century subjects.

The question arises as to how, methodologically, one learns from other listeners, especially if those listeners are long deceased. As Solie explains in a brief introduction, she has been motivated for many years by the puzzle of "what goes without saying" among participants in a specific cultural setting. In order to learn from other listeners we must try to share their discourse, to understand aspects of language they take for granted. The difficulties of such a project are manifold: "The evidence we will never find is just that information that our historical subjects considered too obvious to be worth mentioning, its very centrality marked by its absence" (1). What is commonplace among conversants can easily become unintelligible to future generations.

And to which conversants should...


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