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Reviewed by:
  • Romantic Anatomies of Performance by J. Q. Davies
  • Etha Williams (bio)
J. Q. Davies: Romantic Anatomies of Performance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014. 280 pages, $60.

James Davies's Romantic Anatomies of Performance, ends with a memorable chiasmus. If the dictum that "bodies make music" is now commonplace in music scholarship, Davies argues, then it is time that we attend to the inverse: to the ways that music makes bodies.1 Put differently, Davies urges us to reject fantasies of a body that preexists, and agentially determines, music-making; he advances instead an "avowedly realist" stance that examines the role of musical practices—and technologies—in the acquisition and cultivation of bodily materiality.2

Indeed, this perspective has animated a number of recent studies by scholars including Martha Feldman, Roger Moseley, Carmel Raz, and Peter Szendy.3 What makes Davies's book particularly compelling is his deft analyses of the ways Romantic fantasies of disembodiment and immateriality were inseparably bound up with material technologies; his exceptionally fine-grained attention to historical detail, which attends to a wide range of musical, medical-scientific, and aesthetic sources without collapsing them into one another; and his combination of examinations of keyboard-playing (often regarded historically as the epitome of musical technologism) with examinations of vocal practices (historically the epitome of musical naturalism).

Davies's book thus proceeds in six chapters examining virtuoso vocalists and pianists on the "lucrative London-Paris musical circuit" around 1830.4 His first, third, and fifth chapters respectively consider vocalists who were understood as occupying a wide, and shifting, range of gendered positions: Giovanni Battista Velluti, Henriette Sontag and Maria Malibran's duet tours, and Domenico Donzelli and Adolphe Nourrit. His second, fourth, and sixth chapters, meanwhile, focus on Frederic Chopin, Sigismund Thalberg, and Franz Liszt in turn, emphasizing the ways keyboard playing was intertwined with articulations of sensible vitality, death, and individual personhood. These six chapters are framed by an introduction and epilogue that situate these studies in the context of Davies's larger interest in the musical production of bodies. Throughout the book, Davies's painstaking thick description allows him to convey an exceptionally rich historical texture, animated by multiple, and often conflicting, agencies. [End Page 337]

Structurally, Davies underscores his juxtaposition of virtuoso pianists and vocalists by pointing not merely to the similarities, but more emphatically to the continuities, between these categories of musical practice: he aims to "confound the cultural history of hands and voices and address middle zones."5 In doing so, he participates in a broader scholarly conversation that has challenged understandings of the voice as a transparent bearer of personal identity and has urged greater acknowledgment of the technicity of vocal practice. If this conversation has sometimes veered toward demystification—toward showing that vocality does not do what its practitioners claim it does—Davies's work provides a useful corrective to this tendency by carefully delineating the ways that vocal technicity was not simply opposed to, but in fact implicated in, the production of ideas of vocal naturalness and identity.

Davies persuasively argues that attention to nineteenth-century vocal practices can at once illuminate alternative ways of configuring the relationship between voice, body, and identity and allow us to witness the difficult, and profoundly contingent, coming into being of the concept of "having one's own voice." He illuminates the historical determinants underlying ostensibly ahistorical and naturalized ideologies of vocal identity, demonstrating why such ideologies gained traction while also richly describing alternative conceptual regimes that coexisted with, and at times contested, them. And he demonstrates the ways that these shifting configurations of voice and bodily identity were brought to bear not only on singers' vocal chords, but also on pianists' hands.

Davies's first chapter, "'Velutti in Speculum': The Twilight of the Castrato," takes as its starting point Felix Mendelssohn's ambivalent fascination with the castrato Giovanni Battista Velutti, whose voice seemed to pursue Mendelssohn from London's Argyll Rooms into the street, and even into the composer's dreams. What, Davies asks, allowed Mendelssohn and his contemporaries to hear the castrato's voice as something both disgusting and captivating, at once animal and machinic, anchored...


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