Conference Agenda

The Online Program of events for the 2023 AMS & SMT Joint Annual Meeting appears below. This program is subject to change. The final program will be published in early November.

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Session Overview
Blindness and Musical Identity
Sunday, 12/Nov/2023:
9:00am - 10:30am

Session Chair: Jeannette Jones, College of the Holy Cross
Location: Windows

Session Topics:

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Belisario’s Blindness: The Disabling of Operatic Conventions

Christina Colanduoni

University of Chicago

Gaetano Donizetti is famous for his scenes of madness, but his opera Belisario features a different type of disability on the operatic stage. Focused on the sixth-century Byzantine military leader Flavius Belisarius, Belisario (1836) follows the titular hero through imprisonment, blindness, and death. The librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, based his text on Luigi Marchionni’s 1830 play Belisario—itself an adaptation of Belisarius (1820) written by Eduard von Schenk. As the end product of this textual network, Cammarano’s libretto provided a framework for Donizetti, one in which Belisario seems to be sidelined. In terms of set pieces, he is outperformed by the other principals, in particular being deprived of the entrance aria that one might expect of a military leader. This comparative neglect is most striking at the end of the opera. Belisario is hardly the first character to die on an operatic stage, but here he sings a mere five and a half measures preceding his death in Act 3. What is more, this brief dying utterance takes place during the tempo di mezzo of the principal soprano’s rondò finale, paving the way for her cabaletta, “Egli è spento.” Drawing on disability theory, this paper considers how the musical environment produced in Cammarano and Donizetti’s Belisario and the conventions that sustain it somehow fail to accommodate the blind Belisario. In this context, I argue that the specific model of disability that takes disability to be a social category produced in relation to disabling real-life environments (Davis, 2002) can be applied to the performance of fictive operatic worlds.

Performing blindness and the anxiety of visuality in the career of Maria Theresia von Paradis

Christopher Parton

Princeton University

At the age of three, the Austrian musician and composer Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) suddenly went blind. The story of her disability became an important selling point for her performances around Europe, as evidenced in the advertisements, reviews, and even the music of her concerts. From 1785 her program included a cantata, written by the blind writer Gottlieb Konrad Pfeffel and set to music by her teacher Leopold Koželuch, which mythologized her childhood tragedy and subsequent musical gifts. In singing her biography while accompanying herself at the piano, she embraced what Joseph N. Straus observed as the ‘dual task’ of disabled performers: ‘to perform music and to perform disability’ (Straus 2011). Yet Pfeffel’s cantata also communicates themes of divine intervention and mediation, tropes associated with idealized femininity stretching back to Petrarch and Dante. Paradis thus had the task of also performing her gender.

In this paper I examine the intersections of musicality, disability, and gender in accounts of Paradis’s performances and compositions. In so doing, I bring disability studies into conversation with studies on femininity and women’s public music making in the eighteenth century (Leppert 1993, Solie 2004, Head 2013). While for some commentators Paradis’s disability corresponded with long-standing fascinations with the extraordinary and othered bodies of musicians, for others her disability brought about criticisms of women’s musical abilities in general. I argue that this mixed reception was the result of conflicting expectations about the visuality of disabled musicians as a spectacle of superhuman ability and of women as modest and constrained embodiments of femininity. In the second half of the paper, I demonstrate how Pfeffel’s cantata sought to transcend visuality through its evocation of a higher, idealized femininity that Paradis could represent.

Touching Melodies: Tactile Notation at the Vienna Institute for the Blind

Adeline Mueller

Mount Holyoke College

In 1819, the director of the Vienna Institute for the Blind published a 450-page treatise on blind education that included six plates of engraved illustrations showing the many tools and methods used to teach students to read, write, calculate, learn geography, handicrafts and carpentry, and even train and use guide dogs. Also illustrated (and described in the treatise) were two systems of tactile music notation used in the Institute’s extensive music curriculum: a five-line staff notation, similar to the raised alphabet used for reading in the decades before Braille; and a simplified, one-line staff with specialized shapes to indicate note values. Most musical training at the Institute was by ear. But as the Institute’s music director Simon Sechter observed in his contribution to the treatise, advanced students wanted a quick, shorthand notation to use when preserving their own compositions, while other students might not read the tactile alphabet and thus needed a simpler method to learn new music on their own.

In this paper, I share a modern three-dimensional reproduction of Sechter’s one-line staff notation system, and discuss the novel ways it represents pitch, rhythm, and other parameters of music. I interpret this experimental notation system in light of others that appeared in the decades before Braille; and I offer some hypotheses as to why a particular Mozart Lied was used to illustrate the system in the engraving. The Lied, I argue, served as both an encouraging aphorism for students, and a persuasive message to the general public. Ultimately, this notation system represents an assistive technology that afforded blind students greater agency and autonomy as aspiring performers, composers, and teachers of music. Even if it was not taken up much beyond the Institute, its survival in the treatise speaks to a period of experimentation and innovation among musicians and educators, one in which blind musicians gained greater access to Vienna as a center of European musical life. The notation also preserves a practice of tactile listening, something that scholars such as Johnson, Tunstall, and Lockhart have identified in other accounts and representations of blind musicking.

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