Sumner Lott, Marie. 2015. the Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

By Ivanova, Velia | Current Musicology, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Sumner Lott, Marie. 2015. the Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press


Ivanova, Velia, Current Musicology


Sumner Lott, Marie. 2015. The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

The serious nature of nineteenth-century domestic social activity, even activity that might appear to be solely leisurely and playful at a first glance, is at the center of Marie Sumner Lott's recent book, The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music. Through this notion of serious leisure Sumner Lott weaves together an absorbing discussion of a multitude of composers, performers, and locales. She bases her work around the central idea that the oft-discussed retreat of the middle class into the domestic sphere in the first half of the century--a retreat mostly owing itself to active government depoliticization of salon culture across the continent--led to a situation in which bourgeois and upper-class men "needed spaces in which they could socialize together without compromising their social standing" (14). No longer able to gather under explicitly political auspices with the same ease as before, many turned to music as a reason to congregate and socialize. (1) Thus, Sumner Lott contends, sociable, leisurely activities became serious business.

Research on the influence of leisure on musical life in the nineteenth century has often centered on the public sphere of large music performance associations and semi-public amateur concerts by invitation. Focused on the concept of national unification through the creation of an educated middle class (or Bildungsburgertum), monographs such as Ryan Minor's (2012) Choral Fantasies: Music, Festivity, and Nationhood in 19th-Century Germany have called attention to the importance of contemporary ideals of communality and the influence of these ideals on musical output. On the other hand, when the truly private, domestic sphere of 1800s Europe has been broached, discussion has usually centered on the piano and, quite often, on the women seated behind it. For instance, Richard Leppert's work on musical portraiture in eighteenth-century England is wide-ranging in its discussion of instruments and their uses in the home, but as he turns to the nineteenth century, particularly in the latter chapters of The Sight of Sound: Music, Representation, and the History of the Body (1993), he primarily discusses the enactment of gender around the piano. Work on piano duets, particularly reinvigorated in the last two decades by Philip Brett's (1997) seminal article on four-hand piano playing and gay male sexuality, has further cemented the importance of the instrument in discussions of nineteenth-century domesticity and of the nexus between music and social interaction.

While Sumner Lott's work owes an enormous debt to the scholars mentioned above, her strict focus on chamber music written solely for strings and the community that perpetuated its popularity throughout the nineteenth century makes The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music unique and compelling. She argues that chamber string music can reveal just as much about domesticity, about modes of listening, and about gender relations as issues surrounding the piano and its use in the home. Unwilling to draw hard lines between private and public spheres, Lott draws on Benedict Anderson's concept of an "imagined community" to explain the manner in which seemingly private, leisurely string playing influenced public, "serious" compositional output by creating a collective sense of identity expressed through the material objects, print media, and artworks shared among geographically and temporally dispersed groups of people. And although Lott does not use this concept to directly discuss the creation of nationhood, it is no coincidence that she borrows a term closely connected to this notion. Throughout the book she returns, again and again, to the way in which leisurely musical activities and the imagined communities they generated influenced national styles and, through the formation of such styles, influenced the creation and reception of works that we now consider central to the canon of Western music. …

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