The Rhetoric of Democracy in American Musical Discourse, 1842-1861 Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Barnes, Molly
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Music, Musicology Graduate Program
  • In the United States, art music has long operated in an uneasy cultural space, divided between associations with the elite and aspirations to mass appeal. This tension became especially acute in the antebellum years, when dramatic changes to the country’s social and political landscape, including massive immigration from Europe, conflict over the institution of slavery, and increasing social and economic inequalities posed serious threats to the democratic American experiment. These circumstances prompted many commentators to voice idealistic hopes about the capacity of classical music in general and instrumental music in particular to unify, uplift, and democratize American society. This dissertation examines antebellum American public discourse about classical music and the powerful rhetoric that promoted this music as a means of realizing the ideal of democratic egalitarianism during a period of palpable discord. Commentaries about music and its social role in newspapers, periodicals, and magazines generally addressed one or more of three interrelated currents. First, the spiritual aspect of art music—the tradition of Kunstreligion inherited from early-nineteenth-century central Europe—figured prominently for many writers. They posited that art music could serve as a means of personal and social improvement, a quasi-religion by which listeners might better themselves morally and spiritually, and in doing so, help to realize a more democratic and socially unified society. The New England Transcendentalists especially championed the alleged spiritual power of music. Second, given the fact that so much art music was of German origin, the political and national implications of this music constituted a major concern for writers in the public sphere. Many observers harbored profound admiration both for German music and for what they perceived as inherently democratic and communal musical practices among the German immigrants who flooded the country after 1848. Third, commentators portrayed Beethoven’s music as heralding the coming state of human freedom and the perfection of democratic life in the American nation. A study of these three themes makes clear that when numerous internal struggles seemed to jeopardize the democratic project, the idealistic rhetoric of antebellum American writers reflected the hope that high musical culture might salvage and sustain that project.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Fauser, Annegret
  • Bonds, Mark Evan
  • Carter, Tim
  • Preston, Katherine
  • Vandermeer, Philip
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2016

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