August 2023

Musings on Section Leadership

This post emerges from having a number of conversations over quite a long period of time, and noticing a pattern that needs interrogating. I don’t know if by the end of it I’ll have any answers, but I hope to have a better handle on the questions, which is arguably the most useful stage.

The conversations have been with choir directors, mostly (though not exclusively) of barbershop choruses, but all groups in which section leaders play a significant role in the groups’ processes for learning music. The choruses have included all-male, all-female and mixed groups, ensembles of a range of achievement levels, and are based in several different countries. What they have in common are reports of a particular dynamic within one of their sections, whereby the section as a whole is perceived as fragile, despite having a very strong singer for their leader.

'The Frozen, Firm Embodiment of Music': Romantic Aesthetics and the Female Form


This paper explores two themes in the writings of ETA Hoffmann, Carl Maria von Weber, and Robert Schumann: music as idealized woman, and philistinism amongst actual female musicians. It argues that these writers deploy these tropes as part of a general campaign to raise the aesthetic value of music, and, along with it, the social standing of musicians. In the context of the changing patterns in labour and domestic life during the early nineteenth century, the activities of composition and instrumental performance were discursively positioned as inherently masculine as a means to secure their desired status of middle-class professional.

For the background to the paper, see my previous blog post


In the long crescendo of the nightingale's song, the beams of light condensed into the figure of a beautiful woman - and this figure was a divine, magnificent music.1

‘The Frozen, Firm, Embodiment of Music’ – introductory remarks

In the blog post that follows this I plan to publish a paper I wrote back in the last millennium, so I thought it might be useful to give a little context as to why I’m doing this. And as it’s several times longer than my usual blog posts as it stands, I decided to do that in a separate post so as not to make it even longer.

The paper started off as a spin-off from my PhD – a set of themes I noticed as I worked on the section about gendered discourses in music theory and aesthetics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It had no place in my actual thesis, but the ideas coalesced into a separate argument that I took to a couple of conferences in 1994 and 1995. I spent some time over the next few years, when I was teaching at Colchester, developing it with a wider evidence base, and submitted it for publication to a major journal in 1999, shortly after moving to Birmingham.

On Feeling it, or Not

I’ve had a few conversations recently about the principle that a performer should feel the emotions that the music they perform will evoke in their listeners. It’s a widely-promulgated view; I came across it recently in Joszef Gat’s Technique of Piano Playing, and a friend shared a quote from CPE Bach which I suspect might be one of the earlier examples, articulating what was then the new aesthetic of sensibility. It was readily absorbed into the Romantic tradition in formulations such as ETA Hoffman’s idea of music ‘speaking directly from the heart to the heart’, and, like much of that tradition has become pretty much a truism in general conceptions of musical performance today.

The principle articulates an aesthetic of authenticity, or honesty, in performance, the idea that the performer means what they are saying. It conceives of the act of performance as one of communication, as a transmission of meaning from one consciousness to others, and assumes that meaning is of a type that is personally engaging and generates mutual sympathy. If you have been involved in making or listening to music in the west in the 20th or 21st centuries, this will all sound sensible and very much what performance is about.

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