Re-Writing Composers' Lives: Critical Historiography and Musical Biography

Christopher Mark Wiley


Christopher Mark Wiley (2008) Re-Writing Composers' Lives: Critical Historiography and Musical Biography.

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Recent musicological discourse, while frequently considering issues of historiography and canonicity, has seldom critically engaged with biography as a genre of documentary significance to reception history for its attempts to shape public opinion of its subjects. In consequence, modern musicology has often taken for granted many tendencies and preoccupations that accumulated in musical biography in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This thesis presents a historiographical examination of the precedents for and accretions of these assumptions, in terms of the role played by biography both in the establishment and maintenance of ideological canons and in the resultant ‘top-down’ conception of music history as dominated by an elite handful of exalted composers. Exploration of the ways in which biographies constructed their subjects as ‘great’ and ‘exemplary’ – insofar as these concepts were idealized within the communities of readers for whom they were originally written – is conducted through two major studies of the published texts to c.1950 on canonical composers including J. S. Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. The first investigates the elaboration and distortion of a set of some twenty-five of the most famous myths of musical biography, from their origins in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Continental European texts to their fullest development (and, in many cases, their refutation) in English-language biographies up to the mid-twentieth century. In contrast, the second critically analyzes the twelve volumes of the original ‘Master Musicians’ series (1899-1906) as exemplars of the biographical and musical paradigms of composer life-writing, and as late Victorian period pieces of significance to canon formation for their conception as a closed set of monographs of historically-important subjects appropriated to English ends. The conclusion provides a preliminary assessment of the implications to modern musicology of the findings of this thesis through re-evaluation of elements of recent biographical and hermeneutical scholarship, and proposes that the discipline might usefully adopt a more inclusive, self-reflexive approach to the study of musical biography in the future.

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This is a Accepted version
This version's date is: 2008
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Item TypeThesis (Doctoral)
TitleRe-Writing Composers' Lives: Critical Historiography and Musical Biography
AuthorsWiley, Christopher
Uncontrolled Keywordsmusic; biography; historiography
DepartmentsFaculty of Arts\Music

Deposited by () on 13-Apr-2012 in Royal Holloway Research Online.Last modified on 15-Feb-2017


(C) Chrisopher Mark Wiley whose permission to upload this version for private use and study is acknowledged here.