Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud? Musicological Responses to Psychobiography

Psychobiography has always held an uneasy position in the writing of musical biography. Ernest Newman’s: The Man Liszt: A Study of a Tragi-comedy of a Soul Divided Against Itself (1934) attempted to ride the wave of the debunking biography model laced with a psychoanalytic angle, but none of his critics cared for it. Newman tried a similar approach in The Unconscious Beethoven (1937) arguing that the ‘finger-prints’ of Beethoven’s music suggested a particular psychology, but this endeavour was also largely dismissed by the critics and the reading public. Written much later, Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven (1977) is often praised as a psychobiography par excellence but there is little psychoanalysis in it except a few references here and there to works by Freud.

This seminar will try to explain why psychobiography has been such a problematic and distrusted genre in musical scholarship. It examines various attempts at the genre and explains why they fell short and also argues that much musicological research is still preoccupied with the preservation of a European canon in which the romantic ideal of the composer seeking redemption through music still holds fast. Any attempt at psychoanalysing a composer's intention in their work or life-story, destabilises this discourse and poses a threat to the historical record. The seminar concludes by suggesting how biographies of musicians might be written in the future. It will ask how a musical canon and conventional biographical methods in musicology might be disrupted by psychoanalytic inquiry.

Dr Paul Watt is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Music in the Elder Conservatorium of Music, The University of Adelaide. His research interests include music criticism, biography, popular music and street music, as well as intellectual and religious history. He is the author of Ernest Newman: A Critical Biography, published to international acclaim in 2017, followed by The Regulation and Reform of Music Criticism in Nineteenth-Century England (Royal Musical Association Monographs / Routledge, 2018). He is the lead editor of Cheap Print and Popular Song in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2017, eds Watt, Scott and Spedding) and The Oxford Handbook of Music and Intellectual Culture in the Nineteenth Century (2020, eds Watt, Collins and Allis). He has published in a range of journals including Music & Letters and the Yale Journal of Music & Religion. He is currently completing a third monograph, Music, Moral Education and Social Reform in the Nineteenth Century and articles and book chapters on music and psychobiography.

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Date & time

Tue 05 Oct 2021, 4.30pm




Adjunct AsProf Dr Paul Watt

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