Hearing Things: Music and Sounds the Traveller Heard and Didn’t Hear on the Grand Tour

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Vanessa Agnew


For Charles Burney, as for other Enlightenment scholars engaged in historicising music, the problem was not only how to reconstruct a history of something as ephemeral as music, but the more intractable one of cultural boundaries. Non-European music could be excluded from a general history on the grounds that it was so much noise and no music. The music of Egypt and classical antiquity, on the other hand, were likely ancestors of European music and clearly had to be accorded a place within the general history. But before that place could be determined, Burney and his contemporaries were faced with a stunning silence. What was Egyptian music? What were its instruments? What its sound? The paper examines the work of scholars like Burney and James Bruce and their efforts to reconstruct past music by traveling to exotic places. Travel and a form of historical reenactment emerge as central not only to eighteenth-century historical method, but central, too, to the reconstruction of past sonic worlds. This essay argues that this method remains available to contemporary scholars as well.

Article Details

On Noise (Peer Reviewed)
Author Biography

Vanessa Agnew, University of Michigan

Vanessa Agnew is an associate professor in German Studies at the University of Michigan, working on the cultural history of music, travel, reenactment, and the history of science. She is author of Enlightenment Orpheus: The Power of Music in Other Worlds (2008), winner of the Oscar Kenshur Prize for 18th-Century Studies and the American Musicological Society’s Lewis Lockwood Award. She is also a co-editor of Settler and Creole Reenactment (with Jonathan Lamb, 2010), special issues of Rethinking History and Criticism and book series Historical Reenactment and Music in Society and Culture. Agnew is the recipient of fellowships from the National Maritime Museum, Humboldt Foundation, Australian National University, DFG, DAAD, and the American Philosophical Society; she is currently completing a BSc in Natural Science at the Open University.