Hearing Echoes: Reception History and the Musical Memorial

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 4:10 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Jeremy Eichler, Harvard University
Monuments in sound, or "musical memorials," require a different set of analytic approaches than do their sibling monuments in stone. One key difference pertains to reception history. As unusually portable lieux de mémoire, musical memorials can generate responses that vary greatly depending on, among other factors, the time and place of a performance, the work’s perceived commemorative agenda, its composer’s local and national standing, and the political valences associated with the compositional language of the work itself. All of this said, it nonetheless remains unclear how a memorial’s reception history can or should be seen as influencing the work's place, its range of meanings, in contemporary cultural memory. In addressing this topic, this paper turns to Aleida Assmann’s writings on the dynamics of cultural memory, and specifically, her distinction between “storage memory” and “functional memory.” I argue that our understanding of a memorial work is enlarged by defining it not only through its score or its public performance but also by regarding it as a storage medium, an archive of its own reception history. Like any archive, its texts must be read and interpreted before they can be said to move from the domain of “storage memory” to that of “functional memory,” wherein they can and do contribute to the range of meanings inhabited by the musical work today. This discussion of the relevance of reception history to contemporary perceptions of memorial meaning will be illustrated through the example of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto. I suggest that recovering and foregrounding the history of its extraordinarily contested premiere in Berg’s native Vienna in 1936 has the potential to shift the memorial content of this work today, bringing it into explicit dialogue with the cultural memory of the Second World War and of the end of German-Jewish modernism in Central Europe.