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Time and Loss in Eighteenth-Century Music Theory

Friday, April 6, 2012
12:00 AM
3222 Angell Hall

A talk by Roger Grant, University of Michigan Society of Fellows

Musicians and composers in the age of Haydn and Mozart were terribly worried about tempo. It had become evident to them that musical notation lacked a certain type of specificity in its attempt to encode the unfolding of musical events: it could not prescribe time with any universal form of measurement. Fearing the impending illegibility of their music, the theorists and inventors of the era devised a series of technologies that they hoped would preserve and communicate the tempi of musical compositions. Among these technologies were the early musical chronometers; predecessors to the metronome, these devices were one version of an attempt to provide a regular, reliable, and external method for indicating time in music. But no significant system of tempo specification would rely on any of these instruments until well into the nineteenth century, when the inventor Johann Maelzel patented and disseminated the machine we now call the metronome. Before that moment—and during the heart of the eighteenth-century’s tempo anxieties—theorists and musicians sought another solution in the technique of taxonomically illustrating the connections between meter, note values, character, and tempo. My talk examines these taxonomies from the perspective of textual and material history. It places them alongside the timepieces of their day in order to highlight their technical character and to demonstrate their role in the regulation of tempo and the conceptualization of time in music.
Roger Mathew Grant is assistant professor and fellow in the University of Michigan’s Society of Fellows. He received his PhD in music from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently he is at work on a book manuscript that examines a dramatic change in the conceptualization of musical time that took place during the eighteenth century. His project seeks to understand the common strategies for theorizing time in treatises on subjects such as aesthetics, music theory, mathematics, and natural philosophy.