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4 - The Science of Musical Memory: Vernon Lee and the Remembrance of Sounds Past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2013

Shafquat Towheed
Affiliation:
Universities of London
Phyllis Weliver
Affiliation:
Associate Professor of English, Saint Louis University
Katharine Ellis
Affiliation:
Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music at the University of Bristol
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Summary

An accomplished interdisciplinary writer, Vernon Lee (pseud. Violet Paget) was one of the most innovative pan-European thinkers of her age. Writing before Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, and intellectually influencing them both, Lee often drew upon ideas, metaphors, phrases and terminology from musical performance, practice and reception. From her first published writing on music, Lee yoked together words and notes, music and literature, and score and libretto. Impressionistic responses to musical performance and the remembrance of specific songs, arias, melodies, chords or musical phrases are ubiquitous in Lee's short fiction, essays and travel writing; she also systematically analysed the experience of listeners. Discussing the relationship between music and drama in her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy (1880), Lee declared that ‘the object of the writer has been to study not the special nature and history of any art in its isolation’ but to study the ‘evolution of the various arts compared with one another’. She did not restrict her interpretative approach to the arts. Unlike Woolf, Mansfield, or the majority of her literary peers, Lee was an extensive reader of and commentator on works in physical and experimental science, and saw the impact of music upon literature in scientific as well as artistic terms. While nineteenth-century novelists often drew inspiration from musical themes, structures, forms and motifs, or foregrounded depictions of musical performances in their fiction, Lee's interest lay not only in the creative potential that music offered the other arts (especially literature) but also in the physiological effect of music on the human body and mind.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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