The science of musical memory: Vernon Lee and the remembrance of sounds past

Towheed, Shafquat (2013). The science of musical memory: Vernon Lee and the remembrance of sounds past. In: Ellis, Katharine and Weliver, Phyllis eds. Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth-Century. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, pp. 104–122.



Drawing upon my research of Vernon Lee’s commonplace books (1887-1900, 12vols), pocket notebooks (1926-1935, 27vols) correspondence and the marginalia in her library books (over 400 volumes), this chapter opens with a survey of Lee’s remarkably comprehensive and engaged reading in music, memory, and musical memory. She read and responded to (amongst others) the work of Ribot, Stumpf, Ebbinghaus, Semon, Helmholtz, Hering, Howes and Butler in the study of musical memory, and Bazaillas, Dauriac, Rubinstein, Prime-Stevenson, Rolland, Köstlin, Parry and de Robeck in music criticism. For Lee, who viewed music as an ‘ancestral emotion’, a key concept was the centrality of musical memory, which she explored both scientifically and aesthetically in much of her critical and fictional writing. This chapter will focus on Lee’s deployment of the potency of musical memory in two key texts – Music and Its Lovers (1932), and ‘A Wicked Voice’ (1890).

Music and Its Lovers is Lee’s longest and most complex scholarly work on music, and also the most misunderstood. I offer a fresh analysis of Lee’s allegedly empirical and qualitative investigation of individual responses to music by demonstrating the importance of her distinction between ‘listeners’ and ‘hearers’, a distinction that she argued, was in part biologically demarcated, as well as discussing the importance of memory in her analysis of the appreciation of music. Lee’s exploration of the relationship between music, memory and the emotions was not restricted to her non-fictional writing. I examine Lee’s most famous fictional depiction of the potency of musical memory, the Gothic horror story, ‘A Wicked Voice’, from the perspective of her increasing awareness of the biological complexity of both mental storage and retrieval. Specifically, I look at the haunting presence of specific pieces of music (such as Hasse’s air ‘Pallido Il Sole’ and the Venetian gondolier’s aria, ‘La Biondina in Gondoleta’) in shaping this most musical of Lee’s short stories. Finally, I will also briefly demonstrate the importance of Lee’s theoretical writing on music to the rest of her relentlessly interdisciplinary work, by examining the implications suggested by her advocacy of the corporeality of aesthetic experiences.

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