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Graduate Research Colloquium: Jennifer Ronyak (University of Oxford)

October 19 @ 5:15 pm - 7:00 pm


Philosophical and Musical Amateurism in the Reception of Also Sprach Zarathustra at the Start of the Twentieth Century

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Musical responses to Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra appeared first in the 1890s and continued throughout the first decades of the twentieth century. While Richard Strauss’s tone poem and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 are the most well-known, numerous composers followed Mahler’s lead in particular, engaging with Zarathustra by setting to music “O Mensch! Gib Acht!,” a compact poem that figures prominently in the book.

In this paper, I view these compositions and the performance situations they suggest as forays into philosophical amateurism, in which musical amateurism often has an important role to play. In the case of settings of “O Mensch! Gib Acht!,” this posture can be seen first in how composers treat the component poem of Zarathustra as an easier to digest, reduced object taken from the whole Zarathustra text. Though seemingly treated apart from its source, the poem is poised to point performers and listeners back to Zarathustra for further illumination, or to at least encapsulate the atmosphere of the book’s main arguments, a role that the poem’s original function in Zarathustra actually supports.

In setting this poem, some composers, like the Viennese popular author and amateur woman composer Lenore Pany, struggled with the issue of Nietzsche’s comparative authority when seeking to engage with the well-known philosopher by writing a song fit for amateur performance. Others, such as the choral conductors Max Auer and Max Battke, took Nietzsche’s poem as an opportunity to write ambitious musical works for their respective groups, whether these be amateur adult choral singers or children in a pedagogical context. In all such cases, the status of these composers and the probable performers of their works led them to intone Nietzsche’s words in ways that fulfilled some of Nietzsche’s own hopes for his work, while falling short of the more general philosophical imperative to call into question the thinker’s claims. These musical engagements with Zarathustra also raise questions about the possible relationships that can be created between poetry, music, and philosophy through musical composition, as well as how the philosophical canon—even in this early stage in which Nietzsche had barely joined it—operates in the case of diverse individual readers and composers.

Jennifer Ronyak holds a Marie Skłodowska Curie Individual Fellowship at Oxford University, while on leave from her position as Assistant Professor of Musicology at the Institute for Music Aesthetics of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Graz. She is at work on the project “Composing Philosophy: Amateurism and Aesthetics in Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Music.” The project looks at cases in which classical composers have mined philosophical works for musical material, such as texts for vocal works or programs for instrumental ones. It offers a new view of this “composing philosophy” as something done from the standpoint of philosophical amateurism—the state of engaging deeply with philosophy while being inexpert in it—irrespective of whether composers are students, canonical figures, or something in between. She is the author of Intimacy, Performance, and the Lied in the Early Nineteenth Century (2018), the co-editor, with Benjamin Binder, of the book in progress The Lied at the Crossroads of Performance and Musicology, and the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters on various subjects pertaining to art song, including amateurism; her earlier research has been supported by various international, national, and campus fellowships and grants.

About the series:

The Colloquia feature leading figures, as well as younger scholars, from across the world. They present their research in papers on all kinds of music-related topics. Graduate students Marinu Leccia and Dylan Price organise the series. Presentations are followed by a discussion and virtual drinks reception. Free and open to all Music Faculty students and members. Most events are in hybrid in-person (Lecture Room B)/online format – please follow sign-up link for attendance in person and online. If you would like more information, please email marinu.leccia@linacre.ox.ac.uk or dylan.price@music.ox.ac.uk.


October 19
5:15 pm - 7:00 pm
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