Pasta as Anna Bolena
Several correspondents, among them the excellent Roger Evans, have asked whether I might consider an addition to my list of "top 10 paper titles" from the forthcoming conference of the American Musicological Society. Indeed, I'm not sure how I overlooked Ellen Lockhart's tantalizing offering, "Giuditta Pasta and the History of Musical Electrification." The title deserves extra points for avoiding the overfamiliar catchphrase-colon-paraphrase formula. By way of penance I append the entire abstract:
This paper charts the development of metaphors of musical electrification, from the first experiments in “animal electricity” into the realm of Italian operatic performance. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, northern Italy was the site of a scientific revolution, when Luigi Galvani discovered that frogs’ legs could be animated by means of electrical current. His experiments in “animal electricity” were reproduced in salons and on stages across Europe, often enhanced with lighting effects and musical accompaniment. Music itself was often described as an electrical force, which could transmit charge from one body to another, or redistribute the electrical currents within an individual, without the need for metal conductors. One result was an early form of music therapy: in his 1816 medical treatise, Angelo Colò suggested that epileptic seizures could be cured by means of musical accompaniment, directing the patient’s electrical current rhythmically away from the brain and into the limbs. Another consequence was a new lexicon and theoretical apparatus for describing music’s effects on the listener. Writers drew most frequently on metaphors of electrification in describing Italian operatic performance—and in particular the performance of women. This had some basis in electric science: women were believed to carry a negative charge, and thus the female singer could act as a lightning rod, drawing the positive charge in the atmosphere into her body (which would display the symptoms of shock), and transmitting it into spectators through song. The earliest performer to be described consistently in such terms was Giuditta Pasta, in writings by Stendhal, Chorley, Ritorni, and Cantù. For these writers, Pasta’s ability to electrify her audience derived both from her mercurial voice and from her distinctive acting style: she was known for suddenly stiffening her body into poses lasting two to three seconds, directly in time with musical events; her teacher, Talma, reportedly taught her that an action should precede its music in a flash, the way lightning precedes thunder. This research into electric animation may enrich our understanding of performative presence, musical effect, and the interaction of visual and musical media within early ottocento opera.