MPSG 2011


Opera and Philosophy

1st Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group

Generously supported by King’s College London, the British Society of Aesthetics, the Institute of Musical Research, and the Centre for Music on Stage and Screen (University of Nottingham)

Friday and Saturday, 1-2 July 2011
King’s College London

The final conference programme can be found here.


Professor Lydia Goehr (Columbia University)
Lydia Goehr is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.  Her research interests are in German aesthetic theory and in particular in the relationship between philosophy, politics, history, and music. She is the author of The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (1992; second edition with a new essay, 2007); The Quest for Voice: Music, Politics, and the Limits of Philosophy [essays on Richard Wagner] (1998); Elective Affinities: Musical Essays on the History of Aesthetic Theory [essays on Adorno and Danto] (2008), and co-editor with Daniel Herwitz of The Don Giovanni Moment. Essays on the legacy of an Opera (2006). She has written many articles, most recently on the work of Theodor W. Adorno, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Arthur Danto. With Gregg Horowitz, she is series editor of Columbia Themes in Philosophy, Social Criticism, and the Arts, Columbia University Press. She has received numerous awards, including a 2009-10 Lenfest Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for exceptional teaching in Arts & Sciences. She has been a recipient of Mellon, Getty, and Guggenheim Fellowships, and held visiting professorships at U. California (Berkeley), Hamburg, and the Freie Universität, Berlin. She is presently writing a book on the contest of the arts.
Professor Gary Tomlinson (University of Pennsylvania)
Gary Tomlinson is Annenberg Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a specialist in music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, opera, music and cross-cultural contact, and cultural history and historiography. Tomlinson publishes in a number of fields. In his book Monteverdi and the End of the Renaissance (1987) he deals with the impact of literary forces on changing musical styles around 1600. His work on opera, especially in Metaphysical Song: An Essay on Opera (1999), treats the connections of music drama to changing models of European subjectivity. His book Music in Renaissance Magic: Toward a Historiography of Others (1993) brings poststructuralist historical approaches to bear on sixteenth-century musical magic. Tomlinson was awarded the Alfred Einstein prize of the American Musicological Society in 1982. He has held Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships and was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar in 1997-98. His current work concerns New World song and theories of European colonialism.
Professor Kendall Walton (University of Michigan)
Kendall Walton is Charles L. Stevenson Collegiate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, where he also holds a professorship in the School of Art and Design. Much of Professor Walton’s work consists in exploring connections between theoretical questions about the arts and issues of philosophy of mind, metaphysics, and philosophy of language. He has written extensively on pictorial representation, fiction and the emotions, the ontological status of fictional entities, the aesthetics of music, metaphor, and aesthetic value.  His book Mimesis as Make Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (1990), develops a theory of make-believe and uses it to understand the nature and varieties of representation in the arts.  He is also the author of Marvelous Images: On Values and the Arts (2010) and In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence (forthcoming). He has held fellowships from the NEH, the ACLS, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Stanford Humanities Center. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and past president of the American Society for Aesthetics. He is currently working on a book entitled Aesthetics (a general overview of the field, in a series edited by Scott Soames for Princeton University Press).


The RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group warmly invites paper submissions for their inaugural two-day international conference, to be held in London on 1-2 July 2011. The event, the first of an annual series of conferences run by the Study Group, will offer an opportunity for musicologists and philosophers to share and discuss work in the hope of furthering dialogue between the two disciplines. Paper submissions on all topics related to the area of music and philosophy are welcome, but in particular those relating to this year’s theme of ‘Opera and Philosophy’. Collaboration between persons from different disciplines would be especially welcomed.

In addition to papers relating to the conference theme, topics of interest might include (but are not limited to):

– music, meaning, and language
– perception and expression
– music and ethics
– music and ontology
– performance, authenticity, and interpretation

Conference theme 2011: ‘Opera and Philosophy’

For centuries, from Rousseau, through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to Adorno, Williams, Zizek, Dolar and beyond, opera has captured the imaginations of philosophers. At the same time, musicology has engaged enthusiastically with connections between philosophical thought and operatic themes, such as, for example, the relationship between music and words, the limits and possibilities of opera as social and political expression, and the rich potential of voice as bearer of meaning and subjectivity. This year’s theme of ‘Opera and Philosophy’ seeks to encourage further discussion of opera as a medium which straddles ontological, metaphysical, and hermeneutic spheres, inviting exploration of issues related to areas such as representation, expression, language, narrative, meaning, and ethics.

There will a special session on:

‘Opera, Philosophy, and the Visual Arts’ (in association with the RMA Music and Visual Arts Study Group)
Invited speaker: Professor Robert Saxton (Oxford University)

Proposals of up to 500 words are invited for individual papers (20 minutes) and collaborative papers (up to 30 minutes).

Please submit proposals by e-mail to the conference organiser Dr Nanette Nielsen:

The deadline for proposals is Monday 10 January 2011.

All paper submissions will be considered by the conference committee:

Professor Julian Dodd
Professor Julian Johnson
Mr Tomas McAuley
Dr Nanette Nielsen
Professor Nick Zangwill


Our inaugural Annual General Meeting was held at King’s College London on Thursday 30 June 2011, 2pm-4pm.


1. Opening remarks (Chair)

2. Apologies for absence

3. Presentation of Annual Report (Chair)

  • Will be circulated to all attendees in advance of the AGM.

4. Presentation of Accounts (Treasurer)

  • Will be circulated to all attendees in advance of the AGM.

5. Committee elections

    • For the following positions: Chair, Treasurer, Secretary, Events, Communications
  • As this will be the Study Group’s first ever elections, current members of the Steering Group will stand opposed only by ‘New Election’. (If any candidate is outvoted by ‘New Election’, a further election will be held within six months.)

6. Short planning reports from each member of the committee, detailing planned activities for the coming year.

7. Website report from Golan Gur (Website Editor)

8. Event  planning report from Huw Hallam (Session convenor: Marking Time. On contemporary music and historical analysis, Study Group session to be held at The Seventh Biennial International Conference on Music Since 1900 / The International Conference of the Society for Music Analysis, Lancaster, Thursday 28 to Sunday 31 July 2011)

9. Any Other Business


The below report, written by Prasanthi Matharu, originally appeared in the October 2011 edition of the Newsletter of the Royal Musical Association.

Opera and Philosophy: The inaugural conference of the RMA’s Music and Philosophy Study Group

King’s College London, 1–2 July 2011

Music and Philosophy Study Group: The inaugural conference of the RMA’s Music and Philosophy Study Group took place on 1 and 2 July 2011 at the Department of Music, King’s College London. The optional theme was Opera and Philosophy. The event opened

with an introductory greeting from Nanette Nielsen, followed by a lively panel discussion which identified challenges presented by the meeting of disciplines. When discussing common topics of interest, such as musical value, meaning, emotional content, ontology, language, aesthetic experience, morality and ethics, musicologists and philosophers find that disagreements often arise from methodological discrepancies. With reference to this, Tomas McAuley’s address quoted Garry Hagberg’s assertion of the importance of listening to each other. The conference continued with a series of parallel sessions over the two days, interspersed with keynote speeches from Gary Tomlinson, Kendall Walton and Lydia Goehr.

Wagner’s operas proved to be a popular topic. Golan Gur’s paper explored Franz Brendel’s historicist theories of art, which drew on Hegelian ideas of evolving self-awareness, in order to suggest that Wagner initiated a new model for composers by merging philosophy with artistic creation. By bringing together art and philosophy, Gur argued, in line with Brendel, that Wagner’s operas signify a pivotal development in the history of music: they mark the beginning of a new era.

Gary Tomlinson, in his keynote speech ‘Unthinking Wagnerism’, also picked up on the idea of Wagner as an innovator, extending his conception of music as a means of accessing other realms of thinking. With frequent reference to biological explanations, Tomlinson argued that the totalizing effect of Wagner’s music did not induce a passive audience. Rather, the ‘narcotic’ upon ‘interpretants’ is in fact a symptom of their increased participation with the musical stimulus. Wagner’s operas created a new scale of semiotic activity and listening experience.

Richard Bell’s paper and the collaborative presentation from David Levy and Julian Young focused more on philosophical and religious issues raised in Wagner’s work. Bell suggested that the composer’s arguments in paragraphs 2–4 of Religion and Art could shed light on Kundry’s conversion in Parsifal. Levy and Young, on the other hand, set out to defend Wagner against the criticisms made by Nietzsche and Adorno with regard to his operas being ‘decadent’, ‘tyrannical’, flawed on formal grounds and ‘nurturing life denial’. Their paper generated a lively discussion from the audience concerning the question of whether Wagner’s Tristan advocates a ‘will to death’ or redemption through love.

The themes of musical expression, emotion and meaning also received due attention over the course of the conference. The ability of music to express that which is beyond the grasp of language was emphasized in Barry Stocker’s paper, which discussed Kierkegaard’s reception of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Roger Scruton pointed out that it is through the immediacy of the music from within Mozart that we feel a sense of the Don’s seductive power. Mark Berry further stressed this expressive capacity. In his analysis of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, Berry argued that music is able to give artistic representation to an unknowable divinity through virtue of its abstract nature.

In other sessions, delegates explored the potential of utilizing various linguistic methods of analysis in order to elucidate meaning in music. Robert Samuels proposed the idea of mapping a musical flow to a narrative model, while Karen Simecek insightfully suggested that the way we experience meaning in music may be similar to how we engage with, and respond to, lyrical poetry.

Kathryn Whitney’s lecture-performance towards the end of the conference featured a mini-concert and provided a refreshing reminder of the experience of live music. Her engaging presentation investigated the ontology of ‘liveness’ from the perspective of performers, as opposed to that of listeners. Whitney’s clear presentation incorporated animated diagrams and an ‘equation’ in order to explain, and capture, all of the elements that constitute the unfolding of a song in performance.

In the final keynote speech, Lydia Goehr sought to investigate the symbolism of an anecdote about a painting of the Red Sea by uncovering its associative history. This trope, which occurs as Marcel works on a painting of the Red Sea in Puccini’s La bohème, appears to highlight a persistent tension between art and commerce.

In the closing plenary session, Kendall Walton noted the impressive size and diversity of the group attending this inaugural conference. Throughout there was a high level of involvement in the discussions of papers, with many pertinent points made and questions raised.

There was a general consensus that the way forward would be to recognize and investigate the discrepancies between approaches. Other suggestions included greater engagement of musicians with philosophy; that analytical philosophy deal with contemporary music; and that the divide between analytical and continental schools of thought be addressed.

Overall, the event successfully achieved its aim to open up discussion, demonstrating that while cross-disciplinary relations could be challenging, the relationship between music and philosophy is not dull! Many thanks go to the organizers and participants, and to King’s College London, which will also host next year’s conference.

Prasanthi Matharu (Goldsmiths, University of London)


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