Richard Leppert
University of Minnesota

The Harpsichord, Music & Western Social Order (The Stakes of Sound)

The harpsichord is firmly tied to the changing history of listening in early modernity. Listening, as theorized by Roland Barthes, has always been imbricated in societies’ attentiveness to potential transgression, more so during the longue durée of modernity than perhaps at any other time; it’s that history that intersects—in part as a “hidden” history—with the harpsichord as one of the highest-caste musical instruments of time. The harpsichord is tied to the private domestic world and gender relations, on the one hand, and the public world of state politics, on the other, in particular by means of the visual data encoded on the cases of these musical instruments, some of it explicitly violent, whether invoking the mythologies of the ancient world or the realities of the modern. In this context, musical listening (a very particular form of listening) is properly understood as a social and culturally fraught exercise extending far beyond perceptions of music as “mere” sound or “only” entertainment. The harpsichord—however bizarrely—was sometimes assigned to play a role in which aesthetics and politics (even nasty politics) were coterminous, contradicting any claim—as expressed by a Latin motto glued onto the case of a virginal –that “music is [merely] the sweet lightener of labors.”

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Richard Leppert is Regents Professor, and Morse Alumni Distinguished Teaching Professor, in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. His research is concentrated on Western European and American cultural history from the 17th century to the present. The most recent of his books are Sound Judgment (Ashgate series “Contemporary Thinkers on Critical Musicology”), and Aesthetic Technologies of Modernity, Subjectivity, and Nature (Opera – Orchestra – Phonograph – Film), just published by the University of California Press.