Going nuts for music – from the 18th century to now

NOTE: This event has been cancelled. It will be rescheduled at a later date to be announced.

Next week, the Melbourne Conservatorium’s Dr Erin Helyard will give a public presentation, and short recital, on extreme emotional responses to music, with a focus on the 18th-century composer FD Philidor’s opera Tom Jones. Here, he explains why feeling hyper-sensitive to novels and music was, at that time, the order of the day.      

“In the 18th century there was a phenomenon known as sensibilité, which basically described a very heightened emotional response to novels or music. At the opera, people would weep aloud or shout enthusiastically, and this sort of behaviour was enculturated and encouraged; it was seen to be a mark of an emotionally-superior human being.

Title page detail from the first translation into French (1750) of Tom Jones by P. de la Place, Rare Books, University of Melbourne.

“More recent equivalents might be something like Beatlemania, when crowds went absolutely nuts for The Beatles, or Lisztomania when people went crazy for the Hungarian composer Liszt in the 1840s.

“But sensibilité, as it was called in French, was somewhat different in that it was inextricably linked with the quality of a person’s character.

“To a large extent, we’ve lost this arguably refined level of emotional connection with the things we read and watch these days. We don’t respond in such an openly empathetic way, both because we are somewhat desensitised, and encouraged not to.

François-André Danican Philidor. Portrait from L’analyze des échecs. London, second edition, 1777. Wikimedia Commons.

“The novel was a new invention in the early 18th century. English novelists in particular were understood to be master manipulators of the emotions.

“There are accounts of people weeping and throwing books in the corner, so moved were they by intricately-rendered accounts of human behaviour. Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones was hugely popular and lead to composer F.D Philidor using it as the setting for an opera.

“Of course, people do have extreme emotional responses to many types of music these days, but not so much at the opera. Rave culture might be the closest contemporary equivalent to 18th-century audience behaviour.

“For my talk, I’ll be discussing these cultural ideas of sensibilité as well as discussing Philidor’s achievement in the operatic sphere, and I’ll be joined by our very talented BMus student Dorcas Lim, who’ll be singing one of the arias from Philidor’s opera.”

— As told to Sarah Hall

A presentation/recital by Dr Erin Helyard: “Philidor, sensibilité and Fielding’s Tom Jones” takes place on 12 July 2017 at the Baillieu Library, University of Melbourne. Booking and event details.

Main image: Ralph Arvesen/Flickr.