Theses Doctoral

Touch and Modernity in French Keyboard Pedagogy, 1715–1915

Weinstein-Reiman, Michael

For keyboardists, touch is a paradox. It refers to the physical actions that constitute performance, yet to be “touched” by music is also to consider the immaterial relationship between performance and our psychology. In this dissertation, Touch and Modernity in French Keyboard Pedagogy, 1715–1915, I explore this dual notion of touch, deciphering how performers, teachers, analysts, and critics described the keyboard as a unique interface between body and mind. I track the notion of touch through an undertheorized corpus of instruction manuals for harpsichordists and pianists written in France between 1715 and 1915. The authors of these manuals outline several strikingly flexible theories of touch, described as some combination of action, sense, and metaphor. They use touch to construe the keyboardist as a modern ideal, dedicating their pedagogical programs to “newness,” configured to varying degrees as edification through rationalization, social development through institution building and urbanization, industrialization, culminating in the themes of alienation and solipsism.

The musicians who wrote and used these manuals found unlikely interlocutors across a diverse field of thinkers. These interlocutors included philosophers and encyclopedists, bureaucrats, technologists, anthropologists, anatomists, psychologists, and others. Venturing explanations for the body’s relationship to sensory impressions, aesthetic judgments, and knowledge acquisition, these figures joined music pedagogues, using the keyboard and its various iterations—from instruments to telegraphs and typewriters—as a grounding object for touch. They delineated the stakes of an array of ideologies, positing an artistic, intuitive, discerning, or efficient touch as a benchmark by which to calibrate their modern subject, idealized as inhabiting an interface between historicity and progress. Their definitions for touch shuttle between public and private spheres, the exterior world and the interior psyche, the self and the other.

This dissertation’s methodology treats four broad topics as lenses through which we discern modern modes of theorizing, deriving, and disseminating knowledge through touch. These include sensibility, or the condition for subjective knowledge; empiricism, or knowledge by way of experience; physiology, or knowledge acquisition through study of the interaction between mind and body; and psychology, or the potential for variable knowledge based on perception and attention. I argue that, animated by the aforementioned topics, touch enacts a dialectic of musical “work”—connoting preparatory labor, polished performance, and an object for contemplation and analysis—through which keyboardists came to represent modern subjectivity more broadly, the concept for which concretized over the course of the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. Touch thus affords a unique framework which we may use to study historical definitions of selfhood, denoting the materials, practices, and ethics of experiencing our bodies and articulating our relationship to culture and society.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Steege, Benjamin Adam
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 14, 2021