Interview with Rebeccah Bechtold, 2016 Ralph D. Gray Article Prize Winner
The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your article, would you provide a synopsis?
Rebeccah Bechtold (RB): “A Revolutionary Soundscape: Musical Reform and the Science of Sound in Early America, 1760–1840” examines how the growing accessibility of music in the mid eighteenth century cultivated a wider appreciation for music as an individuated art. In this period, advocates for music linked its practice with the political aims of independence through a shared discourse of sensibility, turning to the science behind sound in order to describe music as an art form capable of communicating to and regulating the emotions of the listening public. Influenced by music’s origins as a sacred art and an Enlightenment rhetoric interested in bodily functions, Americans living and working in the northeastern cities of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York ultimately employed a revolutionary rhetoric that advocated for the aesthetic as a method of reform, accenting music’s potential in safeguarding national harmony and, in the nineteenth century, producing social concord.
TR: What brought you write on this topic, and how does it fit within your broader research?
RB: My research tends to explore the social, cultural, and formal intersections of music, described in the early American period as a “language of feeling,” with its literary counterpart, the sentimental tradition. More specifically, I am interested in how music reshaped prevailing attitudes toward sentimentality and the production of emotion in the United States. I came to write “A Revolutionary Soundscape” while working on building a cultural history of music’s emergence as this emotive aesthetic. Even though my research originally focused exclusively on the nineteenth century (in particular the explosion of musical culture in the 1830s and 1840s), it quickly became clear that the American description of music as a sentimental aesthetic had an earlier foundation—as seen, for instance, in the writings of eighteenth century psalmodists like William Billings and Andrew Law.
TR: As a professor of English, do you find yourself thinking differently from historians about the role of music in history?
Perhaps—I usually begin with a literary text in order to develop questions about the historical use of music and sound. However, I am very much interested in maintaining a historical awareness of how early Americans heard and interacted with music, an approach I first learned from my dissertation chair, Trish Loughran. Much of my work also is informed by the soundscape studies of historians like Mark M. Smith and Richard Cullen Rath. Their work, among others, encouraged me to think more broadly about my archive—the kinds of texts I could use to examine music in its broadest definition, as a cultural phenomenon encompassing a network of music, musicians, composers, listeners, instruments, images, and texts.
TR: What is your current/next project?
RB: I am currently working on two article-length essays that explore sound and music’s function as a mode of religious or spiritual communication. One examines Augusta Jane Evans’s use of the romantic prelude-form in her 1859 Beulah—a novel that overtly studies the tension between religious faith and artistic expression—while the other interrogates the soundscape of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and its portrayal of sound as a “spiritual medium” capable of countering the destabilizing noise of the modern world.