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Symposium Review I
Expressivity in the »Valkyrie«. An analysis of contemporary listening habits
This article is part of a larger research project that develops methods of historical music psychology. It looks into possibilities of researching the impact of particular types of music on contemporaneous listeners. As test subjects are no longer available for the historical research, other documents that can be interpreted in an analogous manner and provide quantifiable testimony must be consulted considering such historical music psychology does not target the individual, subjective experience of a single person but rather testimony that can be generalized at least in regards to the mental states and cultural codes within a certain historical-spatial context. Since the research is reliant on historical sources and thus can not be based on a test setup that is structured and fail-safe on various levels, critical-hermeneutical methods in combination with quantitative elements are required. The present case study looks into reliable witnesses who are able to provide information concerning the effect of the Valkyrie, that is, how the expressive qualities of this opera were experienced by contemporaries. For this purpose, 958 sources were consulted, 24 of which contained relevant testimony. As the method zeros in on generalizable testimony, a significance-threshold was defined: judgements on the expressive quality of the music were considered significant if conveyed by at least three independent witnesses (and could not be derived from the libretto text). For four parts of the opera – the Ride of the Valkyries, the Overture, Wotan’s Farewell with Magic Fire, and the Love Duet in the first act – the use of this method makes it possible to generate reliable testimony that relates to the impact of the respective scenic excerpts. This demonstrates that, for example, the Ride of the Valkyries was perceived as wild and powerful and viewed as ecstatic; furthermore, the wildness can be characterized as sensual and life-affirming. In a conclusive observation, it is noted that there is a probable correlation between the success of certain parts on the one side and on the other, the corresponding expressive characterization of these parts i.e. the probability that certain parts were popular among audiences is higher in those instances where at least three witnesses account the same expressive qualities in their perception than in those for which there are no concurring witnesses. This finding suggests that strength and definiteness correlate the expressive qualities of the music with its popularity.
Translation: Jennifer Smyth