Music Virtuosity/Virtuoso
by
David VanderHamm
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0236

Introduction

The terms virtuosity and virtuoso are both widely used in scholarly and popular literature to describe individual excellence and those musicians that possess it. The precise meaning of the terms varies widely, although they generally encompass extraordinary skill, technical ability, and an element of display. Studies that interrogate the phenomenon have come from diverse fields, including musicology, ethnomusicology, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, and performance studies. This interdisciplinary appeal can be attributed to the breadth of issues central to the humanities and social sciences that virtuosity brings into play. In addition to aesthetic considerations of artistic expression, scholars have found virtuosity to be a fruitful site for approaching issues of embodiment, technology, power, economics, ethics, identity, and the relationships among these categories. Jankélévitch 1979 (cited under Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches) claims that virtuosity as a phenomenon is “as old as music,” but virtuoso and virtuosity as terms originated in Italy during the 16th century. In this context, the terms described the presence and display of cultivated skill and knowledge in a particular craft, art, or science. The terms directly mirrored two prevalent streams of thought during the Renaissance, where possessing virtù meant a propensity toward actions of conventional moral good as well as general efficacy or power (Wiener 1973, cited under Reference). The virtuoso aimed at admirable ends while also possessing the necessary power and acumen—mental or physical—to accomplish the desired outcome. Brossard 1703 (cited under Reference) offers a similar definition, noting that the title of virtuoso was by that time most often reserved for “excellent musicians” (translated in full in Le Guin 2006, cited under Instrumental Music before 1800). If virtuosity in this context claims to simply name the presence of remarkable skill in an individual, its usage since the 19th century has increasingly included (or at least implied) the audience experience of that skill as well. The presence of an audience shifts the legitimating context for virtuosity from the semi-private guild of expert practitioners or the noble court of connoisseurs to the public sphere of the marketplace, where virtuosity has been both widely celebrated and decried as an aesthetic debasement. Despite the importance of these terms, this entry presents scholarship that deals with issues of mastery, skill, and display in diverse genres and periods, including sources that directly invoke virtuosity and virtuoso, as well as those that deal with issues of skillful display using different vocabularies.

Reference

Virtuosity and virtuoso, as well as their cognates in German and French, are included in many musical dictionaries. One value of reference works for researching virtuosity lies in etymological background (Wiener 1973) and those works that trace the shifting connotations of the terms. Brossard 1703 is a historically important entry that notes the narrowing meaning of virtuoso to primarily refer to an excellent musician, and Reimer 1972 quotes historical dictionaries and writings from composers and musicians in describing the shifting usage of the term. Cooper 2013 defines the term while also offering a structural explanation of the causes that led to the rise of the virtuoso in the 19th century. Reynaud 2003 and Slonimsky 1997 define the abstract term, while offering selected lists of performers who historically defined virtuosity on their instrument.

  • Brossard, Sébastien de. “Virtu.” In Dictionaire de Musique: Contenant une explication des termes grecs, latins, italiens. By Sébastien de Brossard, 248–249. Paris: C. Ballard, 1703.

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    A historically important entry that is widely cited within the literature, as it marks the increased specificity of virtuoso to most often describe excellent musicians.

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  • Cooper, John Michael. “Virtuoso (M.), Virtuosa (F.).” In Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music. By John Michael Cooper with Randy Kinnett, 665–666. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013.

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    Attributes the cult of virtuosity in the 19th century to the growth of the urban middle class, technological advancements in both travel and musical instruments, and the spread of Romantic values that celebrated the transcendent and the superhuman. Explains conflicts over virtuosity and offers a selected list of important virtuoso performers.

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  • Heister, Hanns-Werner, and Peter Küpper. “Virtuosen.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart: Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik. Vol. 9. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1722–1732. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1998.

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    An extensive entry that situates the term conceptually and historically both within and outside of Europe. The most substantial overview of the concept in the reference literature. Available online by subscription.

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  • Jander, Owen. “Virtuoso.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007–2017.

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    Offers a summary of the etymology of the term, its changing meanings, and its pejorative connotations.

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  • Reimer, Erich. “Virtuose.” In Handwörterbuch der Musikalische Terminologie. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, 569–576. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1972.

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    An overview of the term’s usage that includes quotes from many historical reference works. Especially useful for its extensive quotations from composers and theorists writing about virtuosity from the 16th century forward.

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  • Reynaud, C. “Virtuosité.” In Dictionnaire de la musique en France au XIXe siècle. Edited by Joël-Marie Fauquet, 1288–1289. Paris: Fayard, 2003.

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    One of a relative minority of resources to define the abstract term virtuosité rather than the individual title of virtuoso. Outlines issues of virtuosity as an object of discourse and performance during the 19th century.

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  • Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Virtuosity.” In Baker’s Dictionary of Music. Edited by Richard Kassel, 1104–1105. New York: Schirmer, 1997.

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    Written for a general audience, this resource defines virtuosity as belonging to the sphere of the performer, although it locates the origins in “the loss of religious restrictions on compositional excess and the new monodic textures” of early Baroque composition.

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  • Wiener, Philip P. “Virtú in and since the Renaissance.” In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Vol. 4. By Philip P. Wiener, 476–486. New York: Scribner, 1973.

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    Provides a useful background to the etymological and conceptual roots of virtuosity, pointing to the dual meaning of the term to denote both moral excellence and effective power.

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Historical Overviews

Many of the sources throughout this bibliography offer historical narratives of the development of virtuosity and its meanings, but the sources in this section are most explicitly intended as overviews of a broad area of musical practice or scholarly approaches to virtuosity, although none would claim to be all-encompassing. Pincherle 1963 reflects on virtuosity’s role in myth and the creation of the public concert. Penesco 1997 focuses on the music of France and Italy, but ranges widely both musically and historically within those confines. Deaville 2014 limits its scope to the instrumental music of Europe, but it is nonetheless the most thorough synthesis of the existing literature on virtuosity.

  • Deaville, James. “Virtuosity and the Virtuoso.” In Aesthetics of Music: Musicological Perspectives. Edited by Stephen Downes, 276–298. New York: Routledge, 2014.

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    The most extensive review of the scholarly literature on virtuosity in instrumental art music. Includes sources in English, French, and German. Addresses the primary philosophical issues and paradoxes of virtuosity. Critiques the dominance of interpretive models based on Liszt, while calling for further attention to the role of media in virtuosity. Includes a bibliography.

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  • Loesch, Heinz von, Ulrich Mahlert, and Peter Rummenhöller, eds. Musikalische Virtuosität. Mainz, Germany: Schott, 2004.

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    Edited collection with essays that cover music from the Baroque to the contemporary, with useful essays on the relationship between conceptions of virtuosity and art and virtuosity as an object for musicological inquiry.

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  • Penesco, Anne, ed. Défense et illustration de la virtuosité. Lyon, France: Presse Universitaires de Lyon, 1997.

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    Wide-ranging collection of essays that covers issues of virtuosity in instrumental and vocal genres of French and Italian music from medieval chant to 19th-century violinists, although it does not discuss the 17th century.

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  • Pincherle, Marc. The World of the Virtuoso. Translated by Lucile H. Brockway. New York: Norton, 1963.

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    English Translation of Le monde des virtuoses, first published in 1961. Defines virtuosity as a combination of charm and speed, providing an overview of the phenomenon of virtuosity prior to the invention of the term. Also surveys a variety of forms in Western art music of the 20th century, including conductors and child prodigies.

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Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches

Studies of virtuosity often take a broad view of the phenomenon, such that even those that present historically and culturally specific examples are prone to theorize about it in more wide-ranging ways. Because of this, even though the sources throughout this bibliography are organized according to period and genre, they often venture beyond their stated confines. The sources here either work from explicitly philosophical or sociological methods (Adorno 2006, Howard 2008, Mark 1980), approach virtuosity across broad genres and periods (Arburg 2006), or both (Brandstetter 2007, Hennion 2012, VanderHamm 2017). These works represents a wide range of philosophical and critical approaches, including analytical (Mark 1980, Howard 2008), Continental (Arburg 2006), critical (Adorno 2006), and the phenomenological and performative (Brandstetter 2007, Jankélévitch 1979, VanderHamm 2017).

  • Adorno, T. W. Towards a Theory of Musical Reproduction: Notes, a Draft, and Two Schemata. Edited by Henri Lonitz. Translated by Wieland Hoban. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006.

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    Contains Adorno’s theories on performance, virtuosity, and the relation of performer to work. Despite the incomplete nature of these theories, Adorno’s typically aphoristic style makes this the most complete statement of his thought on virtuosity, which he dwells on to a lesser extent in Aesthetic Theory and Introduction to the Sociology of Music.

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  • Arburg, Hans-Georg von, ed. Virtuosität: Kult und Krise der Artistik in Literatur und Kunst der Moderne. Göttingen, Germany: Wallstein, 2006.

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    A collection of essays on virtuosity across the arts. Includes essays on the “prehistory” of the term’s English usage to refer to amateur scholars and dilettante collectors, as well as discussions of piano virtuosity and approaches to the topic through thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin.

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  • Brandstetter, Gabrielle. “The Virtuoso’s Stage: A Theatrical Topos.” Theatre Research International 32.2 (2007): 178–195.

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    Considers the virtuoso in music, theater, and dance as both an object and mediator of awe. Focused primarily on the 19th century, but closes with a discussion of how 20th-century performers might subvert Romantic notions of virtuosity even as they perform new versions of it.

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  • Hennion, Antoine. “‘As Fast as One Possibly Can . . .’: Virtuosity, a Truth of Musical Performance?” In Critical Musicological Reflections: Essays in Honour of Derek B. Scott. Edited by Stan Hawkins, 125–138. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

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    Argues for an aesthetic of virtuosity that embraces artistic product and performative display equally. A brief but wide-ranging essay, it begins with the music of 19th-century Europe before eventually discussing both flamenco and jazz.

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  • Howard, V. A. Charm and Speed: Virtuosity in the Performing Arts. New York: Peter Lang, 2008.

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    A theorization of virtuosity from the standpoint of analytic philosophy and philosophy of education. Argues for recognition by qualified critics and peers as a key aspect of virtuosity. By emphasizing comparison as grounds for judging virtuosity, Howard posits the necessary work character of all music, even that which is improvised.

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  • Jankélévitch, Vladimir. Liszt et la rhapsodie: Essai sur la virtuosité. Paris: Plon, 1979.

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    Jankélévitch approaches the issue of virtuosity through Liszt, although he also argues that virtuosity as a phenomenon is “as old as music.” Takes a socio-aesthetic approach that considers the potential transcendence of virtuosity in a positive light. Establishes Liszt and virtuosity as serious topics of study.

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  • Mark, Thomas Carson. “On Works of Virtuosity.” Journal of Philosophy 77.1 (January 1980): 28–45.

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    Proposes a set of criterion for what makes an artistic work “a work of virtuosity.” Distinguishes between art that shows skill from that which displays skill. Only the latter is considered properly virtuosic. Draws out the self-referentiality of virtuosic art as a key component.

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  • VanderHamm, David. “The Social Construction of Virtuosity: Musical Labor and the Valuation of Skill in the Age of Electronic Media.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2017.

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    Takes a phenomenological approach to virtuosity as “skill made apparent and socially meaningful.” Explores virtuosity’s relation to forms of media and within diverse musical practices, including “downhome virtuosity” in early country music, virtuosity and cosmopolitanism in the US reception of Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, and the relationship between virtuosity and disability.

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Virtuosity in Western Art Music

The terms virtuosity and virtuoso may be most commonly associated with Western art music, but their meanings have been anything but stable over time. As the sources in Historical Overviews suggest, the long arc of the terms’ meaning stretches from general excellence such that they can be applied to composers as well as poets (Beck 1984, cited under Vocal Music before 1800), to an association with Romantic composer-performer-improvisers (see the sections on Liszt and Paganini). This includes the many negative reactions against virtuosity discussed in Bar-Illan 1968 (cited under the Performer as Interpreter) and Stefaniak 2016 (cited under Romantic Virtuosity in the 19th Century). Debates about virtuosity often surround concerns with musical means displacing aesthetic means (Adorno 2006, cited under Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches) and the increased emphasis on competition and standardization (McCormick 2015 and Wagner 2015, both cited under the Performer as Interpreter).

Instrumental Music Before 1800

Scholarship on virtuosity prior to the 19th century is primarily concerned either with the mastery of compositional technique and form (e.g., Beck 1984, cited under Vocal Music before 1800) or with issues of improvisation and ornamentation in performance (e.g., Brown 1973–1974, Collins 2001). Other authors take the term to mean excellence (and excess) in performance and apply this more Romantic notion to earlier periods (Noske and Petrobelli 1971.) Some sources use the terms minimally, choosing instead to discuss issues of skillful display and embodied knowledge through discussions of improvisation (McGee 2003).

  • Brown, Howard Mayer. “Embellishment in Early Sixteenth-Century Italian Intabulations.” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 100 (1973–1974): 49–83.

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    Discusses issues of ornamentation and performance practice as seen in arrangements of vocal music for solo lute. Offers many examples of how performers displayed skill through their arrangements.

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  • Collins, Timothy A. “‘Reactions against the Virtuoso’: Instrumental Ornamentation Practice and the Stile Moderno.” International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music 32.2 (2001): 137–152.

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    Provides an overview of the place of embellishment according to late-16th- and early-17th-century theorists, composers, and performers. Attempts to relate these views to contemporary performers in their dual roles as interpreters/creators.

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  • Le Guin, Elisabeth. Boccherini’s Body: An Essay in Carnal Musicology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

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    Practices a “carnal musicology” based on the scholar’s embodied engagement with musical pieces and texts. Of particular interest is the chapter “Virtuosity, Virtuality, Virtue,” which discusses the ways that the virtuoso confounds the divide between cantor and musicus.

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  • McGee, Timothy J., ed. Improvisation in the Arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2003.

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    Surveys improvisation across the arts of Middle Ages and Renaissance, from dance and music to poetry and rhetoric. Virtuosity is rarely explicitly mentioned, but the close association of virtuosity with improvisatory prowess in these arts is noted in the first chapter, by Domenico Pietropaolo, and maintained throughout the essays.

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  • Meine, Sabine. “Cecilia without a Halo: The Changing Musical Virtus.” Music in Art 29.1–2 (2004): 105–112.

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    Iconographic study of the martyr and eventual saint of music, Cecilia, between the 15th and 17th centuries. Argues that the shift from the depiction of angels singing to instrumental music in these portraits corresponds to changing conceptions of power based more on humanism and secular artistry.

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  • Noske, Frits, and Pierluigi Petrobelli. “Tradition et innovation dans la virtuosité romantique.” Acta Musicologica 43.3–4 (1971): 114–125.

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    A roundtable discussion in response to an article of same title by Robert Wangermée in Acta Musicologica 42.1–2 (1970): 5–32. Despite the stated topic of Romantic virtuosity, it begins with an extended conversation in English and French about the origins of virtuosity in the medieval period and the societal reasons for its existence.

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  • Plantinga, Leon. “Clementi, Virtuosity, and the ‘German Manner.’” Journal of the American Musicological Society 25.3 (Fall 1972): 303–330.

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    Considers issues of virtuosity and musical taste primarily through Muzio Clementi’s contest with Mozart in Vienna in 1781. Presents Clementi as a forerunner of Romantic virtuosi, even as it considers the differences between courtly settings and the public recital.

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Vocal Music before 1800

The sources referenced here discuss virtuosity in vocal music before 1800. Beck 1984 approaches virtuosity as the compositional display of skill through a mastery of form, whereas other sources consider virtuosity in performance. Le Vot 1997 explores issues of professionalism and virtuosity in chant repertoire, and Stras 2005 and Wistreich 2003 discuss courtly song as a space for play and the performance of noble masculinity. Freitas 2003 considers how vocal prowess and erotic desire intersect in the body of the castrato.

  • Beck, Jonathan. “Formalism and Virtuosity: Franco-Burgundian Poetry, Music, and Visual Art, 1470–1520.” Critical Inquiry 10.4 (June 1984): 644–667.

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    Taking a functionalist perspective on art, Beck inquires after the meaning of virtuosity and “ostentatious mastery of form” in poetry, music, and visual arts. He points to “technical,” “social,” and “personal” functions that such compositional virtuosity serves.

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  • Freitas, Roger. “The Eroticism of Emasculation: Confronting the Baroque Body of the Castrato.” The Journal of Musicology 20.2 (Spring 2003): 196–249.

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    Surveys common treatments of the castrato in literature. Argues that the bodily difference of the castrato was part of their erotic allure, and not merely a necessary way to increase vocal skill.

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  • Le Vot, Gérard. “Le Chant mediéval et la virtuosité vocale.” In Défense et illustration de la virtuosité. Edited by Anne Penesco, 15–50. Lyon, France: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1997.

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    Covers vocal music from Carolingian chant to the 15th century. Although he points to the limited relevance of the term for this repertoire, Le Vot highlights issues of professionalism and the tension between a more secular individualism and a more religiously devout communalism.

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  • Stras, Laurie. “‘Al gioco si conosce il galantuomo’: Artifice, Humour and Play in the Enigmi musicali of Don Lodovico Agostini.” Early Music History 24 (2005): 213–286.

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    A consideration of the relationship between virtuosity, sprezzatura, and the concept of play within the context of music as a courtly pastime in late 16th-century Italy.

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  • Wistreich, Richard. “‘Real Basses, Real Men’: Virtù and Virtuosity in the Construction of Noble Male Identity in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy.” In Gesang zur Laute. Edited by Nicole Schwindt, 59–81. Trossinger Jahrbuch zur Renaissanceforschung 2. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2003.

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    Focusing on the military captain and bass Giulio Cesare Brancaccio, this chapter highlights the relationship between the battlefield and the court as sites for the performance of masculine power and acumen. Highlights the relationship between sprezzatura, or studied carelessness, and virtuosity.

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Romantic Virtuosity in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, virtuoso came increasingly to refer to performers, especially within the context of the solo recital and the performance of concerti. Whereas virtuosity had once been thought of as displaying technical mastery over the formal materials of composition (e.g., Beck 1984, cited under Vocal Music before 1800), the relationship of virtuosity to composition during this time period became primarily a matter of composing out a particular difficulty (see Samson 2003, cited under Liszt). Paganini and Liszt receive their own subheadings below, although they are also discussed at length in Bernstein 1998, Metzner 1998, and Davies 2014. Outside of Liszt and Paganini, this entry does not include the many sources devoted to “great performers,” nor the collective biographies that list the virtuosi of a particular instrument. Although these are useful for specialized areas of study, this entry excludes such resources except where a particular instrument or performer is definitive for virtuosic display within a given context or period—hence the inclusion of scholarship devoted exclusively to Paganini and Liszt, and studies of the guitar in rock and heavy metal (e.g., Waksman 1999 and Walser 1993, cited under Virtuosity in Jazz) or the turntable in DJ culture (e.g., Katz 2012 and Attias 2013, both cited under Virtuosity in Pop, Hip-Hop, and Electronic Music) in later sections.

  • Bernstein, Susan. Virtuosity of the Nineteenth Century: Performing Music and Language in Heine, Liszt, and Baudelaire. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

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    Written by a scholar of literature, this book focuses on how musical performance and the language surrounding it combine to produce a “constellation of virtuosity.” Relates 19th-century virtuosity discourses to a “crisis in language” brought on by the rise of journalism. Argues that both writing and musical performance threaten notions of objectivity and established authority.

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  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Nineteenth-Century Music. Translated by J. Bradford Robinson. California Studies in 19th Century Music 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

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    English translation of Die Musik des 19. Jahrhunderts, first published in 1980. An influential history of 19th-century music, whose sections titled “The Twin Styles” and “Virtuosity and Interpretation” in particular paint a brief but clear picture of virtuosity’s relation to broader musical-historical trends.

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  • Davies, J. Q. Romantic Anatomies of Performance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

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    Focuses alternately on virtuoso singers and pianists in London and Paris in the 1830s. Considers concert reviews of the time alongside the contemporary literature on medicine and speculative physiology. Argues that music played a prominent role in “the cultivation of bodies” as objects of culture and fascination.

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  • Metzner, Paul. Crescendo of the Virtuoso: Spectacle, Skill, and Self-Promotion in Paris during the Age of Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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    Surveys multiple domains, including music, crime detection, chess, and automaton building. Argues that all virtuosi possess impressive technical mastery that they further use to “aggrandize themselves in reputation and fortune.” For Metzner, virtuosity is excellence monetized in the public marketplace.

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  • Stefaniak, Alexander. Schumann’s Virtuosity: Criticism, Composition, and Performance in Nineteenth-Century Germany. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.

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    Considers Robert Schumann’s joint role as both composer and critic in navigating the uses of pleasure and establishing the distinctions between virtuosity as superficial display and virtuosity as transcendent achievement. Describes Schumann’s negotiation of issues of virtuosity to serve both his professional interests and his aesthetic ideas.

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  • Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. Romanticism and Music Culture in Britain, 1770–1840: Virtue and Virtuosity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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    Focusing on the “fear of the virtuoso” in both music and literature, Wood argues for the close connection between the two domains. He explores the relationship between music and subjectivity, which gives rise to the highly gendered and classed anxieties about musical culture.

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Instrumental Music in the 19th Century

Instrumental virtuosity during the 19th century became particularly associated with the genre of the concerto and the format of the recital. The concerto’s shift toward a single impressive soloist in the 19th century made virtuosic display central to the genre (Keefe 2005, Kerman 1999). Likewise, the recital format gave performers another powerful vehicle for displaying and promoting their skills. Furthermore, shifts in piano technology, a growth in the bourgeoisie in Paris, and active musical criticism in print contexts promoted the spread of virtuoso piano soloists (Ellis 1997, Levin 2009).

  • Ellis, Katherine. “Female Pianists and Their Male Critics in Nineteenth-Century Paris.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 50.2–3 (Summer–Autumn 1997): 353–385.

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    Argues that the years 1844–1845 saw a rise in female pianists in Paris that upset the traditionally masculinized meanings attributed to pianistic virtuosity. Further explores how critics attempted to develop language to address women’s performances and the gendered values and roles assigned to them.

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  • Keefe, Simon P., ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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    This collection of essays provides an excellent overview of the genre and the role of virtuosity within it. Especially useful are Tia DeNora’s chapter on the social meanings of the virtuosic soloist within the orchestra and Cliff Eisen’s chapter on the concerto form’s transition toward solo display.

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  • Kerman, Joseph. “Virtuosity/Virtù.” In Concerto Conversations. By Joseph Kerman, 61–82. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    In response to the increasing negative application of “virtuosity,” both in and outside of music, this chapter outlines bravura, mimesis, and spontaneity as key aspects to musical virtú, which Kerman adopts to denote power and effectiveness more than moral uprightness.

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  • Kramer, Lawrence. “The Virtuoso Body; Or, the Two Births of Musical Performance.” In Critical Musicological Reflections: Essays in Honour of Derek B. Scott. Edited by Stan Hawkins, 231–244. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

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    A brief but rich essay that considers the relationship between bodily difficulty and the performance of subjectivity. Similarly to Samson 2003 (cited under Liszt), it connects the virtuosity of performance to a change in the status of the composed score—from instructions to be followed to problems to be solved.

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  • Levin, Alicia. “Seducing Paris: Piano Virtuosos and Artistic Identity, 1820–1848.” PhD diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009.

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    Explores how virtuoso pianists in Paris constructed their identities through performance and public display. Argues that virtuosity extends beyond pianistic skill to include their adeptness at navigating social and ideological contexts.

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  • Sala, Massimiliano, ed. Piano Culture in 19th-Century Paris. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2015.

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    A section of this edited collection under the heading “Central European Composers and the Development of Piano Virtuosity” (discussing Antoine Reicha, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, and Johann Nepomuk Hummel) contains four essays covering pianistic virtuosity before Liszt’s rapid ascent to virtuoso stardom.

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  • Thormählen, Wiebke. “Physical Distortion, Emotion and Subjectivity: Musical Virtuosity and Body Anxiety.” In Music and the Nerves, 1700–1900. Edited by James Gordon Kennaway, 191–215. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

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    Discusses the importance of virtuosity as an aural and visual phenomenon. Argues that the physical presence of the virtuoso was a site for addressing anxieties about the body and spectacle’s creation of “character,” “emotion,” and “subjectivity.”

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Paganini

Violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini serves as one of the primary points of reference for studies of Romantic virtuosity. He solidified long-standing tropes of virtuosity as demonic or other-worldly, myths which Kawabata 2013 both explores and seeks to move beyond, and he provided a figure for both critique and emulation by later 19th century virtuosi, especially Franz Liszt. His career and influence receives nuanced treatment in the essays in Barizza and Morabito 2010, and Gooley 2005 explores how comedy and theatrical influences augmented Paganini’s virtuosity. Palmer 1998 offers an analysis of Paganini not as myth or technician, but as rhetorician.

  • Barizza, Andrea, and Fulvia Morabito, eds. Nicolò Paganini: Diabolus in Musica. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2010.

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    A wide-ranging collection of thirty essays in English and Italian that covers Paganini’s technique, career, reception, and influence.

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  • Gooley, Dana. “La Comedia del Violino: Paganini’s Comedic Strains.” Musical Quarterly 88.3 (Autumn 2005): 370–427.

    DOI: 10.1093/musqtl/gdi012Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that Paganini’s variation sets display a distinct comic element that can be traced to influences from Italian theater traditions. Suggests that this can augment conceptions of Romanticism and the ways that they influenced Paganini’s popularity.

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  • Kawabata, Maiko. Paganini: The “Demonic” Virtuoso. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2013.

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    Argues that the fascination with the myth of Paganini as demonic has obscured an understanding of the ways that audiences were invested in him in “psychological,” “monetary,” and “emotional” ways. Offers readings of specific works alongside performance accounts in order to uncover Paganini’s multiple meanings for his contemporaries.

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  • Palmer, David. “Virtuosity as Rhetoric: Agency and Transformation in Paganini’s Mastery of the Violin.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84 (1998): 341–357.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335639809384223Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Using a rhetorical analysis, Palmer argues that virtuosity serves a rhetorical function, as it transforms the audience’s “ideals concerning the potentialities of human expressive power.” Palmer further argues that virtuosity in musical performance should be understood as “a commentary on ideology.”

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Liszt

The literature on Liszt is the most extensive body of scholarship on virtuosity and the role of the virtuoso. Far from being the sole focus, however, Liszt regularly serves as the launching point for philosophical reflection (Jankélévitch 1979, cited under Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches), theoretical arguments about mass culture (Kramer 2002), and studies of value in the public sphere (Leppert 1999). Other authors have sought to balance the abstractions based on Liszt with richly textured historical work on him and his reception (Gooley 2004, Deaville 1998, Gibbs and Gooley 2006). This wealth of scholarship has also produced what Deaville calls the “Liszt problem” (Deaville 2014, cited under Historical Overviews): the fact that a single performer has become so definitive for a concept that has been applied across cultures and centuries.

  • Deaville, James. “Liszt’s Virtuosity and his Audience: Gender, Class, and Power in the Concert Hall of the Early 19th Century.” Hamburger Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft (1998): 281–300.

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    Pursues the question of how Liszt’s virtuosity affected his audience, with particular attention to issues of gender and class. Includes a discussion of virtuosity and otherness, exploring the ways that the virtuoso’s difference was made meaningful for and by his audiences.

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  • Gibbs, Christopher, and Dana Gooley, eds. Franz Liszt and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

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    A collection of essays that seeks to demythologize Liszt through thorough archival research on primary documents related to his social and historical contexts. Provides a substantial amount of source material on Liszt, with accompanying critical commentary.

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  • Gooley, Dana. The Virtuoso Liszt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    Contrary to the large biographical literature on Liszt, Gooley situates the pianist in relation to the various factions that engaged his performances and valued his skill in particular ways due to those cultural settings. A thoroughly documented study rich with interpretation and primary sources from the time.

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  • Kramer, Lawrence. “Franz Liszt and the Virtuoso Public Sphere: Sight and Sound in the Rise of Mass Entertainment.” In Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. By Lawrence Kramer, 68–99. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

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    Explores the rise of mass entertainment and the virtuoso’s role in constituting a public sphere. Argues that the virtuoso became a figure “riddled with ambivalence” that was “identified equally well with the extremes of transcendental expressiveness and cheap, flashy display.”

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  • Leppert, Richard. “Cultural Contradiction, Idolatry, and the Piano Virtuoso: Franz Liszt.” In Piano Roles. Edited by James Parakilas, 252–281. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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    Considers the many contradictions of the virtuoso as embodied in Liszt. Argues that these tensions—including those between art and commerce, superhuman and machine, authenticity and falsehood—characterize both Liszt’s time and “modernity itself.”

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  • Moysan, Bruno. Liszt: Virtuose subversif. Lyon, France: Symétrie, 2009.

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    Focusing on the concept of fantasie as a site for the intersection of aesthetics, politics, and social life, Moysan argues that the piano virtuoso presents a “heroic I” in “the discourse of me.” He further claims that the virtuoso’s ambiguities allow him to provide a potentially subversive commentary from the stage.

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  • Samson, Jim. Virtuosity and the Musical Work: The Transcendental Studies of Liszt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511481963Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Examines the three iterations of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes in a careful consideration of the relationship between virtuosity and the emerging concept of the musical work during the 19th century. Argues that virtuosity “generated a dialectical relationship with a strengthening sense of the autonomous musical work.”

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Opera from the 19th Century Forward

The central figure in discussions of virtuosity in opera is the diva (see Greenwald 2014 and Henson 2016). This displacement of the virtuoso forwards a term and a body that is implicitly feminine rather than the presumably masculine terminology of the virtuoso, and much of the operatic literature on virtuosity explores issues of gender and power encapsulated in this shift. Parr 2011 discusses the gendering of coloratura as feminine during the 19th century, and describes how one singer intentionally evoked the instrumental virtuosity of Paganini in staking her claim to vocal (and implicitly social) power. The essay “Divas and Divos” in Greenwald 2014 theorizes the diva as a “divine monster,” simultaneously superhuman and grotesque, while the essays in Henson 2016 consider how the divine figure of the diva has been mediated and technologized since the 19th century. Rutherford 2012 examines the relative weight placed on acting skills in operatic traditions and the ways that operatic singers may sometimes be expected to be virtuoso actors in addition to virtuoso vocalists.

  • Gossett, Philip. Divas and Scholars Performing Italian Opera. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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    Explores the interpretive, musical, and production practices that bring opera to the stage. Of particular interest is the chapter “Ornamenting Rossini,” which considers how singers and directors handle ornamentation in contemporary productions of bel canto opera.

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  • Greenwald, Helen M., ed. The Oxford Handbook of Opera. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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    Issues related to virtuosity and the virtuoso are explored throughout this overview of the main themes in opera studies, suitable for both scholars and students. Of particular interest are chapters on “Castrato Acts,” “Divas and Divos,” and “Voice.”

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  • Henson, Karen, ed. Technology and the Diva: Sopranos, Opera, and Media from Romanticism to the Digital Age. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

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    Collection of essays exploring the centrality of the diva in opera as an embodiment of the “threat and promise” of powerful female subjectivity from the 1820s to today. The emphasis on technology and media is novel, as it counters the tendency to treat the diva as unmediated vocal presence.

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  • Parr, Sean M. “Caroline Carvalho and Nineteenth-Century Coloratura.” Cambridge Opera Journal 23.1–2 (March–July 2011): 83–117.

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    Explores how Carvalho intentionally developed her vocal technique to rival and reference the instrumental accomplishments of Paganini. Since coloratura was considered almost exclusively the domain of women, such a move claimed the masculinized power of creativity for operatic divas.

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  • Rutherford, Susan. “Voices and Singers.” In The Cambridge Companion to Opera Studies. Edited by Nicholas Till, 117–138. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCO9781139024976.008Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Offers an overview of the singer’s role in opera and changing relationship to its constituent parts. Discusses the changing roles and conceptions of vocal and dramatic virtuosity.

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The Performer as Interpreter

The rise of the culture of serious music and a conception of music in terms of fixed musical works during the 19th century (see Stefaniak 2016, cited under Romantic Virtuosity in the 19th Century) meant that virtuoso performers and conductors could make names for themselves as expert interpreters of preexisting classics, in addition to the Lisztian model of the performer as composer-performer-improviser. Although the composer-performer never entirely disappeared, the increasing division of musical labor during the 20th century meant that “virtuoso” most frequently referred to performer-interpreters such as Yehudi Menuhin or Arthur Rubinstein. As such, performance became particularly associated with the “reproduction” of musical works (Adorno 2006, cited under Theoretical and Philosophical Approaches), and the relationship between the composer and the especially gifted performer was often characterized as one of conflict (Bar-Illan 1968). The spread of conservatory culture (Kingsbury 1988, Wagner 2015) and competitions (McCormick 2015, Tomoff 2015) further solidified this model of the performer-interpreter as a competitor. Said 2006 suggests a more humanitarian version of the virtuoso as intellectual, but Glenn Gould is held up as an exception whose conceptual and interpretive virtuosity was able to draw audiences in rather than alienating them with spectacle.

  • Bar-Illan, David. “The Virtuoso Versus the Composer.” Music Journal 26.6 (June 1968): 22–24.

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    Written from the perspective of a performer, Bar-Illan makes a passionate defense of virtuosity and claims that the conflict referenced in his title is both logically untenable and aesthetically self-defeating.

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  • Cumming, Naomi. The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

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    A study of the ways that music signifies a self that draws on American pragmatist philosophy, in particular the semiotics of Charles Peirce. Especially useful for the discussion in chapter 1 of recording reviews and the logic of “lifelessness” upon which critiques of virtuosity are often based.

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  • Kingsbury, Henry. Music, Talent, and Performance: A Conservatory Cultural System. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

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    An ethnographic study of conservatory culture and classical music that explores how the value systems and social structures of these institutions shape the definition, pursuit, and acquisition of skill.

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  • McCormick, Lisa. Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781316181478Save Citation »Export Citation »

    A sociological approach to musical competitions that explores the “scene” established by competitions in which each performer’s interpretive choices are brought into sharp focus. Especially useful for its history of competitions and close readings of the Van Cliburn Competition.

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  • Said, Edward W. “The Virtuoso as Intellectual.” In On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain. By Edward W. Said, 113–133. New York: Pantheon, 2006.

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    Argues that Glenn Gould’s idiosyncratic interpretations and public persona articulated a humanistic message about aesthetic beauty and integration in an age of specialization. Said claims that Gould’s role as an intellectual harnessed the power of virtuosity while expanding beyond the role assigned the virtuoso performer within contemporary concert culture.

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  • Tomoff, Kiril. Virtuosi Abroad: Soviet Music and Imperial Competition during the Early Cold War, 1945–1958. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9780801453120.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that the Soviet Union attempted to use musical virtuosity to challenge US dominance through international musical competitions. The victories, however, came at the cost of granting the terms of competition and value to the United States, thereby undermining the project.

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  • Wagner, Izabela. Producing Excellence: The Making of Virtuosos. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

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    An ethnographic study of young violinists’ musical training, exploring how virtuosi are produced through processes of education and socialization. Valuable for its study of the production of virtuosity early on in life and the social institutions that support it.

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Modernist Composition and New Music

As the performer during the 20th century became increasingly viewed as an expert technician and less of a creator, some scholars began to apply the concept of virtuosity once again to composition. Blasius 2004 argues that there is something like the effect of virtuosity left in the late music of Morton Feldman, while Couroux 2002 argues that composers like Iannis Xenakis intentionally worked to undermine the mechanical virtuosity of modern concert artists. Mauskapf 2011 describes a more collective virtuosity than is generally acknowledged in this setting, and Salzman 1963 explores the ways that modernist composers include a “new virtuosity” in their works. Pippen 2014 considers virtuosity as a necessary component of contemporary new music ensembles, even as they downplay its exclusive or high-class connotations through “friendly virtuosity.”

  • Blasius, Leslie. “Late Feldman and the Remnants of Virtuosity.” Perspectives of New Music 42.1 (Winter 2004): 32–83.

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    Drawing in particular on Bernstein 1998 (cited under Romantic Virtuosity in the 19th Century), this article is a densely written meditation on Morton Feldman’s late compositions. Blasius argues that although the surface effects of virtuosity as seen in the 19th century are gone, the same rupture or singularity that virtuosity produces is present in Feldman’s compositions.

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  • Couroux, Marc. “Evryali and the Exploding of the Interface: From Virtuosity to Anti-virtuosity and Beyond.” Contemporary Music Review 21.2–3 (2002): 53–67.

    DOI: 10.1080/07494460216664Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Examines Iannis Xenakis’s Everyali as an example of “anti-virtuosity”—the composers’ rejection of the entrenched (implicitly machine-like) technique of pianists in favor of composing works whose very impossibilities “trigger new relationships between body and matter.”

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  • Craenen, Paul. Composing under the Skin: The Music-Making Body at the Composer’s Desk. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2014.

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    A composer’s study of the relationship between embodiment, virtuosity, and the compositional process. Considers how understandings of the music-making body figure into postwar compositions for instrumentalists.

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  • Mauskapf, Michael. “Collective Virtuosity in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.” Journal of Musicological Research 30 (2011): 267–296.

    DOI: 10.1080/01411896.2011.614167Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Explores the genesis, performance, and reception of Bartòk’s Concerto for Orchestra. Argues that the piece celebrates the instrumental virtuosity of modern orchestral players while demanding a “collective virtuosity” that emphasizes teamwork.

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  • Pippen, John. “Toward a Postmodern Avant-Garde: Labour, Virtuosity, and Aesthetics in an American New Music Ensemble.” PhD diss., Western Ontario University, 2014.

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    This dissertation frames virtuosity and musical performance as issues of labor through a study of the American new music group Eighth Blackbird. Theorizes “friendly virtuosity” as an important modification of virtuosity that contributes to the group’s brand and allows them to appeal to both connoisseurs and the broader public.

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  • Salzman, Eric. “Report from New York: The New Virtuosity.” Perspectives of New Music 1.2 (Spring 1963): 174–188.

    DOI: 10.2307/832116Save Citation »Export Citation »

    An extended concert review of pieces by Leon Kirchner, Elliott Carter, and Milton Babbitt. Considers how each piece “rethink[s] the continuing role of performance” through musical analysis.

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Virtuosity in Ethnomusicological Literature on Non-Western Musics

As Nettl 1983 notes, many ethnomusicologists have focused on music that appeals to a preference for technical mastery and extensive training. Unlike historical musicologists, who generally historicize their use of the terms, ethnomusicologists often seek to relate issues of impressive skill to concepts from within the cultures under study (e.g., Tarab in Danielson 1997). Harnish 2013 discusses issues of virtuosity and cosmopolitanism, while issues of cross-cultural reception and virtuosity are highlighted in Levin and Süzükei 2006. Levin and Süzükei show that Tuvan throat-singing was not considered particularly impressive until its reception in the West, where it was treated as “magical” and caused speculation that the practice was a result of supposed physiological differences. Danielson 1997 looks at the famed Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthūm and the social meaning of her skill in Egypt, while Booth 2005 considers the mass-mediated representation of virtuosity in Hindustani music and dance. Just as the musicological literature demonstrates the historical specificity of virtuosity, ethnomusicologists show the cultural differences in what counts as skill and the meanings assigned to it.

  • Booth, Gregory. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema.” Asian Music 36.1 (Winter–Spring 2005): 60–86.

    DOI: 10.1353/amu.2005.0004Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Considers the representations of virtuosity in Indian classical music and dance in films from 1943 to 1962. Identifies the instrumentalization of culture, condescending attitudes toward virtuosity, and latent political agendas of these representations as main themes.

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  • Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226136080.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Explores “the role of the exceptional individual in expressive culture” through the figure of Umm Kulthūm, the most famous singer in the Arab world during the 20th century. Links vocal virtuosity to linguistic skill in emphasizing social values conveyed by the singer.

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  • Frayssinet Savy, Corinne Frayssinet. “Le paradoxe de la performance flamenco: Une experience sensible de l’intériorité portée à la scène.” Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie 21 (2008): 67–85.

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    Drawing on the music and words of the guitarist Pedro Bacán, this article explores the relationship between personal confession and public spectacle in flamenco performance.

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  • Harnish, David. “The Hybrid Music and Cosmopolitan Scene of Balinese Guitarist I Wayan Balawan.” Ethnomusicology Forum 22.2 (2013): 188–209.

    DOI: 10.1080/17411912.2013.783753Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that I Wayan Balawan’s virtuosity as a guitarist is mediated by his ability to synthesize gamelan, jazz, and metal into a musical hybrid that speaks to his audience’s class values and “cosmopolitan orientation.”

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  • Levin, Theodore Craig, and Valentina Süzükei. Where Rivers and Mountains Sing: Sound, Music, and Nomadism in Tuva and Beyond. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

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    Ethnography of Tuvan music-making within the context of animist beliefs and nomadic lifestyles. Considers the ramifications of the individual practice of Tuvan throat-singing becoming a site for showmanship and virtuosic display upon the release of recordings of it in the West.

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  • Nettl, Bruno. “We Never Heard a Bad Tune.” In The Study of Ethnomusicology: Twenty-Nine Issues and Concepts. By Bruno Nettl, 315–322. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

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    Discusses virtuosity as a musical value shared by many ethnomusicologists. Argues that while many traditions display impressive skill, virtuosity should not be applied uncritically or used as a criterion to justify ethnomusicological study. Perhaps because of a narrow characterization of the discipline, this chapter is not included in subsequent editions.

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  • Turino, Thomas. “Participatory and Presentational Performance.” In Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation. By Thomas Turino, 24–55. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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    Theorizes the differences between participatory and presentational forms of performance. Argues that, contrary to virtuosity in presentational forms of music, displays of skill in participatory frames are designed to enhance participation by opening up a space for the play of skill.

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Virtuosity in Popular and Vernacular Traditions

The sources within this section are focused on popular and vernacular genres primarily developed in the United States and Great Britain, although these traditions have both influenced and been influenced by music from all over the world (for an example of the former, see Harnish 2013, cited under Virtuosity in Ethnomusicological Literature on Non-Western Musics). Much like scholarship on the art music tradition, attitudes toward virtuosity, including its potential dangers and its very definition, vary widely. For some genres, virtuosity is both embraced and partially modeled in relation to the European art music tradition discussed above (Walser 1993). In others, the acquisition of skill is considered literally “infinite” (Berliner 1994), yet some scholars consider the concept of virtuosity to be a potential danger to other musical values (Dennen 2009). For still others, even basic competence is eschewed in favor of a carefully guarded amateurism (Burke 2011, cited under Virtuosity and Anti-virtuosity in Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk). Furthermore, some genres, like bluegrass, may be partially defined by virtuosity, yet sustained discussion of it within the literature is fairly minimal (Cantwell 2003 and Rockwell 2007, both cited under Virtuosity in Bluegrass and Country Music). Many themes previously discussed in relation to art music are drawn into sharper focus through these new musical contexts. Gender (McLeod 2009 [cited under Virtuosity in Jazz], Miller 2009 [cited under Studies of Virtuosity in Dance, Gaming, and Film]) and sexuality (Waksman 1999 and Waksman 2009, both cited under Virtuosity and Anti-virtuosity in Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk) continue to be broadly addressed within this literature, and scholarship on jazz and hip-hop in particular explores the racialization of skill and its meanings in these genres (Feldstein 2005, McLeod 2009 [both cited under Virtuosity in Jazz], DeFrantz 2004 [cited under Virtuosity in Pop, Hip-Hop, and Electronic Music], DeVeaux 1997 [cited under Virtuosity in Jazz]). Although there is clearly incredible diversity with regard to the issue of virtuosity across these genres, one major theme is the issue of changing technologies. Katz 2012, Attias 2013, Marshall 2006, and Ostertag 2002 (cited under Virtuosity in Pop, Hip-Hop, and Electronic Music), as well as Waksman 1999 (cited under Virtuosity and Anti-virtuosity in Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk), all discuss how new instruments and alterations to old ones allow for the redefinition of skill and the reimagining of virtuosity on these instruments.

Virtuosity in Jazz

The sources in this section consider virtuosity in jazz through critical, musical, and ideological analysis. DeVeaux 1997 provides a historical account of “the making of a virtuoso” within jazz, while Berliner 1994 offers an ethnographic account of the acquisition and application of improvisational skill. Dennen 2009 argues that an overemphasis on virtuosity and technical perfection can stifle both the production and reception of improvised music like jazz, and Walser 1993 similarly argues that an understanding of Miles Davis’s virtuosity as an improviser must account for apparent defects. Feldstein 2005 and McLeod 2009 explore how musical virtuosity intersects with gender and racial politics in the United States.

  • Berliner, Paul. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226044521.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »

    A massive work that explores jazz improvisation as a “knowledge system” and a “language.” Virtuosity’s inclusion in the index and a valuable section entitled “Instrumental Virtuosity and the Technical Features of Ideas” make it easier to navigate than its length might suggest.

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  • Dennen, James. “On Reception of Improvised Music.” Drama Review 53.4 (Winter 2009): 137–149.

    DOI: 10.1162/dram.2009.53.4.137Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Theorizes “subject-centered reception,” which draws attention to individual virtuosity and is widespread in jazz. Dennen argues that this “virtuosolocentricity” can be a hindrance to both musicians and listeners within jazz, and he offers alternative listening models that are less directly comparative.

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  • DeVeaux, Scott Knowles. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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    Combines musical analysis and social history in analyzing the emergence of jazz musical styles and jazz historiography. Chapter 2, “The Making of a Virtuoso,” is of particular interest for the ways it historicizes the roll of the “hot solo” within jazz.

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  • Feldstein, Ruth. “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’: Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism in the 1960s.” Journal of American History 91.4 (March 2005): 1349–1379.

    DOI: 10.2307/3660176Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that Nina Simone practiced a “gendered racial politics” through her music and public persona. Feldstein claims that Simone’s gender and classical training countered two common narratives: that African Americans were “natural” entertainers, and that African American virtuosity was masculine.

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  • Gebhardt, Nicholas. Going for Jazz: Musical Practices and American Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

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    Discusses virtuosity and the many forms it can take in musical practice, using the examples of Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman. A difficult work that places its conception of virtuosity at the center of American cultural history and ideology.

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  • McLeod, Ken. “The Construction of Masculinity in African American Music and Sports.” American Music 27.2 (Summer 2009): 204–226.

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    Examines connections between the ways that jazz and various sports allow for the performance of masculinity. Argues that virtuosic improvisation “functions as a form of literal and metaphoric freedom,” while perpetuating the requirement that black performers be spectacular to be legitimate.

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  • Walser, Robert. “Out of Notes: Signification, Interpretation, and the Problem of Miles Davis.” Musical Quarterly 77.2 (Summer 1993): 343–365.

    DOI: 10.1093/mq/77.2.343Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Explores the “problem” of Miles Davis: How do scholars and critics reconcile the apparent missed notes and occasional lack of virtuosity with his importance and appeal as a performer? Draws on Henry Louis Gates’s theory of signifyin(g) to analyze how Davis presents musical ideas that convey effort and risk.

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Virtuosity and Anti-virtuosity in Rock, Heavy Metal, and Punk

The sources in this section discuss issues of virtuosity and anti-virtuosity within rock, heavy metal, punk, and related genres. They demonstrate the variety of attitudes toward virtuosity within various musical subcultures, including the outright rejection of even basic competence (Burke 2011), the value assigned to virtuosity within extreme metal (Allett 2011), and the pairing of discipline and excess in the music of Rush (McDonald 2009). The electric guitar features prominently throughout, especially in Walser 1993, Waksman 1999, and Waksman 2009.

  • Allett, Nicola. “The Extreme Metal ‘Connoisseur.’” Popular Music History 6.1–2 (2011): 164–179.

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    Considers the discursive strategies used by fans of extreme metal to situate themselves as connoisseurs who recognize value and virtuosity. Argues that these fans adopt a “high” culture view on knowledge and virtuosity in defending their counter-mainstream tastes.

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  • Auslander, Philip. “Musical Personae.” Drama Review 50.1 (Spring 2006): 100–119.

    DOI: 10.1162/dram.2006.50.1.100Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Theorizes the musical persona as the primary element that is performed through music. Explores performance strategies used to dramatize the self and argues that the virtuoso is a prime example of a persona constituted in musical performance in relation to the audience.

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  • Burke, Patrick. “Clamor of the Godz: Radical Incompetence in 1960s Rock.” American Music 29.1 (Spring 2011): 35–63.

    DOI: 10.5406/americanmusic.29.1.0035Save Citation »Export Citation »

    A study of the Godz, a group of musicians who were “flagrantly” and “unabashedly incompetent.” Argues that the extreme and rare example of the Godz characterizes musical performance not as a space for requisite virtuosity, but as a conversation “about the implications and value of competence itself.”

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  • McDonald, Chris. “Experience to Extremes: Discipline, Detachment, and Excess in Rush.” In Rush, Rock Music, and the Middle Class: Dreaming in Middletown. By Chris McDonald, 134–156. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

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    Explores the seemingly contradictory pairing of “discipline, detachment, and seriousness” with “excess, spectacle, and extremity” in the music of Rush. McDonald claims that the “underperformance” of Rush relates to middle-class values of power and respectability.

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  • Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    Theorizes the electric guitar as a “techno-phallus” central to discourses of display and virility in American popular music. Discusses the diverse ways that virtuosity and skilled display relate the issues of gender, race, and power within popular music.

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  • Waksman, Steve. This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

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    A history of rock since 1970, this work posits a metal/punk continuum and argues that attitudes toward virtuosity and musical power constitute one of the key issues in how each genre established itself. Expands beyond the time period of Waksman 1999.

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  • Walser, Robert. Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music. Hannover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993.

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    Argues that virtuoso guitarists are “the most effective articulators of a variety of social fantasies” for many fans of heavy metal. Explores how musicians in the heavy metal world borrowed from both the discourse and musical material of classical music in establishing themselves as virtuosi.

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  • Wicke, Peter. “Virtuosität als Ritual: Vom Guitar Hero zum DJ-schamanen.” In Musikalische Virtuosität. Edited by Heinz von Loesch, Ulrich Mahlert, and Peter Rummenhöller, 232–243. Mainz, Germany: Schott, 2004.

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    Considers the ritual functions of virtuosity, focusing on how the figures of the guitar hero and the DJ convey the value of special knowledge and skill in their social contexts.

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Virtuosity in Pop, Hip-Hop, and Electronic Music

The sources in this section approach issues of virtuosity in relation to the changing economics, technologies, and media environments of popular and electronic music into the 21st century. Meizel 2011 discusses issues of vocal skill, competition, and identity; Hamera 2012 places the excesses of Michael Jackson’s virtuosity in the context of deindustrialization. Ostertag 2002, Katz 2012, and Attias 2013 all explore how the use of new interfaces and electronic instruments raises the issue of how virtuosity can be maintained or established anew within various musical practices.

  • Attias, Bernardo Alexander. “Subjectivity in the Groove: Phonography, Digitality, and Fidelity.” In DJ Culture in the Mix: Power, Technology, and Social Change in Electronic Dance Music. Edited by Bernardo Alexander Attias, Anna Gavanas, and Hillegonda C. Rietveld, 15–49. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

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    Analyzes discourses of virtuosity and authenticity that are tied to the choice of medium among DJs. Argues that the question of whether to use vinyl, CDs, or digital files depends on attitudes toward bodies, technologies, and the relation between them.

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  • DeFrantz, Thomas F. “The Black Beat Made Visible: Hip Hop Dance and Body Power.” In Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory. Edited by André Lepecki, 64–81. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

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    Discusses the connections between virtuosity in hip-hop music and dance. Describes hip-hop virtuosity in dance as “an alignment of physical tension (hardness) with politicized blackness.”

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  • Hamera, Judith. “The Labors of Michael Jackson: Virtuosity, Deindustrialization, and Dancing Work.” PMLA 127.4 (October 2012): 751–765.

    DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2012.127.4.751Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that performing bodies “offer visible, potent templates for imagining ways work is produced and consumed,” and argues that Jackson’s work as a performer must be related to the meanings and values of labor during the deindustrialization of the 1980s

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  • Katz, Mark. Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-Hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    Traces the rise of turntablism as a musical practice. Includes a set of criteria for what counts as an instrument (and thus instrumental skill) in chapter 2; chapter 6 describes the competitive framing of skill and challenge of virtuosity within the DJ battle.

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  • Marshall, Wayne. “Giving Up Hip-Hop’s Firstborn: A Quest for the Real after the Death of Sampling.” Callaloo 29.3 (Summer 2006): 868–892.

    DOI: 10.1353/cal.2006.0149Save Citation »Export Citation »

    In a discussion about alternatives to sampling within hip-hop, Marshall explores the ways that vocal virtuosity not only imitates the sounds of sampling and scratching, but also stands in as a form of hip-hop authenticity.

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  • Meizel, Katherine. Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

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    In analyzing the performance of various identities on the television show American Idol, Meizel shows how vocal virtuosity contributes to the musical virtue of making a song a performer’s own. Melisma and ornamentation in particular play an important role.

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  • Ostertag, Bob. “Human Bodies, Computer Music.” Leonardo Music Journal 12 (2002): 11–14.

    DOI: 10.1162/096112102762295070Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that “virtuosity of some sort is a necessary element of almost any performance.” Briefly summarizes the relationship between increased control and decreased bodily presence in the history of electronic music from musique concrète to DJs, and closes with a call for musicians to continue to probe this issue.

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Virtuosity in Bluegrass and Country Music

Virtuosity has become central to the genre of bluegrass music in ways similar to heavy metal and jazz. Cantwell 2003 discusses the importance of virtuosity in establishing legitimacy and drawing fans to the genre, while Rockwell 2007 theorizes “drive” as a concept that establishes a distinctively bluegrass approach to issues of timing, interaction, and virtuosity. Daniel 1990 and Goertzen 2008 discuss the fiddle contest as an institution based around ideals of skill, humor, and southern values.

  • Cantwell, Robert. Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

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    Definitive bluegrass history that states in the prologue that bluegrass was “always about virtuosity.” Of particular interest is chapter 9, which discusses the instrumental roles of the bluegrass band and the ways that an instrument’s cultural meanings influence its role.

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  • Daniel, Wayne W. “The Georgia Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention, 1913–35.” In Pickin’ on Peachtree: A History of Country Music in Atlanta, Georgia. By Wayne W. Daniel, 15–44. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

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    Drawing primarily on newspaper reports, this chapter explores attitudes toward skill and competition in one of the most important fiddle competitions in the United States.

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  • Goertzen, Chris. Southern Fiddlers and Fiddle Contests. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.

    DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604731224.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Though overt discussion of virtuosity is minimal, Goertzen argues that good fiddlers are “self-reliant, hardworking, full of humor, and skilled in an impressive but not intimidating way.” Considers a variety of styles of fiddling, including bluegrass, western swing, and old-time.

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  • Rockwell, Joti. “Drive, Lonesomeness, and the Genre of Bluegrass.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2007.

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    Engages methods of music theory, popular music studies, ethnomusicology, and folklore. Particularly useful for its explication of the multivalent concept of “drive,” which characterizes the rhythmic feel, competitive spirit, and overall aesthetic of the genre.

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Studies of Virtuosity in Dance, Gaming, and Film

Virtuosity and virtuoso were never fully reserved for musicians (see Metzner 1998, cited under Romantic Virtuosity in the 19th Century), but their recent widespread application in scholarly and popular discourse is in some ways reminiscent of their more general 16th-century usage. The difference now is that they often carry the negative connotations that have adhered to the terms as a result of critiques of “empty virtuosity,” and that these concepts, when used outside of a musical context, implicitly function as metaphorical references to musical performance. The sources here expand virtuosity to domains beyond music or stretch the limits of what has traditionally been thought of as musical virtuosity. Miller 2009 blurs the line between game-play and musical performance itself, arguing for a “virtual virtuosity” in games like Guitar Hero. Hamera 2000 offers a nuanced approach to the issue of bodily otherness raised through dance virtuosity, while Royce 2004 attempts a cross-cultural study of virtuosity and artistry in dance and music. Morgan 2011 thinks about the limits of cinematographic virtuosity in film, and Morrison 2014 brings together issues of virtuosity in dance and representations in cinema.

  • Hamera, Judith. “The Romance of Monsters: Theorizing the Virtuoso Body.” Theatre Topics 10.2 (September 2000): 144–153.

    DOI: 10.1353/tt.2000.0013Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Explores the disciplining of the body in dance. Hamera theorizes the virtuoso body as a “monster” whose otherness “rewrites plots of possibility for other bodies” even as it demonstrates that its ability is not available to the onlookers.

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  • Miller, Kiri. “Schizophonic Performance: Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Virtual Virtuosity.” Journal of the Society for American Music 3.4 (2009): 395–429.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1752196309990666Save Citation »Export Citation »

    An ethnomusicological study of mediated rock performance through the games Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Explores how players engage in virtual performance that draws on deep cultural knowledge about rock tropes and the values of virtuosity and authenticity.

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  • Morgan, Daniel. “Max Ophuls and the Limits of Virtuosity: On the Aesthetics and Ethics of Camera Movement.” Critical Inquiry 38 (Autumn 2011): 127–163.

    DOI: 10.1086/661646Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Argues that the technical aspect of camera movement within the films of Max Ophuls provide “an aesthetic articulation of a moral attitude for the audience,” which nonetheless cannot always “negotiate the demands of new values.”

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  • Morrison, Margaret. “Tap and Teeth: Virtuosity and the Smile in the Films of Bill Robinson and Eleanor Powell.” Dance Research Journal 46.2 (August 2014): 20–37.

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    Analyzes the filmed performances of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Eleanor Powell in order to argue that tap-dance virtuosity combined with shots of the smiling faces of the performers simultaneously suggest both power and submission. Morrison further considers how issues of gender and race inflect the smiling virtuosity of the tap dancer.

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  • Royce, Anya Peterson. Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Artistry, Virtuosity, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira, 2004.

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    Explores issues of virtuosity and artistry primarily through dance, as well as a case study on the cellist János Starker. Closely equates virtuosity with sprezzatura (“the masque of nonchalance”) while artistry, which is more closely associated with transparency, is given pride of place.

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