2019 Town and Gown Lecture: "Sound Propaganda: On Sound and Music in Early Modern Religious Persuasion"


Tue, 03/12/2019 - 07:00

Please join the Divison for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies for its annual Town and Gown Lecture. This year our distinguished visitor will be Alexander J. Fisher, Professor of Music at the University of British Columbia. He will speak on "Sound Propaganda: On Sound and Music in Early Modern Religious Persuasion" on Tuesday, March 12, 7:00 PM, in the UA Fred Fox School of Music's Alice Y. Holsclaw Recital Hall.

The use of propaganda is both a very old and a very new story. On the one hand, the advent of a technologized mass media since the twentieth century compels us to recognize the political instrumentalization of propaganda; on the other hand propaganda, understood primarily through the vehicle of the printing press, has long been seen as a crucial means of persuasion, not least in the Reformations and Counter-Reformations of early modern Europe. Scholars of early modern propaganda have often emphasized the silent media of printed sources and visual objects, but sound has largely evaded our scrutiny. Did sound—and music as its more specific expression—operate as “propaganda” in early modern Europe, and in what ways did it convey a persuasive message? The present talk unpacks these questions by considering some of the unique properties and ambiguities of sound and its role in religious persuasion in early modern Germany. Particular tunes, for example, conveyed propagandistic effect based on the texts with which they were originally associated; but at the same time, clear messages could be obscured by excessive musical complexity, shared musical traditions across confessional lines, and more generally by music’s semantic ambiguity. The emerging independence of instrumental music in the seventeenth century raises further questions about the power of sound to communicate in the absence of texts. Opening our ears to other kinds of artificial sounds—bell ringing, gunfire, and drumming, for instance—will compel broader consideration of how sound both enhanced and undermined the persuasive effect of early modern propaganda.
Alexander Fisher is Professor of Music at the University of British Columbia. A specialist in music, sound, and religious culture in early modern Germany,he is the author of Music and Religious Identity in Counter-Reformation Augsburg, 1580-1630 (Ashgate, 2004), and Music, Piety, and Propaganda: TheSoundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria (Oxford, 2014). His work has also appeared in various journals, including the Journal of Musicology, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Early Music History, and the Journal for Seventeenth-Century Music. His current research on soundscapes and confessional space in the Holy Roman Empire in the post-Reformation era is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


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College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

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