Cultures of Declamation and the Oral Performance of Literature in Germany, 1750-1900

My project is an investigation of the oral performance of literature in the German-speaking world from the first public readings of Klopstock's Messias to the advent of the phonograph. As Sabine Chaouche has argued, in the eighteenth century the term 'declamation' was uncoupled from the tradition of classical rhetoric and was increasingly identified with the art of speaking in the theater. In Germany in particular, the term Deklamation became synonymous with a larger cultural dispositive that encompassed a variety of discourses and practices in the realms of theater, politics, religion, literature, aesthetics and private life. As contemporary accounts of the history of language by Herder and Rousseau placed increased emphasis on the poetic and expressive dimension of spoken language, literary declamation came to occupy a privileged position within this framework. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, numerous texts were devoted to defining the art of literary declamation, providing rules for its practice and establishing a repertoire of texts for performance. At the same time, the so-called 'declamatory concert,' a type of intermedial performance that combined literary readings with music, began to be practiced independently as an art form in its own right.

Both in theory and in practice, literary declamation necessitated a confrontation between the "voice" of literature and the unique "vocality" of the individual performer's voice (A. Cavarero). For professional declamators such as Elise Bürger and Henriette Hendel-Schütz, literary declamation offered a means of vivifying the "dead letter" of print and providing the audience with an emotionally transformative media experience. Meanwhile, theorists of declamation such as Christian Gotthold Schocher and Gustav Freyherr von Seckendorff employed both musical notation and scientific discoveries in the field of acoustics in order to establish a rational, non-alphabetic system of "writing" spoken language as "declamatory music." Both theoreticians and performers of literary declamation helped to establish a new art and science of speaking, which sought to counteract the "monopoly of print" (Kittler) of the late eighteenth century by fostering an oral culture that emphasized the musical and non-verbal dimensions of spoken language. I argue that the culture of literary declamation did not undermine print culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but rather complemented it, insofar as it represented a proliferation of discourses and techniques for regulating the emotions of the listener (and the performer) through acoustic means. From the late eighteenth century onward, both print culture and literary declamation colluded in the transfer of cultural knowledge and the production of the educated bourgeois subject.

My project contributes to the network's overarching topic insofar as it investigates the emergence in the eighteenth century of hearing and listening as sites of linguistic, scientific, literary, technical and historical inquiry. I examine a variety of literary and non-literary texts, including novels (Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften), reviews and narrative accounts of declamatory concerts (Der teutsche Merkur, Journal des Luxus und der Moden) and theoretical texts on declamation (Schocher, Seckendorff, J.C. Wötzel). In my readings of declamatory performances, I use methods of contemporary performance studies to describe the techniques of listening and speaking employed and developed by declamatory performers. My study is thus attentive to declamation both as a performance phenomenon and as an experimental laboratory for an emerging science of the voice. Interweaving performance theory with discourse analysis and knowledge history, my project illuminates a hitherto neglected, but nonetheless important medial and epistemic transformation in Germany prior to 1900.

 

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