Edited Volumes

The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, co-editor with Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph N. Straus (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

Articles (Peer-Reviewed)

“Music and the Agents of Obsession,” Music Theory Spectrum (forthcoming)

Formed in the late eighteenth century and popularized during the development of psychiatry in the nineteenth, medical theories of obsession divide the mind into two conflicting agents: a rational, mobile agent, and a stubborn, fixed agent. Contemporaneous with the emergence of this medical model of mental pathology, an evocative musical topos—in which a note or group of notes is stuck, repeating itself within a shifting harmonic context—has been used by composers to depict these obsessional spaces in musical terms. The resultant conflict between the mobile and fixed agents of obsession creates stories that are familiar from other expressive trajectories used to accommodate disability (Straus 2006). Three model analyses, each positioned at different moments within the history of obsession, will demonstrate the most common scenarios: the obsessive agent may be rehabilitated (as in Gaetano Brunetti’s programmatic symphony Il maniático [1780], from an era before psychiatry's radical reconceptualization of the mind), the rational agent may accommodate the obsessive agent (as in Peter Cornelius's "Ein Ton" [1854], a reflection of the nineteenth century's "democratization of madness" [Davis 2009]), or the obsessive agent may assume total control of the musical discourse (as in Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb [1943], a tale of madness for a Freudian age).

"Paul Wittgenstein and the Performance of Disability," The Journal of Musicology 27 (2010): 135–80.

Paul Wittgenstein's one-handedness has typically been framed as a physical limitation at odds with an ideology of ability driving musical performance. Contemporary reviews, for instance, frame the pianist's disability as a tragedy heroically transcended during the course of virtuosic performance; others suggest that Wittgenstein successfully "passed" as two-handed. A study of Wittgenstein's numerous one-hand arrangements reveals similar narratives: the pianist often attempted to imitate the sound of two-handed piano music, and many of his own keyboard exercises train his one hand to assume the load of two. The "deficiency" model can be seen most dramatically in three attempts to arrange Wittgenstein's commissions for left-hand piano into a more "normal" performance medium: Sergei Prokofiev's expressed (but abandoned) interest in arranging his left-hand piano concerto for piano two-hands, Alfred Cortot's completed draft of a two-hand arrangement of Ravel's Concerto pour la main gauche, and, most significantly, Friedrich Wührer's highly successful two-hand arrangements of Franz Schmidt's left-hand pieces for Wittgenstein, which explicitly adopt a program of "strengthening" and "filling in" the supposed weaknesses of a disabled performance medium. Yet, despite the stigma it may have accrued, one-handed pianism is but a more prominent, more public example of the "bodily limits" all performers must confront; similar discourse surrounds the deficiencies of small hands or stiff fingers, for example. For the performer's body must negotiate its corporeal finitude with the complex demands of the musical score. As seen here in the career of Wittgenstein, an aesthetics of disabled performance presents this dialectic in heightened microcosm.


"The Allure of Dissolution: Bodies, Forces, and Cyclicity in Schubert's Final Mayrhofer Settings," Journal of the American Musicological Society 62 (2009): 271–322.

Composed in the early days of March 1824, Schubert's final four settings of the poetry of his friend Johann Mayrhofer (“Der Sieg,” “Abendstern,” “Auflösung,” and “Gondelfahrer,” D. 805–08) revolve around a shared narrative: corporeal limitation, when ruptured by outward-seeking forces, yields a desirable state of spiritual transcendence. This narrative, common in the philosophical, theological, scientific, and medical texts of several major contemporary writers, treats the body as a disabled limitation which must in turn be “heroically overcome.” In Schubert's settings, energized musical gestures are “released” at poetic moments of corporeal death, and chromatic mediants—particularly the flatted submediant—are used as centrifugal harmonies that breach diatonic limitation. “Auflösung,” though positioned third within the set of four songs by O. E. Deutsch in his chronological catalogue of Schubert's music, was probably composed last. This adjustment has significant ramifications for a cyclical or collective consideration of the four final Mayrhofer settings, because in many ways this virtuosic song acts as a reservoir of the gestural and aesthetic ideas developed in the previous three.


"Norman Rockwell's Shuffleton's Barbershop: A Musical–Iconographical Riddle," The Musical Quarterly 90 (2007): 6–42.

Norman Rockwell's painting Shuffleton's Barbershop (which first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on 29 April 1950) depicts a clarinet, violin, and cello trio rehearsing in the town of Arlington, Vermont. Only three compositions for such an ensemble had been published before 1950; one of these is Adolf Busch's Deutsche Tänze, op. 26, no. 3. Since 1945, Busch spent his summers near Brattleboro, Vermont (50 miles from Arlington), and both he and Rockwell shared a common close friend in author Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Imagining Busch's Germanic trio in the New England landscape of Shuffleton's Barbershop introduces an ironic twist into a reading of the painting; the intrusion of the worldly or foreign into the secluded regions of small-town New England was not an unpolitical act in 1950. Around this time, there was much interest in the musical development in southern Vermont, perhaps best exemplified by Busch's creation of the Marlboro School of Music in 1950.

[JSTOR]  [color cover at the Saturday Evening Post]

Essays in Collections (Invited)

"Bounded Finitude and Boundless Infinitude: Schubert's Contradictions at the 'Final Barrier,'" in Schubert's Late Music in History and Theory, ed. Lorraine Byrne Bodley and Julian Horton (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Schubert’s “Nachthelle,” composed in September of 1826 for tenor soloist, male chorus, and piano, features many characteristics commonly associated with “late style.” The poem, by Johann Gabriel Seidl, describes the poet’s body as a full and overflowing container of light. With two curt phrases—“es will hinaus, es muss hinaus”—that container ruptures, the “last barrier breaks” (“die letzte Schranke bricht”). The subject–object divide bridged, internal light and the external moonlight are allowed to freely fuse. Schubert makes explicit Seidl’s narrative of emergence by constructing a musical space that serves as an analogue to physical space: woven throughout the song is a recurring musical gesture that gradually expands outward past pre-defined pitch boundaries, accumulating great tension in the process. At the gesture’s pressured peak, the music seems to “burst open” or “rupture,” explosively releasing the newly rejuvenated tonic. The principal characteristic of these “wedge gestures” is chromatic contrary motion, often generated with the aid of an augmented sixth that pries itself open into an octave, or with chromatic-mediant transformations, in which the outward-expanding voices are placed in the outer registers. In one of the most remarkable of these sequences—the first statement of Seidl’s final line (“die letzte Schranke bricht”)—Schubert seems to have struggled over how to sufficiently prolong the gesture: he revised this passage extensively, recomposing its beginning by introducing musical Schranken (in the form of pitch barriers and failed resolutions) that are subsequently surpassed at the rapturous climax. Artistic lateness is, in part, a meditation on death, terminus, and finitude—themes that recur in Schubert’s other late choral settings of Seidl (notably “Widerspruch” and “Grab und Mond”). Each responds differently to the imagery of finitude, alternatively expressing trepidation, comfort, and—in the case of “Nachthelle”—an almost reckless fearlessness in the confrontation with finality.


"Disabling Music Performance," in Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, ed. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph N. Straus (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

When a performer's disability directly affects the execution of a musical script, the “dual performances of music and disability” (Straus 2011) are intertwined, so that one directly influences the other. We may speak more specifically about these disability–music performances by utilizing the terms audible and silent disabilities as aural analogues to the more commonly used terms visible and invisible disabilities. In music performance, aural disabilities stem from musical impairments, which emerge from conflicts with three interrelated sets of conventions: those associated with musical instruments, those associated with performance practices and musical scores (in non-improvised performances), and those associated with ideological expectations of a societal audience. Just as curbs, stairs, and door handles constitute part of the “constructed normalcy” of social performance, so do these three musical conventions propose and construct a normal performance body that real bodies must strive to match. Conversely, disablist music (like the one-hand piano repertoire) subverts the normal performance body by accommodating aurally disabled performers who have been excluded from conformational musical practices.

"Saul, David, and the Ideal Body of Music," in Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, ed. Blake Howe, Stephanie Jensen-Moulton, Neil Lerner, and Joseph N. Straus (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

The religious model of disability holds that disabilities are corruptions of a divine prototype (the ideal body of God or of Adam before the Fall); this ideal body has often been metaphorized as a musical body. Dissonances and syncopations, like bodily imperfections, might occasionally diverge from the consonant, metrical ideal, but the strong forces of musical resolution can safely contain their destabilizing potential. In this role, the ideal musical body also possesses healing powers, restoring order to sonic dysfunction. The exemplary performer of this therapeutic music, of course, was David, and his most notorious patient was Saul. In exegetical accounts, these two biblical figures are often framed as antitheses: David’s consonant health as an emblem of divine strength (an ideal body) versus Saul’s dissonant disease as a symptom of divine disfavor (an imperfect body). Musical representations by Johann Kuhnau and G. F. Handel participate in this tradition.

Dictionary Entries

Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd ed., edited by Charles Hiroshi Garrett:

  • "Rudolph Aronson"
  • "Benjamin Colman Blodgett"
  • "John Henry Cornell"
  • "William Harold Neidlinger"
  • "George Peabody" (revision)
  • "Thomas Philander Ryder"
  • "Antoinette Sterling" (revision)
  • "Charles Wels"

Book Reviews

  • Review of Albert Sassmann, "In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister": Technik und Ästhetik der Klaviermusik für die linke Hand allein, in Notes 68, no. 1 (2011): 105–07.
  • Review of Jürgen Thym, ed., Of Poetry and Song: Approaches to the Nineteenth-Century Lied, in Music & Letters 92, no. 4 (2011): 656–58.

© Blake Howe 2014