Conceptual history of music. Basic concepts of vocal music in terminological discourse

Dr. phil. habil. Sabine Ehrmann-Herfort

The fact that the designation of a subject and the subject itself influence each other in the formation of conceptual content, and that both strands of development are inextricably linked, adds a great deal to the fascination of conceptual history. The subject matter of the conceptual history of a discipline is to crystallise the process of the historical development of its technical terms. To analyse the contexts condensed in the technical terminology and to simultaneously reflect different phases of development and changes in meaning is one of the central tasks of conceptual historical research. The history of musical terminology also reflects such diverse historical processes, as musical terms are seldom definitive, but often fluid and marked by numerous factors.
The proposed study uses an open and non-hierarchical pool of conceptuality, including influential vocal genres as well as musical institutions and related vocabulary. The investigation focuses on terms such as madrigal, monody, cantata, opera, operetta, musical theatre and cappella, whose origins often date back to antiquity or to mediaeval contexts and whose terminology, which mostly originates from the Italian linguistic area, continues to be modified until today with connotations. What the "long" histories of these terms share is that they have been reoriented several times as a result of innovative concepts and changing performance practices. In addition, the terms used in the study are in some way linked to text and language. As a result, the vocal-musical terms, which were established as musical terms in Europe in the transnational discourse of music, generally also provide numerous literary-scientific, socio-historical or cultural-scientific references and present interdependencies with other disciplines.
Detailed conceptual profiles of the corresponding terms are a result of such investigations, whereby interactions between musical conceptual and factual history can be traced back in time, while the diffusion of the technical terms into the European cultural landscape are to be studied using examples. This results in a panorama of musical history in the European context, a kind of music-terminological mapping that, beyond the conceptual historical scene, also represents further reference points such as migration structures, diversity of disciplines or cultural contexts.
For example, the development of the opera genre, which emerged in the representative milieu of Italian courts, led in a straight line to its subsequent directly-associated subject name. Rather, the technical term "opera" was only established by migratory movements of foreigners coming to Italy. Therefore, the initial trigger for the term "opera" seems to be based on a travel journal. A second example shows how important the methods of contextualization are. For example, interdisciplinary strategies cannot be dispensed while analysing the conceptual history of "cappella", since the conceptual history of music only represents a part of the term's history.
Since the 1950s, conceptual history has mainly been established in Germany, in various disciplines. These include philosophy, history and social science, musicology, literary science and, more recently, the natural sciences. Although research on conceptual history explicitly followed interdisciplinary questions from the beginning, there was little exchange between the individual projects that belonged to different subjects and were usually lexicographical in nature. In addition, the conceptual history of musicology has generally been perceived as marginal by other disciplines working in the field of conceptual history. In the meantime, however, "new" conceptual historical research also makes use of cultural-scientific perspectives and decidedly interdisciplinary issues.
In the field of musicological research, conceptual historical investigations in the form of preliminaries have become a methodological standard. However, extensive research on the history of musical terms has received far less attention overall since the completion of the Handbook of Musical Terminology (Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie, HmT) in 2005, although access to potential sources, particularly via the Internet, has improved immensely.
At that time the stated goal of the HmT was: "to make musical terminology an instrument of understanding facts and circumstances in their historical existence and application" and thus primarily to establish a hermeneutic concept. The present study however extends this conception, including cultural contexts and interdisciplinary source material in order to develop the term profile on as broad as possible a basis. On a meta-level it is also intended to explore how conceptual history is constructed or reconstructed in any scientific field.
Thereby the project contributes to the history of science by integrating, for instance, the Handbook of Musical Terminology into the historical context of the historical research of its time. A comparative investigation of these relationships is a desideratum, as research in the field of musical terminology since the 1970s has been very much interested in subject-specific conceptual historical discourses but less so in the historical location of projects in the scientific landscape of their time.

PD Dr. Sabine Ehrmann-Herfort
2002–2023 (Deputy Head, from 2022 Head of the Music History Department)