Dr. Mark Pottinger, a musicologist and professor at Manhattan College in the Bronx, is currently working on Romantic Science: Nineteenth-Century Opera in the Age of Becoming. In this forthcoming book, Pottinger explores the ways Romantic operas are connected to scientific paradigms of the Era. Exploring the impression of Science within Opera promises to enhance the interdisciplinary foundation of musicology.
By Pamela Segura
In Romantic Science: Nineteenth-Century in the Age of Becoming, Pottinger meditates on the connections between changes in 19th century science and the dramatic and musical components of Romantic opera. Pottinger also relates these interconnections between science and music to the revolutionizing theories of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and current issues in theoretical physics through organicism- the notion that all forces in nature are unified.
Romantic music emphasized art's emotional capabilities, expressing through music the creative imagination's ability to aurally mimic the fantastical imagination. The music was marked by both the use of folklore and exoticism. New instruments like the English horn and the piccolo extended the dynamic range of the orchestra. The lied, an art song that consisted of a solo vocalist and pianist, emerged from the Romantic period in European music and culture.
Franz Schubert’s haunting lied, “Der Erlkönig,” contains some of the key features that Pottinger grapples with in Romantic Science. A father rides on a horse through woods while his son insists that otherworldly entities are beckoning him (the son). The father in turn suggests that natural elements—rather than intangible, supernatural entities—are playing tricks on the young boy. The Erlkönig eventually seizes the son. Enmeshed in Schubert’s lied is the presence of the natural and supernatural.
In Romantic Science, Pottinger suggests that the supernatural expresses the science that drives the plots in operas like Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable (Robert the Devil), Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (The Marksman or The Freeshooter), and Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
Pottinger corresponds these operas to specific scientific disciplines, including:
· Geology and other earth sciences (Meyerbeer)
· Mineralogy (Meyerbeer)
· Magnetism and electromagnetic theory (Weber)
· Physiology (Donizetti)
· Psychology and philosophy of the mind (Donizetti)
He hopes that his book will showcase how organicism “does not simply disappear from intellectual and artistic discourse after 1850” but it informs “the advanced scientific notions of the twentieth century…and into our own time…[with] new cosmological theory that accounts for a unification of matter itself.”
Romantic Science also promises to enhance the many disciplines that form the foundation of musicology, which include neuroscience, psychology, sociology, physiology, and math.
“Musicology has been [focused on] fixing texts,” Dr. Pottinger said in an interview with SciArt. “For me, I was more fascinated by the phenomenon of music itself. Why does music have a meaning at all that has to be fixed? And why does it permeate the thoughts, ideas, desires of the listener? Why do we desire [the music] to say anything at all?”
Pottinger, who originally majored in physics at Washington University, studied Romantic composer Hector Berlioz during his undergraduate career. He traced the work of Berlioz as a composer and music critic in Germany, eventually using this academic and intellectual as impetus to become a musicologist.
Like Romantic Science, Pottinger’s other works attempt to connect the thoughts, writings, and theories of musicologists to the larger world well outside the academic sphere. His forthcoming book, which will be published by Pickering & Chatto Publishers in England, provides a step in that direction by placing the narrative of music history into different disciplines of science.