Rescinding Genius

Dr Shaena Weitz:  British Academy Newton International Fellow

Rescinding Genius investigates through the lens of publicity how fame and designations of musical genius were lost in the nineteenth century. By targeting the birth and growth of negative ideas for composers widely considered geniuses in the early nineteenth century, it will provide a new assessment of the role of marketing and publicity in the construction — and deconstruction — of nineteenth-century musicians’ careers. The project will revolve around five composers who were all considered geniuses before their reputations rapidly (and except in one case, permanently) declined: Daniel Steibelt, Frédéric Kalkbrenner, Henri Herz, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Gioachino Rossini. I argue that these composers did not lose their fame naturally through the ebb and flow of changing tastes, but that they actively had their genius rescinded by those who were better able to control media processes and who needed to set the stage for new idols. My aim is not to rehabilitate anyone’s reputations as a victim, but rather to illustrate the means by which interested parties achieved their goals by looking at music journalism as a media discourse, and identifying various nascent publicity tactics that helped manipulate public discourse toward a desired end.
Further, since I argue that negative press represents a disruption of positive publicity or a reverse marketing tool, then focusing on these disruptions, their aftereffects, and their counteractions will bring invisible publicity standards into view. This project combines detailed, archival research (revisiting known materials, finding new ones, and putting them into dialogue in new ways) with emerging research on media and celebrity. This will turn loose collections of stories into broader paradigmatic phenomena that will radically alter our understanding of publicity practices and attention, media standards and propaganda, and the competing nature of celebrity and genius more broadly. Rescinding Genius targets the assumptions that form the very foundations of musicology (ie. how we understand value and success historically) and has significant potential to reshape nearly two centuries of musical thought through its innovative inversion of focus toward decline and failure instead of growth and success. As the first project of its kind, Rescinding Genius will result in a fundamentally new understanding of historical publicity, nineteenth-century celebrity, and the relationship between publishers and criticism, that will generate new insight and methodologies that are not only valuable for studies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but also for understanding the roots of media, celebrity, and publicity today.


Shaena is a cultural historian of music, and her research focuses on media and mediation in music production in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, and how these practices continue to affect musicmaking today. Her dissertation, ‘Le Pianiste:’ Parisian Music Journalism and the Politics of the Piano, investigates how bias and self-interest in nineteenth-century French music journalism affected canon formation, and was awarded a City University of New York (CUNY) Dissertation Year grant. While this work establishes that music journalism in the early nineteenth century was not a passive record of independent “reception,” but rather a tool that critics and publishers leveraged to gain power, it also raises further questions about how critics and publishers crafted arguments and controlled reputations across Europe. This research has fuelled her broader interdisciplinary interests in music journalism and media studies, historically-informed performance and creative practices, and celebrity studies, which form the core elements of my current research trajectory and recent published work. She recently won the Elizabeth C. Bartlet research grant from the American Musicological Society.
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