The development and rapid spread of the electric telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century were profoundly entangled with music in ways that are seldom if ever acknowledged. Particular emphasis is often placed on sound recording as enacting what Attali describes as “the moment when everything suddenly changed.” In fact, the telegraph anticipated several key premises of recording by decades. Its language is heard, on the one hand, in the direct imitation of Strauss Jr.'s Telegraphische Depeschen, and on the other, in François Sudre's development of a “universal musical language” to communicate across distance. Works by Berlioz and Georges Kastner reveal how the telegraph fed into conceptions of musical transcendence via Spiritualists and the Aeolian harp. The attendant emphasis on mind over body was extended through the employment by conductors of telegraph technology to control musicians across ever-greater distances. This apparent disembodiment of the telegraph carried threatening implications for those social or ethnic groups aligned with the body, including performers. However, as Marshall McLuhan suggests, electricity was also primarily a “tactile” medium, and sensitivity to the telegraphic signals in art music therefore also entailed a new appreciation of the powerful role of embodied performers. Listening for the sounds of the telegraph in music of the mid-nineteenth century thus both enriches our appreciation of the historicity of these works and offers new perspectives on the negotiations between embodiment and transcendence that continue to underpin this repertoire.
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