In Song, Hidden Meanings of Gender and History

In 1620, a nobleman and a nun in Florence, Italy, were accused of having an affair and charged with adultery. When asked to explain their relationship, the two responded consistently. They claimed that the nobleman had sneaked into the nun’s apartment to hear her sing, not because of a sexual relationship.

New York University professor and musicologist Suzanne G. Cusick shared this story in a Monday afternoon lecture, in which she explored both the history of the Florence scandal and the interplay of music and sexuality—what Cusick described as an “erotic economy of song.” The lecture was the second event in “The Barwick Student Colloquium Series,” a new speaker series organized by the Harvard music department to showcase the work of music scholars. The series selects speakers based on graduate student and faculty nominations.

In her talk, Cusick said her work, which she read aloud, approaches the field of sound studies from two new directions: historical and gender perspectives.

“There is almost nothing that brings the discourse of sound studies into conversations about gender studies,” Cusick said in an interview with The Crimson. “This project does both of those things. It’s possible to bring both feminist and queer theory discourse to bear on these documents.”

Cusick’s study of the scandal relates back to her previous work on gender and sexuality and the role of music in torture, two research topics for which she is known. Cusick was an “immensely popular” choice, according to music department chair Alexander Rehding.

“We’re trying to bring in fantastic scholars whose work is interesting and speaks to a broad number of scholars, graduates, and faculty,” Rehding said. “I think it’s her mixture of very interesting topics that are not often tackled within musicology that is so attractive to our community.”

Music professor Suzannah E. Clark said she appreciated the potential for the new series to introduce students to scholars like Cusick.

“[We want] to give these kinds of opportunities to grad students to meet illustrious scholars, such as Suzanne Cusick, and to hear the voice behind the scholarship,” Clark said. “It’s interesting that she’s talking today about listening to the documents, and what we do as scholars in colloquialism is listen to people reading their work.”

“That gives a kind of inflection into their work that adds a dimension that you don’t get yourself,” she added.