In nineteenth-century theatrical magic shows, music was a ubiquitous but unacknowledged presence. Little is known about the styles and genres of music that were used, the featured musical performers, and the music’s function in constructing the illusionist’s mise-en-scène. For the first part of my project, I use archival sources to develop an historical account of music in magic shows, lingering on figures of particular interest like the illusionist Robert Heller, who started his career as a virtuoso pianist and ended it performing stage illusions interspersed with selections of solo piano music. My approach interweaves histories of magic, music, spectacle, and popular entertainment in ways that challenge perceived divisions between genres considered to be “high” (opera, ballet, symphonic music) and “low” (street entertainment, circuses, variety shows).
The second part of the project uses the historical evidence I have gathered as an interpretive lens; through it, I examine sorcerer and conjurer figures in opera and ballet, like the Magician in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, the Chinese conjurer in Satie’s Parade, Von Rothbart in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Klingsor in Wagner’s Parsifal.
Jessie Fillerup is a research fellow at AIAS and Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Richmond. Her book on Maurice Ravel, Magician of Sound: Ravel and the Aesthetics of Illusion, is under review. Recent publications include articles on Ravel’s music, opera, and postmodernism. The project she is working on at AIAS documents the use of music in theatrical magic shows and analyzes conjurer figures in operas and ballets.
Enchanted: Music and Conjuring in the Long Nineteenth Century
Area of research:
01 Feb 2018 – 31 Jan 2020
Theatre Robert Houdin