Melina Esse, associate professor of musicology at the Eastman School of Music, received the American Musicological Society’s highly coveted 2014 Alfred Einstein Award, which honors an article of exceptional merit published during the previous year by a scholar in the early stages of his or her career.
Esse was honored for her article “Encountering the improvvisatrice in Italian Opera,” which appeared in the fall 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Musicological Society. The article examines the improvvisatrice, a female improviser of sung poetry, and her representation in Italian operas, particular Pacini’s 1840 Saffo. Esse suggests that 19th-century efforts to redefine authorship through resurrecting the ancient figure of the Sapphic poetic genius allows better understanding of the era’s shifting balance of power between singers and composers.
The award was presented Nov. 8 at the annual meeting of the American Musicological Society in Milwaukee. At the ceremony David J. Rothenberg, chair of the Einstein Award committee and associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, called Esse’s winning essay an “exceptional article that investigates the significance of the female improviser in 19th-century opera. Through incisive and erudite analysis of Giovanni Pacini’s Saffo, of related operatic and literary works, and of 19th-century ‘earwitness’ accounts of the performances of famous female improviser-virtuosi, the article demonstrates that performance and spontaneity played a much larger role in contemporaneous conceptions of musical authorship than has previously been recognized.”
Noting that the article was written with great eloquence, Rothenberg said that it “enjoins all musicologists, not just scholars of opera, to be mindful of the important differences between reconstructing historical texts and investigating historical practices—two related but separate tasks that lie at the center of our discipline.”
A scholar of opera in the 19th and 20th centuries, Esse has published widely on voice and technological mediation, opera and film, and gender and the emotive body. In addition to the Journal of the American Musicological Society, her articles have appeared in Cambridge Opera Journal, Opera Quarterly, Nineteenth-Century Music, Current Musicology and Women in Music. Her forthcoming book, Saffo’s Lyre: Improvising Italy’s Past in Nineteenth-Century Opera, expands on her study of the intertwining histories of musical texts and improvisatory performances.
Esse has presented papers to the American Musicological Society, the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, the American Society for Theater Research, the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, and the Feminist Theory and Music annual conference. She also has given many pre-concert lectures and seminars at both the San Francisco Opera and the Minnesota Opera.
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