Research@Schulich: Kristin Franseen

Kristin Franseen is a PhD candidate in musicology. She recently presented her research at the ‘Manifestations of the Imaginary Musician’ conference at the University of Amsterdam, and was last year's second place winner in the Schulich School of Music Dean's Essay Prize.

Originally from the United States, Kristin Franseen is in her sixth year of PhD study at the Schulich School of Music. Her dissertation, supervised by Lloyd Whitesell, is entitled Ghosts in the Archives: The Queer Knowledge and Public Musicology of Vernon Lee, Rosa Newmarch, and Edward Prime-Stevenson. She has an MA in music history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BA in music (double bass) and women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Kristin has presented at meetings of the American Musicological Society, the Société québécoise de recherche en musique, and the Society for American Music, as well as themed regional conferences on biography, British queer history, women’s suffrage, public music discourse, and music and sexuality. Kristin's other research interests include Enlightenment philosophy in the operas of Antonio Salieri and the early promotion of the metronome.


What made you choose McGill for your studies?

I met Prof. Lloyd Whitesell and a number of McGill grad students at a meeting of the American Musicological Society in New Orleans in 2012. I was looking for a program that encouraged interdisciplinary research and offered coursework on a variety of subjects, approaches, and time periods.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

There’s so much fascinating research going on at McGill, both within the School of Music and across the university!

How would you categorize your research area?

I generally tell people that I work on late 19th/early 20th-century queer musicology and issues of biography. The (slightly) longer version is that I am interested in who tells stories about music history, what sources they have access to, and what strategies they employ to discuss ideas that are taboo and/or unprovable.

Sum up your thesis in four sentences:

Image by Wikimedia Commons
Conspiracy theories about the cause of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) death and his supposed musical “confession” of homosexuality spread quickly within British and American queer musical circles during the 1890s and 1900s. Various music critics, sexologists, and sex reformers repeated overtly negative gossip about Tchaikovsky, paradoxically facilitating an “acceptable” space for queer musical meaning in works by Rosa Newmarch (1900, 1903, 1908), Edward Prime-Stevenson (1908), Edward Carpenter (1908), James Gibbons Huneker (1913), and E.M. Forster (1913). The rumors and conspiracies attached to Tchaikovsky led to him becoming a byword for musical homosexuality well into the second half of the twentieth century. In these surviving traces of early Tchaikovsky gossip, however, one finds counter-narratives of queer life-writing that would not appear openly within academic musicology until the 1990s, yet resist easy incorporation into contemporary scholarship.

What led you to this particular topic?

My undergraduate research project focused on archival sources on the history of sexology as a form of early LGBTQ activism in the UK and Germany. This was completely unrelated to music, but I kept coming across references to music and music history in different kinds of primary sources. Slightly later, my MA thesis on the cultural meanings and reception history of Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio led me to the study of rumour and censored sources as part of the popular knowledge around a given work.

How does your research add to what is already known?

My research brings together ideas and methods from the history of musicology/music theory, biography, and women’s/gender/sexuality studies.

Were there any findings that you found particularly surprising?

What really surprised me was how much the people I study weren’t necessarily seeking out alternative repertoires to study, but were examining well-known works and composers in different ways. To give one example, at the same time that folks like Prime-Stevenson and Newmarch were engaging with gossip about Tchaikovsky’s life and death, his last symphony was tremendously popular amongst concertgoers in both the UK and North America.

Why is this work important?

I think it’s important for scholars, musicians, and fans of music to examine how the history of music has been told in different ways, and remember that the people who wrote it were people (and not just names on a page).

What are the practical implications of your work?

There are a lot of conversations going on what now about who “counts” as a musicologist and what the political and ethical dimensions are of musicological research (and humanities scholarship more broadly) in the world today. I hope that my research can provide some historical context to these discussions.

What are your next steps for the year ahead?

I’m hopefully graduating this spring, and am currently applying for jobs and postdocs. I’d love to do a critical edition of some of Prime-Stevenson’s self-published music criticism so that more musicologists have access to his work. I’m also hoping to return to the eighteenth century at some point, and have vague ideas of combining my approach to musical gossip and misinformation with my MA research to do a literary reception history of Antonio Salieri. (There’s way more out there than just Pushkin and Amadeus!)

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Don’t let yourself get trapped in your own head too much, especially during comps. Go outside! Grab coffee or a beer with friends! Find time to talk and think about things other than research!


Where is your favourite place to study?

I like to write in the TA offices (using the desktop minimizes my tendency to procrastinate), but my favourite places to read are probably the anticafes in Montreal, where you can sit in a comfy chair and drink coffee all day. Also, the Westmount Public Library and the reading room of the Osler Library of the History of Medicine are gorgeous.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

This year, I’ve started taking introductory leisure courses in computing and meditation. I’m also the secretary of the Bimetallic Question, the Montreal Sherlock Holmes society. (The name comes from a description of Holmes’s brother Mycroft, who is supposedly an expert on a variety of political issues, including “the Navy, India, Canada and the bimetallic question.”)

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

Probably a historian of science or mathematics. I loved math in high school, and one of my favourite non-music classes was a seminar on Victorian science (and some truly ferocious scientific debates!) that I took during my MA.

What was the last book you read?

For research - Marina Kostalevsky, Stephen Pearl, and Polina E. Vaidman, The Tchaikovsky Papers: Unlocking the Family Archive, a new critical edition and translation of Tchaikovsky family letters and administrative documents.

For fun - Kim Newman, The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School, a pastiche of 1920s “girls’ school stories” set in a world of pulp fiction superheroes and villains.