Music History and Theory Forum: Lisa Cooper Vest (Musicology, USC)

Event Date: 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018 - 3:30pm to 4:45pm

Event Date Details: 

Event Location: 

  • Music Room 1145 (UCSB)

Event Price: 

Free and open to the public

Event Contact: 

Adriane Hill
Marketing and Communications Manager
UC Santa Barbara Department of Music
(805) 893-3230


Warsaw Opera poster for the 1975 Polish premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun
Warsaw Opera poster for the 1975 Polish premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun.
Dr. Lisa Cooper Vest (Musicology, University of Southern California) will present a talk titled "The Devil Made Her Do It: Penderecki’s The Devils of Loudun (1968-9) and the Crisis of the Subject" on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 from 3:30-4:45 pm in Music Room 1145 on the UCSB campus. 


When writing the libretto for his first opera, Krzysztof Penderecki turned to Aldous Huxley’s “documentary novel,” The Devils of Loudun (1952), as source material. Huxley’s lurid psychoanalytic narrative examines the encounter of two historical protagonists: Sister Jeanne of the Angels, a seventeenth-century French abbess, and Father Urbain Grandier, a priest who was executed after Jeanne accused him of afflicting her with demonic possession. Huxley and Penderecki were by no means the only artists after WWII who found themselves drawn to the Loudun tale: among other treatments were Polish author Jaros?aw Iwaszkiewicz’s lyrical novella (1942-6), French poststructuralist Michel de Certeau’s philosophical deconstruction (1970), and British director Ken Russell’s notoriously profane (and heavily censored) film (1971).
In approaching these various manifestations, scholars have focused on the tragic parable of Father Grandier’s fate in the face of totalitarian (Church and State) power. And, indeed, it is Penderecki’s treatment of Grandier that critics have most often praised in his opera. It is the contention of this paper, however, that Jeanne’s fate is far more revealing. In this paper, a comparison of the reception following the 1969 premieres in Hamburg, Stuttgart, and Santa Fe exposes a consistent and profound discomfort with Penderecki’s Jeanne. Her possession raises unsettling questions about the fundamental vulnerability of the female subject--questions that resonated powerfully in the second half of the twentieth century, attracting both the obsessive attentions of artists and the distaste of critics and audiences.
I argue that this negative reaction is particularly marked in relation to the opera because Penderecki’s treatment of the Loudun tale is unique in its refusal to reassure audiences that Jeanne has faked her possession. A consideration of Penderecki’s writing for Jeanne’s voice, which remains consistent across the opera’s multiple revisions, demonstrates his commitment to destabilizing her subject position, thereby confronting his audience with the fiction of their own subjective agency. In so doing, Penderecki empowers his Jeanne, among all of the other Jeannes, to lay bare the real anxieties that lurked beneath the midcentury “crisis of the subject.”


Lisa Cooper Vest is a musicologist whose work is focused on the aesthetic and political contexts of the post-WWII Polish musical avant-garde. Her work is situated within the field of Cold War studies, as she considers the effects of political ideologies upon musical culture and its meanings. Vest is particularly interested in the complicated power relationships that animated the field of cultural production in communist Bloc nations, and the ways in which artists and intellectuals were able to wield the promise of progress in order to generate consensus across generational, political, and aesthetic divides. Her research on these topics also informs her approach in the classroom, where she encourages her students to think about how music has affected (and is currently affecting) political discourse, and also how music functions as political discourse, shaping perceptions of such fundamental concepts as nation, gender, class, and race.
Lisa Cooper Vest