During the 18th-century period known as the Age of Enlightenment, many Europeans nurtured a fascination for all things Chinese, voraciously consuming reports of a distant civilization with its own vibrant traditions of art and music. In an era long before the emergence of recorded sound, however, few Europeans had the opportunity to actually hear Chinese musicl; instead they relied on descriptions and transcriptions compiled by Jesuit missionaries, who began traveling to the Middle Kingdom in 1552. From these documents, Enlightenment philosophers strove to discover cultural similarities and musical universals—and ultimately to attain a better understanding of their own place in the world

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean-Phillippe Rameau, pillars of Enlightenment thought, participated in the debate on the significance of Chinese music in relation to Western European music. Significant 18th-century composers, including Christoph Willibald Gluck and Johann Adolf Hasse, wrote operas on Chinese narrative themes. Chinese folk melodies even entered the domestic sphere in the guise of keyboard arrangements (complete with western harmonies) as musical chinoiseries that offered bourgeois households exotic entertainment.

This exhibition explores Chinese music as the European Enlightenment imagined it. By examining China's musical culture, Jesuit missionary reports and transcriptions, and western theory texts, musical scores, and music histories, we hope to raise broad questions about the purported universality of music, the suitability of notation as a medium of transmission, and the machinations of cross-cultural contact. Using the holdings of Harvard's diverse collections, this exhibition retraces the voyage of music from Qing-dynasty China to the urban salons, drawing rooms, and coffee houses of Enlightenment Europe.

In the video below, Alexander Rehding (Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard) and Sarah Adams (Richard F. French Librarian at Harvard's Loeb Music Library) explain the genesis of the project:


Sarah Adams and Alexander Rehding on Karl Kambra's "Two Original Chinese Songs" on Vimeo.


From here:


Take a guided tour of the exhibition

Explore individual areas

See multimedia files

See "behind the scenes" of the exhibition