University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Mellon Fellows Seminar - Michael Puri, “Music, Mimesis, Modernity”

February 19, 2021

Michael Puri

Associate Professor

Department of Music, University of Virginia

** Seminar:  February 19, 2021: “Music, Mimesis, Modernity”


“If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish.” This striking statement by René Girard invests imitation with an extraordinary ability to generate culture. It also implicitly challenges scholars to investigate the role of imitation within their particular fields of study.


My Mellon-sponsored project takes up this challenge from the standpoint of musicology. More specific, it focuses on mimesis—practices and theories of imitation—within western music of the modern industrial era. How has mimesis manifested itself within this context? How has it been conceptualized? How and why has it changed over time?


In this talk I will open up two perspectives on these matters. The first is pedagogical. I will discuss the process involved in constructing a syllabus for a seminar on this topic that I am currently offering to PhD students in Music and English. The second is research-oriented and seeks to delineate the role of mimesis within evolving notions of the artwork in early European modernism.


I begin by teasing out the presence of mimesis in and between Walter Benjamin’s concepts of craft and commodity as he developed them in his “Arcades Project.” This will help to show what Benjamin believed to have been gained and lost in the advent of capitalism over the course of the long nineteenth century, especially in France. I then consider how these approaches to mimesis might illuminate aspects of French music at the fin de siècle—in particular, the work of Maurice Ravel. His is a celebrated but conflicted oeuvre, one that is caught between the artisan’s atelier and the mass marketplace.


Bio: Michael J. Puri is Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Ravel the Decadent and the editor of a forthcoming volume of essays on musical meaning and interpretation, both of which are published by Oxford. His work lies at the intersection of music, intellectual history, and critical theory. It has appeared in many venues and received support from a variety of institutions, including a year-long residential fellowship at the National Humanities Center and the Alfred Einstein Award from the American Musicological Society. He is currently working on two further monographs. One expands upon the topic of this presentation: relationships between mimesis and music in modernity. The other brings to light hitherto unrecognized connections between French and German music in the early twentieth century.

Homer Statue
10:00 am - 12:00 pm