Sunday, 1 January 2017

Discussion and performance of Tim Watts’s opera Kepler’s Trial at Victoria and Albert Museum (9 November 2017)

The Disharmony of the World

An Accused ‘Witch’ and her Inquisitors
Katharina Kepler (1546–1622)
Johannes Kepler’s Defence of his Mother
in her ‘Witch’ Trial

Ulinka Rublack, Tim Watts, and a panel discuss
Tim Roberts's opera
Keplers Trial (2016)
before it is performed
at the Victoria and Albert Museum
Thursday 9 November 2017

Participants in the Inner Circle Seminars
are recommended to attend
(details and tickets from the V & A)

Johannes Kepler (15711630)
Ulinka Rublack
Tim Watts
Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) was the great astronomer whose Laws developed Copernicus’s thinking and were explained by Newton in his theory. When Kepler’s mother Katharina (1546–1622) was incarcerated and put on trial in Tübingen, accused of being a witch, he moved to live near her, and devoted himself to studying law so that he could defend her in court with the most convincing arguments he could muster. Against all odds, he won the case. Katharina was cleared of the charge of witchcraft. But she has continued to be misrepresented and maligned over the centuries. For instance, Paul Hindemith, in his own libretto for his 1957 opera about KeplerThe Harmony of the World, while ascribing to her a real clairvoyant gift, invents what seems an unhistorical split between mother and son in which she deplores his natural-scientific investigations as desecration and he rejects her alleged magical-mystical practices as superstition. (In fact, Kepler embodied a vision of the oneness of religion and nature, in which there was no such split.) Hindemith’s opera associates Katharina with the moon, and by implication with lunacy, even if at the end it assigns her supposed moonshine’ activities a legitimate place in the cosmos. And Arthur Koestler, in his book The Sleepwalkers: A history of mans changing vision of the Universe (1959), called Katharina an ‘old hag’, ‘a hideous little old woman, whose meddlesome and evil tongue, together with her suspect background, predestined her as a victim’.

The research of Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History at St Johns College in the University of Cambridge, has challenged this tradition of denigrating Katharina Kepler. Professor Rublack shows, in her book The Astronomer and the Witch: Johannes Keplers Fight for his Mother (2015), that Kepler brilliantly argued and demonstrated in the trial that his mothers behaviour needed no demonological explanation of the kind proposed by her inquisitors; on the contrary, her conduct was socially intelligible in ordinary human terms, as the understandable conduct of an older widowed woman in her social situation. In this way of seeing and presenting the phenomena, Kepler anticipated Laing and Esterson’s twentieth-century work with women diagnosed as schizophrenicreported in Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), which we have been studying in the Inner Circle Seminars.

The composer Tim Watts’s new opera Keplers Trial (2016) ( was written at Ulinka Rublacks instigation and with her collaboration as a response to Hindemiths unhistorical treatment of Katharina in his opera.

On the evening of Thursday 9 November, Ulinka Rublack, Tim Watts, and a distinguished panel will introduce a performance of the opera Keplers Trial at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Participants in the Inner Circle Seminars are recommended to attend. (See  

Is this merely an historically fascinating episode? Or is the inquisitorial method of the witch’ trials four hundred years ago still alive, as Szasz, Laing and Esterson insisted, in the methods of diagnosis and treatment prevalent in our present-day clinical psychiatry – and its handmaiden, institutionalised and falsely medicalised psychotherapy? And is the continuing disparagement of Katharina Kepler a paradigm of that continuing hegemony of the calculative machination’ of natural-scientism that Heidegger documented and deplored? The concerns of our seminars are unified in this enthralling opera.

Professor Ulinka Rublack was born and raised in Germany, but has taught at Cambridge for nearly twenty years. Her research interests focus on sixteenth and seventeenth century culture, its visual and material aspects, the European Reformation, gender and society as well as methodological concerns.

She is editor of the Oxford Concise Companion to History. Her previous monographs include Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Early Modern Europe, also published by Oxford University Press, which explores the relation between dress and identities in the period, won the Bainton Prize and was one of six books nominated for the Cundill Prize, the largest non-fiction history book prize in the world.

Ulinka Rublack is sole founder of the Cambridge History for Schools outreach programme; she is a co-founder of what became the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies and has served on its working party for over ten years. She has been a full member of three European research networks and most recently served as a member of the steering committee of the AHRC-funded network on the history of luxury, led by Giorgio Riello. She has been visiting scholar at the Maison de lHomme, Paris, and her books have been translated into German and Chinese. One of her aims is to explore and interpret the past in novel ways by collaborating with other scholars as well as with artists and makers. She has co-curated the Fitzwilliam exhibition Treasured Possessions and curated its exhibition A Young Man's Progress (March - September 2015), which resulted from her collaboration with an artist and fashion designer in response to Renaissance fashion images. Further information is available on her tumblr The First Book of Fashion.

Professor Rublack has been awarded grants to collaborate with composer Tim Watts and video artist Aura Satz to create art work which responds to the story of Johannes Kepler and his mother; this resulted in Wattss acclaimed opera Keplers Trial ( She is also co-investigator of a Swiss National Foundation grant to explore the relationship of materiality, objects and emotional communities in the early modern world. She has recently been appointed as Gender Equality Champion for the University. She combines her busy career with raising two children.

Tim Watts combines careers as composer, pianist and teacher, and lives in Downham Market, Norfolk.

His music has been performed across the UK in venues including Wigmore Hall, the Purcell Room, the King’s Head Theatre and Ely Cathedral, as well as internationally in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Recently commissions have included works for St John's College, Cambridge, The Fairey Band, Southbank Sinfonia, Britten Sinfonia, Laura van der Heijden and the European Union Chamber Orchestra, Contemporary Consort, the Benyounes Quartet, song cycles for Andrew Kennedy and Cerys Jones and harpsichord solos (with and without electronics) for Jane Chapman, one of which was joint winner of the Horniman Museum Composition Competition.

He was the featured composer at the 2013 King’s Lynn Festival and has enjoyed residencies at Bedford School and Uppingham School, both of which have inspired numerous works for young performers.

Tim Watts studied composition with Jeffery Wilson, Hugh Wood and Robin Holloway. He is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge and also teaches at the Faculty of Music in Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music.

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