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The 2017 Josephine Waters Bennett Lecture


Audible Traces: What Music Offers Historians

SUSAN MCCLARY, Case Western Reserve University


Whether called by fancier names such as musicology or Musikwissenschaft, the academic study of music functions as a subfield within the broader discipline of history. Most of the endeavors of music historians resemble those of our partners in other fields: we scour archives, seek to trace influences, and construct always-provisional explanations for why events of the past occurred as they did. Needless to say, musicologists draw heavily on the work of other historians when we attempt to position musical activities within their cultural contexts. Only a few of us still contend that music operates autonomously outside the complex social and intellectual frameworks from which it emerges and within which it thrives, and we expect our students to develop a strong grasp of political, literary, philosophical, and art history.

Yet the relationship between musicology and the other subfields of history tends to flow in one direction: we borrow extensively from other disciplines, yet our work rarely attracts the serious attention of outsiders. Part of this situation stems no doubt from the dreaded music notation that appears on the pages of our publications, warding off those who lack professional training much as lengthy quotations in Greek might. Indeed, our technical jargon may actually seem like Greek to many would-be readers.

Historiographer Hayden White, however, has lamented that musicologists give very little back to the historians from whom they borrow. To be sure, we contribute to the stockpile of verbal evidence: archival records, letters, manifestos, and the like. But the music itself continues to count as an epiphenomenon—pleasant to listen to, perhaps, but irrelevant to the central tasks of the social historian. Nor is this entirely the fault of historians: as White points out, musicologists themselves usually neglect to frame their discussions of music in ways that address the larger interdisciplinary community.1 At the time White wrote in 1992, our field offered two mutually exclusive paths: purely formal analysis and archival research. Interpretation was regarded as subjective indulgence, suitable for program notes at best.

But about twenty-five years ago, a few of us began to pursue other kinds of projects. Instead of merely drawing on historians for a sense of context for the composers we studied, we viewed the music itself as a source of evidence. We sought to analyze music in ways that allowed it to speak to larger issues: constructions of gender, patterns of desire, tensions between self and other. The controversy over what our critics labeled as New Musicology turned quite vicious, with death threats, lost jobs, and destroyed reputations. Yet the discipline has expanded as a consequence to include studies of sexualities, contemporary popular idioms, exoticism, and other areas of research that had entered the other humanities a decade or two earlier. Even card-carrying music theorists now explore such issues as a matter of course. The firewall between analysis and history no longer stands.

Of that first cluster of tenured radicals, I was the only one engaged with the Renaissance. And although I write on repertories reaching from the Middle Ages to those appearing now, I developed my methodological convictions in the process of studying musics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Strange to say, even though musicology at the time centered on periods before the Enlightenment, we had no accepted or effective ways of dealing with the music from those periods. Authorities in the area often claimed flat out that this music—the music prior to that of J. S. Bach, in other words—does not work.

But that verdict always seemed fairly ridiculous to me; it was as if English scholars went through Shakespeare plays just to mark in red ink the spots where he failed to comply with Samuel Johnson’s spelling and grammar. As someone brought into the discipline because I loved music, I had simply assumed that the compositions of Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume Dufay, and Orlando di Lasso had to “work,” albeit in ways that differed from those of their successors. My dissertation advisor asked what in heaven’s name I meant by how music “works,” to which I could only stammer in response. I knew, however, that music of the Renaissance was some of the most powerful ever penned, and I wanted to be able to account for its effects with the same specificity I brought to my coaching of, say, Schubert songs.

In order to accomplish this, I had to reconstruct the syntactical assumptions that underpin music before and after about 1600. Sixteenth-century treatises offer some guidelines, though they remain frustratingly vague and general. Still, to the extent that they spoke to earlier habits of musical thought, they served as my starting points. In a basement practice room, I toggled between Italian music theory and dozens of pieces, trying to attach the hints I gleaned from those dusty old tomes to the scores I played from ad nauseam. I will not bore you with my findings, though you can find them in my publications.2 What matters here is my pursuit of what might seem an idiosyncratic process for recovering aspects of the past.

I also referred, of course, to the research of scholars, especially to Stephen Greenblatt, Stephen Orgel, Nancy Vickers, Charles Taylor, and many others. But there exists a wide gulf between what historians regard as documentation and the dots on the page that comprise the surviving material evidence for music. Notice that I do not include recordings among my sources, for performances always involve an extra layer of mediation. If I were to respond to notation as if it always means the same thing, I would likely produce renditions of all music from all periods that sound like my favorite Mozart; the poor Pachelbel Canon came to public attention through a lugubrious recording that took the piece at one-quarter the tempo originally envisioned, complete with Brahmsian vibrato. Worse yet: if I assume in advance that the repertory in question is incoherent, then I will demonstrate in my performances that the music is simply incompetent. That was indeed the party line in the German-based discipline of musicology for the music composed for Louis XIV, and it has taken the determination of historically informed artists such as William Christie to make us realize how ideological bias could effectively silence an entire period.3

Raymond Williams called the kinds of phenomena I examine “structures of feeling,” thereby yoking together many dimensions of human experience often regarded as subjective when compared with rigorous scholarly methods of formal analysis and archival research. 4 In Williams’s words:

For what we are defining is a particular quality of social experience and relationship, historically distinct from other particular qualities, which gives the sense of a generation or of a period. The relations between this quality and the other specifying historical marks of changing institutions, formations, and beliefs, and beyond these the changing social and economic relations between and within classes, are again an open question: that is to say, a set of specific historical questions. . . . We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity.5

Like Michel Foucault, Clifford Geertz, and others, Williams regarded “feelings” as patterns that shape and that are also shaped by human societies. As such, they qualify as crucial elements of the historical record. I maintain that specificity of music notation offers us a superb avenue for recovering such elusive traces.

Some of these may be relatively transparent, such as patterns associated with desire or pleasure or gender. If they have gone mostly unmentioned in musicological circles, it is largely because so many of us confine our observations to verbal documentation. If no one stated explicitly at the time that topics of this sort were at issue, we refrain from imposing our own (presumably anachronistic) ideas on the music, which we still too often take—following the aesthetic priorities of German Romanticism—as nonrepresentational. One of my colleagues told me that he would acknowledge gender in music only if I could show him tits on chords. But, of course, gender and sexuality loomed large in the Renaissance, no less so in musical practices than in the visual arts or literature. All you really have to do is pose the right questions, and the music delivers dividends in abundance. I will take most of my examples from the works of Claudio Monteverdi, whose 450th birth year we are celebrating in 2017.


* * *


A few early attempts at representing gender by means of music occurred in the sixteenth-century Italian polyphonic madrigal, and I have written elsewhere about some of these. 6 But as Marjorie Garber has argued, the need to find modes of differentiating between male and female became far more urgent when artists had to animate characters on the theatrical stage—all the more so in music since many of the women’s roles in seventeenth-century operas were often performed by castrati. 7 Absent a sustained tradition of musical semiotics, composers had to grab onto shared cultural assumptions as they set about shaping the utterances of their characters in ways that would seem transparent to contemporary audiences.

Take, for instance, the wedding scene from Monteverdi’s 1607 favola in musica, Orfeo. The opening act of this pastoral entertainment involves a series of praise-songs from shepherds, as well as choruses and dances, all leading up to the entrance of Orfeo and Euridice. After they have exchanged their vows, the sequence recurs in retrograde, framing the vows as the center of a quasi-palindrome. The fatal snakebite in the second act will shatter this perfectly balanced, symmetrical community, throwing the entire bucolic universe into chaos. For now, I will focus on the exchange itself, which sits at the pinnacle of Monteverdi’s elaborately structured wedding cake like a plastic bride-and-groom pair, representing gendered ideals.

Orfeo is, of course, a somewhat unusual bridegroom: the son of Apollo, he is also a virtuoso musician, making him the perfect protagonist for a new genre that had to persuade audiences to accept continuous singing onstage as viable. (The anxiety attached to the combination of music and drama does not go away: recall the need in the 2016 film La La Land to make the Ryan Gosling character an actual musician, just as Fred Astaire or Judy Garland had eased the verisimilitude problem in earlier Hollywood musicals.) Monteverdi’s opera has built dramatically to this moment when we finally get to hear for ourselves the prowess of this demigod.

In order to understand the radical nature of Orfeo’s speech, we should attend to the kinds of solo song Monteverdi’s listenership would have expected. Everyone knows one of these by heart: “Greensleeves,” a song based on a widespread improvisatory pattern (Ex. 1). A five-note descent, harmonized in two standard ways (mm. 1–8, mm. 9–16), generates the framework within which “Greensleeves” unfolds. The melody of “Greensleeves” depends upon that framework for intelligibility, even as it ranges freely for text declamation. Given that five-note descent and its harmonies, improvisers could play or sing endlessly, very much like the way popular musicians can make up infinite numbers of tunes with the 12-bar blues. The harmonies supporting the generating line move along on a one-to-one basis to underscore the grammatical progression, with the rate of vocal declamation tethered to the moment.

Ex. 1: “Greensleeves”

“Greensleeves” (also known as “What Child Is This”) has been recorded by nearly every ensemble imaginable. For a performance that follows Renaissance improvisatory practice, listen to Paul Bär-Giese, accompanied on lute by Hans Meijer.

It is up against this version of temporality that Monteverdi’s Orfeo displays his superhuman talents. In his opening peroration, he addresses not his bride but rather Apollo, as he commands the sun to stand still in order to witness his joy. He makes use of the progression we have heard in “Greensleeves.” But Orfeo freezes his bass line; with respect to the grammar at the time, this means that the generating pitch D (the first pitch in the five-note descent) holds steady (Ex. 2):

Rosa del ciel, vita del mondo, e degna
prole di lui che l’universo affrena,
Sol che’l tutto circondi d’l tutto miri,
dimmi vedessti mai
di me più lieto e fortunato amante?
Rose of Heaven, life of the world, and worthy
son of him who curbs the Universe,
Sun, all-encompassing and all-beholding,
tell me, have you ever seen
a lover happier or more blest than I?

Ex. 2: Orfeo’s wedding vow, opening section


Many recordings of this exist. For a very dramatic reading, listen to Renato Dolcini (Orfeo) and Diego Leveric (theorbo).

Over that suspended function, he delivers an exultant apostrophe to his father, the sun, praising his life-bestowing force, his relationship to Zeus, his circling of the earth, his ability to view everything at once. His melody careens all over the place, from one end of his vocal range to the other. Yet nothing moves so long as he maintains that G in the bass. Only his long-delayed verb, “Dimmi” (“tell me”), underscored by the first change in the bass, finally releases his listeners—Apollo, the sun, Euridice, the shepherds, and us—from the hypnotic spell he had cast over us. The background line moves from D to C (“Dimmi”), and then on to Bb for “amante.” Recall that “Greensleeves” had accomplished this three-note descent in its first three bars, and this is the rate of activity Monteverdi’s audience would have expected.

Several decades later, John Milton would produce much the same effect in the opening of Paradise Lost, in which the peroration before “Sing Heavenly Muse” presents a synopsis of human history from Adam’s Fall to Christ’s redemptive power in Milton’s contemporary England:

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse.

Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, composers developed more and more complex ways of expanding this same move, tonic minor to relative major, thereby colonizing increasingly longer stretches of time. The same move undergirds, for instance, the exposition—entire first third—of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

At last Orfeo turns his attention to his bride, Euridice, with a Petrarch-inspired account of the first time he saw her, first desired her, and first heard her sigh in response. For each of these, Monteverdi pursues an approach to cadence, which he delays until he is ready for consummation. The generating pattern that had hovered previously in the background now becomes the tune itself. This part of his speech has virtually no expansion, underscoring perhaps his sincerity:

Fu ben felice il giorno,
mio ben, che pria ti vidi,
e più felice l’hora
che per te sospirai,
poich’al mio sospirar tù sospirasti.
Happy was the day,
my love, when first I saw you,
and happier the hour
I sighed for you,
For in response to my sighs you sighed.

But then for his final section, he explodes in ecstasy, turning sonic somersaults of erratic motion before halting to hand the stage over to his spouse. Listen to the way the bass line leaps around wildly in its bid to keep up with the singer’s rapidly ascending and descending lines. Whether commanding the sun to stand still, recalling the successive stages of his courtship, or reveling in his overflowing joy, Orfeo controls the stage rhetorically. More than that, he choreographs the flow of time:

Felicissimo il punto
che la candida mano
pegno di pura fede à me porgesti.
Se tanti cori havessi quant’occh’hà
il ciel eterno, e quante chiome
han questi colli ameni il verde maggio
tutti colmi sarieno e traboccanti
di quel piacer ch’oggi mi fa contento.
Happiest yet the moment
when your white hand
you offered me as a pledge of purest faith.
If I had as many hearts as the sky has stars,
and as many leaves
as these fair hills have in verdant May
all would not be full and overflowing
with the joy that today makes me content.

It will come as no surprise that Euridice speaks in an entirely different manner: halting, reticent, with every phrase multiply qualified. She begins with a disclaimer, then ends her speech with the inflection of a question, precisely as insecure women do today when apparently begging permission to make any sound whatsoever. Listen to how her first move on “sia” requires chromatic alteration in the bass as if she shyly shrinks back when singing this line:

Io non dirò qual sia
nel tuo gioir, Orfeo, la gioia mia,
che non hò meco il core,
ma teco stassi in compagnia d’Amore.
Chiedilo dunque à lui s’intender brami
quanto lieta gioisca, e quanto t’ami.
I cannot say how great the joy
your joy, Orfeo, inspires in me may be,
since I do not have my heart with me
But with you in the company of Love.
Ask him, therefore, if you want to know
How it rejoices and how much it loves you.

Performance by Emanuela Galli

Monteverdi had to work hard to produce this effect through available melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal conventions. Euridice’s indirection and self-erasure had to be meticulously planned if they were to register as properly submissive. It required, in other words, as much skill as did the simulation of Orfeo’s arrogant virtuosity. But hearing is believing, and Monteverdi offers us exceptionally detailed depictions of gender binaries in this scene.

So far you may be nodding in agreement because similar manifestations of gender ideals appear in painting, epic poems, plays, and conduct manuals such as Castiglione’s. In other words, my wedding sequence may merely corroborate—however wonderfully—what we know already from many other sources. But neither Monteverdi nor his first listeners could have imagined that some of the brash discursive strategies he invented for Orfeo would revolutionize music by offering a new array of temporalities, new ways of experiencing time.

Theater and literature also deal with time, of course, but until the advent of cinema, elements such as pacing were indicated only in general ways. Of all the arts, music has the most precise way of indicating relationships among its units as it unfolds. I would argue that changes in temporality influence the history of musical style far more than do pitches, which serve principally as raw materials to be molded into meaningful patterns. “Temporality,” however, does not show up directly on notated scores, for notation works by translating time into spatial analogues. As an unfortunate result, pitches become entities in and of themselves, largely because they are visible. By contrast, the discerning of temporalities requires a sort of interpretation long written off as “subjective.” But it is the radical shift in temporal shaping in early modern music that qualifies as its most profound contribution to culture. To the extent that we do not notice this shift per se, we may overlook crucial aspects of that culture more broadly understood.

Permit me to explain. Much of my work focuses on the sixteenth-century Italian madrigal—a genre of unsurpassed sophistication, as challenging in contrapuntal technique and emotional depth as Beethoven’s late quartets. Monteverdi himself reigned at the Gonzaga court in Mantua as the master of intricate, five-voiced polyphony, and he reveled in plotting out complex musical allegories as he rendered the poetry of Ariosto, Tasso, and Guarini. His modus operandi, shared by his contemporaries, relied on a particular temporal alignment of voices: nearly every pitch in the voice that carried the syntax was inflected by its coincidence with the pitches in the other vocal lines. As a result of this kind of parsing, his madrigals presented extremely condensed, multilayered arguments, in which a single pitch might convey two or even three meanings simultaneously. 8 I believe that Monteverdi would happily have continued within that artistic agenda for the remaining four decades of his life had it not been for an invention by a musician in the Medici court in Florence.

In his own setting of the Orpheus legend in 1600, Euridice, Jacopo Peri demonstrated how to simulate realistic speech in music, thereby opening the way to what we call opera. His deceptively simple solution involved sustained pitches in the bass, over which the voice could move with relative freedom. Peri’s more famous colleague, singer-songwriter Giulio Caccini, tried his hand at copying Peri’s trick for his own setting of Euridice, only to produce some of the clunkiest music ever put down on paper. By contrast, what Monteverdi discerned in Peri’s pioneering speeches was not simply recitation over held bass notes, but rather the way Peri structured time by seeding desire for a goal and then delaying satisfaction; he moves by way of linear vectors. Here, for instance, is a short speech from Euridice. Listen to how the singer addresses three groups of listeners in turn and only then supplies his request “tutti venite,” thereby bringing all parts of his speech together under a single trajectory: 9

Ninfe ch’i bei crin d’oro
sciogliete liete allo scherzar de’ venti,
e voi ch’almo tesoro
dentro chiudete a bei rubini ardenti,
e voi ch’all’alba in ciel cogliete i vanti
tutte venite, o pastorelle amanti.
Nymphs, who lovely golden hair
is loosened by the playful wind,
and you, whose great treasure
is hidden behind lovely burning rubies,
and you, who are more glorious than dawn,
Come all of you, pastoral lovers.

La Compagnia dei Febi Armonici

Peri had developed his techniques in the service of singing cantos from epics (e.g., Orlando Furioso, Gerusalemme liberate) over formulaic patterns like those underpinning “Greensleeves,” and he intended little more with his invention than allowing his music to follow the shapes of his sentences. But in his bid for surpassing the competition, Monteverdi transformed Peri’s somewhat humble technique into a manifestation of power, control, and authority. The teleological strategies in Orfeo’s wedding song prefigure the future-oriented shaping of time in Western culture for the next several centuries.

So fundamental is the resulting teleology to our novels, films, and (of course) the repertories from J. S. Bach to Gustav Mahler that it might seem an unalloyed step forward. But this reorientation demanded certain sacrifices. Most obviously, those exquisite, multilayered constructions that presented conflicted interiorities in the madrigal had to give way to linear speech patterns. Monteverdi tried to hold onto his allegorical strategies by transferring them to the broader structural level of his five-act play. Moreover, he continued to vacillate between polyphony and speech-song for the rest of his career; he never fully surrendered the rich resources of his sixteenth-century textures. Still, he along with his contemporaries found themselves pulled along by the new temporal energies he himself had done so much to unleash.

Only the first of Orfeo’s strategies draws upon new patterns of goal orientation; the second, as we have seen, mostly relies on traditional ways of parsing text. But the third section, which I described earlier as “turning sonic somersaults of erratic motion,” also qualifies as a new temporal technology, though one that differs considerably from the opening teleological gambit. Rather, this third segment seeks to produce a dizzying quality of motion quite antithetical to the vectors of linear thought. And, as it turns out, this device also proves popular in the first half of the seventeenth century. In other words, the fact that composers knew how to shape time in what we still accept as a rational fashion did not mean that they turned exclusively to this option. Indeed, they often preferred creating experiences that treated time as an elastic entity, accelerating and decelerating at will, expanding and contracting in wild contortions, as if playing with the zoom lens of a camera or even with Silly Putty. I call this phenomenon the Time Warp.

Why did they do this? Under what expressive circumstances might they have found such procedures appealing or advantageous? Part of the answer must be that they did it because they could: just as Orfeo found he could command the sun to stand still, so these artists prided themselves on having mastery over time itself, and they exploited their new gadgets, their special effects, for all they were worth.

Jacques Attali in his book Noise explains that musicians often pick up on emerging energies and deploy them in sound before practitioners in other media figure out how to follow suit: the relative immateriality of music facilitates such experiments, allowing composers to fan through myriad possibilities in short order. Only some of these will prove viable—will, in other words, attract patrons and artists in other domains. But the ones that do stick lead Attali to theorize about what he calls the prophetic nature of music. 10 I have already suggested that Orfeo’s opening appeal foreshadows the linear reason of the eighteenth century. What of those other qualities of motion?

We might return to sentiments that induced Orfeo to seize onto his sonic somersaults. Over the course of his speech, he has worked himself up into a state of ecstasy; he is delirious, out of his mind with joy. And the desire to produce simulations of ecstasy seems to motivate many of the passages that draw on these devices.

Take, for instance, the motet in Monteverdi’s Marian vespers of 1610, “Duo Seraphim.” Two seraphs circle the throne of God, crying out to each other as they sing the text of the Sanctus. Like Orfeo, the two begin with a linear modus operandi. By means of his painfully dissonant suspensions and outrageously lavish ornamentation, Monteverdi stretches time here almost to the breaking point. When our seraphs arrive at the words “plena est omnis terra gloria eius,” however, they break into blissful spiraling, as if the more effortful earlier sections have succeeded in launching earth-bound entities into space. The erotic images of two voices rubbing together in what Stephen Greenblatt has termed “friction to heat,” as well as the impression that these bodies come to resist the exigencies of gravity, recall the landmark sonorities of the Concerto delle Donne of Ferrara; in the music he designed for these virtuoso women, composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi offered minimal instrumental support below high voices that seem to collide, float, merge, and swoon. 11 Here is a recording of “Duo Seraphim” by Rene Jacobs, who uses only high voices, thus making fully audible that connection back to the concerto di donne.

Duo seraphim clamabant alter ad alterum:
Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Plena est omnis terra Gloria eius.
Two seraphim called to one another:
Holy is the Lord God of Hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.

René Jacobs and the Concerto Vocale

A surprising number of examples of this device allude to astronomical phenomena. Or perhaps this is not surprising, given the radical advances by Kepler and Galileo. All eyes turned toward the sky; the heavens once considered stable and eternal suddenly became a source of theological and epistemological anxiety. Even mathematics had to scramble to account for rates of change, requiring eventually the invention of the calculus. In the Netherlands, paintings depicting the vanity of human endeavors appeared by the dozens, often featuring the scientific instruments that were so unsettling to an earlier sense of security. French vanitas poetry referred to the fickle orbits of the planets as evidence of the world’s mutability. 12

Little wonder, then, that Italian musicians seized this new topsy-turvy sense of the heavens to simulate extreme, untethered emotional states such as rapture. In a madrigal in his book 7, “Non vedrò mai le stelle,” Monteverdi pursues yet again an elongated pattern to introduce his grief-stricken protagonist. But when the speaker latches onto the comparison between his lover’s eyes and the starlit sky, he suddenly casts his doubts to the winds and simply revels in the swirling firmament. The trick is that he can maintain this out-of-body rapture only if he avoids cadencing; each time a point of closure seems to be approaching, Monteverdi layers in the other voice. He plays a kind of sonic shell game as he strives to keep airborne as long as possible. Alas, the inevitable cadence does occur, and the piece ends back in the misery with which it began. Yet along the way, Monteverdi has allowed us to experience for a while that simulation of bliss: 13

Non vedrò mai le stelle
de’ bei celesti giri, in the lovely celestial spheres,
perfida, ch’io non miri
gl’occhi che fur presenti
all dura cagion de’ miei tormenti
e ch’io non dicea a lor: “O luci belle,
deh, siate sì rubella
di lume a chi ribella è sì di fede,
ch’anzi a tanto occhi e tanti lumi ha core
tradir amante sotto fe d’amore.”
I’ll never see the stars
in the lovely celestial spheres,
traitor, without seeing
the eyes that were present
at the harsh beginning of my torment,
and without saying then: “O lovely stars,
ah, be to her as robbed of light
as she is untrue to faith—she who
has the heart, before so many eyes and lights,
to betray her lover while swearing faith.”

Mario Cecchetti and Alfredo Grandini

The examples I have offered thus far rely on verbal texts to help us understand the radically vacillating rates of motion they present in close succession. But composers of instrumental music also got in on the act. In other words, so compelling were these aerodynamic simulations that they could make sense to contemporary listeners even without the aid of words.

We know nearly nothing of the life of Dario Castello, who flourished as a composer of sonatas in the first decades of the seventeenth century. We lose all traces of him around 1630, suggesting that he may have succumbed to the plague that claimed so many artists in Northern Italy. In the Sonata Primo from his second collection, the solo violin starts out with its accompaniment in a reasonably straightforward way. But it soon dives into a spiraling passage, and then—clearly delighted with the effect—Castello presents the spiral with the bass now moving half as fast. As the sonata unfolds, the violin will sometimes return to the old modal surface to mimic monody, then spins out again into lavish prolongation. Those who identify the genre of the sonata with Bach or Mozart may stand bewildered by Castello’s signature time warps, a style called the phantasticus by contemporaries such as Athanasius Kircher. Only recently have performers begun to mine these extraordinary repertories, which demand that the soloist become a kind of nonverbal Orfeo with respect to rhetorical skill. 14

Elizabeth Blumenstock and Voices of Music

Do analogues exist between the shapes I have been discussing and other cultural domains of the era? One clear connection comes to mind: the theological works of Saint Teresa of Avila that left such an indelible impression on the Counter-Reformation. Teresa emphasizes the need for study and prayer before experiences of divine union can occur. Indeed, she warns that only a very few devotees will ever be swept up in a state of rapture. Moreover, she claims that when ecstasy appears, it seems to strike out of nowhere; it cannot be brought about by design, even though prayer must prepare the way.

Of my examples, only “Duo Seraphim” comes from the church, though many compositions by Girolamo Frescobaldi, Alessandro Grandi, and others refer quite explicitly to the spiritual exercises of Teresa and John of the Cross. 15 The mannerist poetry of Richard Crashaw demonstrates the extent to which these theological tracts traveled and informed subjectivities. That longing for rapture permeated early modern culture, and it influenced not only the sacred sphere but also contemporaneous secular music, both vocal and instrumental.

Yet at the same time musicians were experimenting with ways of simulating reason-defying imagery they also were forging incrementally the teleological techniques upon which eighteenth-century tonal rationality depends. All of which is to say that the early seventeenth century was deeply conflicted with respect to its notions of time. If these composers clearly derived great pride in their ability to compress, elongate, and scramble temporal shapes at will, their very successes also betray cultural uncertainties about something so fundamental as being in time. Even as they exploited new and unconventional possibilities, they also performed and contributed to the unmooring of a stable cultural universe.

In his Republic, Plato claimed that “the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions. . . . For a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes.” Many historians reading this essay know far more about seventeenth-century culture than I. How do you—how do we—incorporate the oddities I have been discussing into a broader context? Were these examples just the products of fevered musical imaginations? Or do they register important tensions we might pursue together in our research and interpretative frameworks? Along with Plato, I like to believe that the music itself matters. How do we go about drawing connections?





1 White; see also Cavell, 186; Kerman.

2 See in particular McClary, 2004, 2012a, and 2000.

3 For more on the ideological othering of French Baroque music, see my “Qualities of Motion in Seventeenth-Century French Music,” in McClary, 2012a.

4 Williams, 128–35. For a collection of essays on this concept drawn from scholars from many different disciplines, see McClary, 2013.

5 Williams, 131–32.

6 See McClary, 2004, especially the discussion of Cipriano de Rore’s “Da le belle contrade d’oriente.” See also McClary, 2012b.

7 Garber. See also McClary, 1991.

8 See again McClary, 2004.

9 For a superb discussion of Peri’s achievement and Caccini’s failure to grasp it, see Brown.

10 See Attali.

11 See McClary, 2012a, 79–103.

12 See MacGilvray.

13 For a more thorough discussion, see McClary, 2012a, 45–78.

14 I discuss this sonata in detail in ibid.

15 Ibid., 129–58.



Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Brown, Howard Mayer. “How Opera Began: An Introduction to Jacopo Peri’s Euridice.” In The Late Italian Renaissance, 1525–1630, ed. Eric Cochrane, 401–43. London: Macmillan, 1970.

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