Crisis, Creativity and the Self, 1550-1700: A Review

Musicologists and literary historians came together to discuss changing concepts of creativity and the self in the turbulent political, economic, social, and intellectual times of the seventeenth century

Last Tuesday, 14 May, around 35 musicologists and literary scholars met at Senate House in London to explore seventeenth-century notions of creativity and the self in an event supported by the Humanities and Arts Research Centre at Royal Holloway (see previous post)

Convenor, Stephen Rose, opened the study day with an overview of how this period is regarded as both a time of crisis and the origin of many concepts considered central to modernity. Significant changes in climate, known as the ‘little ice age’, led to successive harvest failure, famine, disease and death. Political unrest spread through Europe – exemplified in the English Civil War – and was symptomatic of a wider crisis of authority that encompassed not only governance of the state, but the continued challenging of religious authority. As the centrality of Court and an all-encompassing Church dissolved, new ways of affirming the place of the individual in the wider world had to be found and many regard this as the time when a new, individualised subjectivity emerged. In addition, intellectual challenges saw the primacy of Classical Antiquity and acceptance of Ancient Wisdom undermined. Instead new philosophical methods relying on experiment and observation promised fresh insights into the natural world. With these new approaches to knowledge came debates about the relative natures of truth and falsehood, subjectivity and objectivity, invention and truth across the philosophical and literary spheres.

Matthew_Locke_by_James_CaldwallMany of these issues emerged as threads between the day’s various papers. Matthew Laube began with a paper illustrating the role of music performance in fashioning confessional identities in Heidelburg c.1600. Religious identity recurred as a theme when Alan Howard described the unlikely friendship between the Catholic, royalist composer, Matthew Locke, and the parliamentarian soldier and amateur musician, Silas Locke, a friendship that was fostered in music meetings and the exchange of pieces. Later Michael Lee’s paper touched on issues of national identity as he explored Dennis and Eccles’ processes of adaptation in Rinaldo and Armida (1698) as they sought to transform the earlier models of Tasso, Quinault and Lully into a means of projecting a new English, heroic identity and to improve the role of music in contemporary dramatick opera.

Katie Bank’s paper on English madrigals and consort songs raised the issue of veracity. Uniting the emerging empiricism with Frontispiece to Thomas Sprat's A History of the Royal Society (1667)concerns over notions of truth in travel-writing and poetry, she presented music as simultaneously able to evoke wonder and portray convincing representations of the self. Similarly my own paper explored how members of the Royal Society interpreted the veracity of Classical mythology and the claims of Ancient music’s exceptionality. Attempts by some Fellows to defend Modern music led them to challenge the centrality of the passions and musical rhetoric that had underpinned musical thought throughout the seventeenth century.

Portrait of Nell GwynnThe two themes of identity and truth merged in Elaine McGirr’s discussion of celebrity actors, Nell Gwynn, Thomas Betterton and Colley Cibber. For each of these actors, fame depended on a slippage between their on-stage and off-stage roles, real-life events and fictitious anecdotes, creating the illusion of knowing the actor’s ‘true’ person that is characteristic of modern celebrity.

The richness of John Butt’s keynote lecture can hardly be captured in this short summary, but here are a few of his ideas which particularly struck me. Taking the notion of individualised subjectivity as a defining characteristic of modernity he showed how the arias of the St Matthew passion serve to evoke the individual subjectivities of these reflectors on the unfolding Biblical events, who speak not to the historical persons but to the listeners. Furthermore, he suggested another characteristic of modernity – time consciousness and the growing importance of the linear progression of time – can be seen between the different temporal levels of the active recitatives and seeming pause of time in the arias, as well as in Bach’s ‘staging of recollection’: enhancing the listeners’ awareness of time as they are made aware of their retention of prior motifs as these are reused in later movements, making connections between past and present action.

Listening became a key theme in the final round-table discussion of the day as ideas were sought on how we might aim to better understand the early modern listener. Suggestions included exploring the interaction of music and spectacle, investigating the technology and instruments behind such performances, trying to better understand the responses of listener to individual performances, and considering the power of the audience on shaping musical and theatrical development.

If my summary of the day’s events has sparked your interest, you’ll be pleased to hear that these papers were recorded and have been released as a podcast here.