The Mythical Powers of Music in the Age of the ‘Scientific Revolution’

Writers about music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries drew extensively on classical mythology to exemplify its powerful effects and importance to society. With little in the way of musical exemplars from classical antiquity to inspire Renaissance musicians as the literary and architectural remains of Antiquity might, the reputation of Greek music was founded was instead on its theoretical or philosophical texts, and myths of music’s wondrous powers. It was these myths were most accessible and evocative in shaping conceptions of music. Jacob_Hoefnagel_-_Orpheus_Charming_the_Animals_-_Google_Art_Project (1).jpgThe most famous figures were Orpheus, Amphion and Arion who were fabled to have tamed wild beasts and dolphins or caused trees and stones to move with their music. These stories provided themes for song and spectacle – for example the numerous Orpheus plots in early opera. Yet did early modern people really believe about these tales? Did they truly believe in an Orpheus whose music had literally tamed wild beasts and gained him entry to the underworld, or that Amphion’s music had built the walls of Thebes?

Writers often do appear to take these myths at face value. Matthew Gwinne’s inaugural speech as lecturer in music at Oxford University in 1582 is typical, if not entirely accurate in attributing the myths to the right musicians:

Such is [music’s] sweetness that it moved a fish, bestial by nature, dull of sensation and all but deaf, to bear a man riding on its back over the bounding main; that it could move rocks and trees when Orpheus sang, rivers and beasts when did Amphion.

Yet beyond such rhetorical usage, authors were generally aware that these stories were fables, the feigning of poets, which required special treatment.The question should perhaps not be did they believe, but what did they believe. Certainly they held such stories as benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged and often found wanting. Yet they also referred to them as the feigning of poets and could be uneasy of their pagan origins. What were the consequences of this belief (or lack of it) for perspectives on the powers of music? And how did such beliefs fare as the so-called scientific revolution took hold during the seventeenth century with its emphasis on generating understanding not from ancient wisdom but rather from observation, experience and experiment?

Interpreting the truths thought to lie behind myths was far from straightforward. Following classical approaches, authors might interpret the mythical figures as either historical—turning the stories into benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged—or as merely allegorical—providing moral and philosophical justifications for music. Indeed it was not uncommon to blend both approaches. Here’s John Playford’s interpretation in the 1664 edition of his Brief Introduction to the Skill of Music:

Great Disputes were among Ethnick Authors about the first Inventor, some for Orpheus, some Lynus, both famous Poets and Musicians; others for Amphion, whose Music drew Stones to the building of the Walls of Thebes; as Orpheus had by the harmonious touch of his Harp, moved the Wild Beasts and Trees to Dance:…the true meaning thereof is, that by virtue of their Music, and their wise and pleasing Musical Poems, the one brought the Savage and Beast-like Thracians to Humanity and Gentleness; the other persuaded the rude and careless Thebans to the fortifying of their City, and to a civil conversation

Here Playford treated Orpheus and Amphion as the historical inventors of music, but portrayed their musical exploits as allegories of their achievements as the founders of civilizations.

Moreover, in the seventeenth century the authority and status of classical mythology began to change, with consequences for the fabled powers of music. Whereas for medieval and Renaissance scholars referencing mythological stories or classical authorities was sufficient to prove one’s argument, within the new empirical philosophy authority for one’s arguments was to be drawn from observation or experiment. Ancient wisdom underwent a profound shift in status, no longer being regarded as infallible doctrine but rather as opinions and observations to be tested. Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia epidemica (1646) was symptomatic of this changing approach to knowledge. He argued that a ‘peremptory adhesion unto Authority’ was the ‘the mortalist enemy unto knowledge’ and saw the tendency to regarded the most ancient times as those nearest to the truth as a delusion. Turning to mythology specifically, he condemns the ‘mendacity of Greece’ which has been ‘poisoning the world ever after’. Pointing out that the Greeks themselves regarded a considerable part of Ancient times to be ‘made up or stuffed out with fables’, Browne cited the sixth-century (BC) Greek Palaephatus who had attempted to rationalise Orpheus’s supposed power over trees. Palaephatus interpreted a less miraculous event behind the story, in which Orpheus had calmed the rage of the Bacchides, who then came down from the mountain bearing branches, thus appearing from a distance like a walking wood. Music retains its power over human affections, but is stripped of its effects on inanimate things, thus making it more credible. For Browne this was the way in which all mythology needed to be re-evaluated.

Increasing attempts to provide rationalized interpretations for the astonishing mythical powers of music transformed them from wondrous marvels into everyday phenomena. Moreover Orpheus, who had been regarded as a musical founder of civilization, could now be likened to a common ballad seller or fiddler. In 1592 John Dennis published ‘The Story of Orpheus Burlesqu’d’ in which Orpheus is a mere ballad singer, who charms the mob to leave their work and spouses, and the rustic mob is likened in nature to beasts and stones from the myth. While Dennis’s aim is comic, the same imagery begins to appear in more serious genres too. Fellow of the Royal Society, John Wallis, for example, believed that the mythical stories of music’s power were ‘highly hyperbolical, and next door to fabulous’ and argued that in mythical times music was comparatively rare and that the ‘rustics’ on whom music was said to have its effects, would not have heard the like before. Will_Kemp_Elizabethan_Clown_Jig.jpgMoreover he draws comparison with fiddlers and bagpipers of his own era who could make the country people dance and skip. The tales of music moving beasts, stones and trees were surely nothing more than what was seen daily in country towns when boys, girls and country people run after bagpiper or fiddler? He regarded the myths as having gradually emerged from the exaggerated re-telling of such ordinary occurrences.

The result of this changing attitude to myth was that expectations regarding the powerful effects of music declined and both the ethical justifications for music and the long-held aim of moving the passions came into question. If moving the passions was what any common fiddler or bagpiper could do, then it was not such a worthy aim for those aiming at the height of musical art. Whereas Orpheus had represented the civilising power of the highest musical artifice, he was now was allied with the ill-trained, common minstrel satisfying the passions of ill-educated, rural crowds. For Wallis it was the modern, contrapuntal composer who assumed the role of master of musical harmony for the appreciation of sophisticated listeners with the ability to ‘discern and distinguish the just Proportions’. This ultimately allowed new ways of thinking about music to emerge, valuing it less for its utility and sensuality than for its intellectual pleasures—ideas that would come to underpin the development of notions of fine art and aesthetics in the eighteenth century.

You can read more about the changing attitudes towards mythical tales of music’s powers during the intellectual changes of the seventeenth century in my recently published article in Music and Letters.

Tudor Partbooks: How You Could Get Involved!

Are you into early music, Renaissance manuscripts or using Photoshop to improve digital images?  If any of theme applies to you, then you might enjoy getting involved with two of Tudor Partbooks’s most exciting projects to reconstruct Tudor music manuscripts.

1) A digital reconstruction of John Sadler’s music partbooks

The first of these opportunities concerns the reconstruction of the Sadler Partbooks, which I’ve blogged a little about previously. The Elizabethan music-lover John Sadler copied a set of partbooks using ink that was too acidic. Over the centuries this acidic ink has burned through the paper leaving his music books  difficult to read in many places (images of the Sadler partbooks are freely available on the DIAMM website) . Here’s a brief introduction:

We have c.600 images in need of restoration, which we estimate will take a couple of thousand hours to complete. So we’re looking to recruit a large team of volunteers who would like to learn the process of digital reconstruction and have a go at restoring some of these manuscript pages. No previous experience is necessary as I’ve created a series of videos to teach the few basic techniques that are needed. These also explain the aesthetics of the reconstruction process: how to we decide what to to remove or leave in, and how do we try to maintain the look of a 400-year-old manuscript?

This first video is an introduction to some basic Photoshop tools and the settings you’ll need to enable for digital reconstruction. (The videos currently show the process via Adobe Photoshop CS6, however, the same digital reconstruction techniques are possible with Adobe Photoshop Elements).

Now you’re ready to have a go at the technique of cloning:

So once you’ve mastered the cloning technique, the next step is to learn how to judge what to clone out and what to leave in:

Finally, we want to make sure that the end results of our restoration leave the manuscript looking like a 400-year-old manuscript, just one without the burn-through from the acidic ink. This final video explains how to achieve this effect:

Now you’re ready to have a go! Email Julia to request your first image, along with any questions you might still have.

2) A polyphonic reconstruction of John Baldwin’s lost tenor book

mus_979_34_crop_coloursJohn Baldwin’s partbooks are a vital source of Tudor polyphonic music both from the Elizabethan period when Baldwin was copying, and from earlier, pre-Reformation repertories.  Unfortunately the tenor book has been lost rendering all its music incomplete. We’re creating a facsimile of Baldwin’s partbooks using high quality images provided by Christ Church library, but if people are going to be able to perform from Baldwin’s notation again we’re going to need to reconstruct the missing tenor book. Sometimes we can find the tenor part from another manuscript, but in around 60 cases we’re going to have to use the surviving parts and our knowledge of the composers’ styles to reconstruct the missing tenor voice.‌

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Before we can start each piece, we need have to transcribe the music from the remaining partbooks. These transcriptions are then used for making the reconstructed tenor parts. We’re experimenting with a collaborative process of reconstructing the missing voice that has included performers, students alongside academic specialists. As part of this we’ve held some reconstruction workshop weekends (you can see Storifys of previous workshops in Oxford and Cambridge, while the next is forthcoming in Newcastle in March).

So if you read sixteenth-century music notation and/or are good with Sibelius music software there are two ways that you could help in reconstructing Baldwin’s partbooks: firstly, by making transcriptions and, secondly, by participating in polyphonic reconstruction. If you’d like to volunteer, or would like guidelines on the Tudor Partbooks house style, just email Magnus.

We look forward to welcoming you into our team of volunteers and hope you might enjoy participating in these ground-breaking collaborative projects to reconstruction Tudor music manuscripts.

Tudor Partbooks: The Manuscript Legacies of John Sadler, John Baldwin and their Antecedents

After a busy summer writing up my music and myth project and doing the final proofing and indexing for my book on music at the Elizabethan court, I have recently started a new job as the research assistant for the Tudor Partbooks project.

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This three-year, AHRC-funded project led by Magnus Williamson and Julia Craig-McFeely aims to digitize all the extant manuscripts of Tudor polyphonic music c.1510-1580 preserved in partbook format (where each vocal part is written in a separate book). These will be made publicly available via the DIAMM website.

Two key exemplars of this repertory – the Sadler and Baldwin partbooks – will also be restored and reconstructed. The Sadler partbooks are badly corroded by the acidic ink used in their copying, leaving them extremely fragile and partially illegible. A process of digital reconstruction will restore these manuscripts to a readable state, allowing their music to be accessed and performed again. (For a video of this process, see here)

The Baldwin partbooks require a different process of restoration. This is a set with one book missing (the tenor), rendering all their music incomplete.While some of the music can be found in other sources, about sixty pieces are found nowhere else. A process of collaborative reconstruction drawing on the expertise of both scholars and performers will create a plausible version of the missing parts, allowing these works to be performed and developing a greater stylistic understanding of the repertory in the process.

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The research team will also be undertaking a detailed scholarly investigation of these sources, looking for connections in how they were copied, their notational styles and practices, their format, their contents,and the contexts in which they were written and used. In particular, although these partbooks post-date the Reformation, they are the dominant sources for much English church music from earlier in the century. We’ll be looking at the extent to which these sources preserve pre-Reformation practices, or make adaptations to suit later (and non-liturgical) use.

We’ll be making the results of this project available via the DIAMM website, through publishing restored facsimile editions of the Sadler and Baldwin partbooks, and through academic articles and publications. Look out also for our series of reconstruction workshops, study days, and public events (including concerts and exhibitions) throughout the project. The first of these take place in March 2015 (more details at www.facebook.com/tudorpartbooks/events):

  • Friday 6th March, 2pm: Workshop: Editing the Baldwin Partbooks
    Music Faculty, The University of Oxford.
  • Saturday 7th March, 7:30pm: In the Midst of Life: Music from the Baldwin Partbooks – a concert by Contrapunctus, directed by Owen Rees.
    The Queen’s College, Oxford

The project website is still a work in progress, but in the meantime you can still follow our research either via Twitter (@TudorPartbooks) or at http://www.facebook.com/tudorpartbooks

PhD Studentships in Sixteenth/Seventeenth-Century Music, 2014

1) Collaborative PhD Studentship: Music, print and culture in the 16th and early 17th centuries

Applications are invited for an AHRC collaborative PhD studentship, held at Royal Holloway, University of London, and The British Library, on the theme of ‘Music, print and culture in the 16th and early 17th centuries’. The studentship commences in autumn 2014. Full details are here:http://www.rhul.ac.uk/music/news/newsarticles/newcollaborativephdfundingscheme.aspx

The deadline for receipt of applications (including two references) is Thursday 13th March 2014. Interviews will be held at the British Library on Friday 28th March and Wednesday 2nd April 2014.

Informal enquiries to Stephen Rose (stephen.rose@rhul.ac.uk).

2) Tudor Partbooks: the manuscript legacies of John Sadler, John Baldwin and their antecedents

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship at the International Centre for Music Studies, Newcastle University, as part of an AHRC-funded project, Tudor Partbooks (2014-17). The studentship is available from September 2014.

Information on the studentship and a detailed description of the project can be found at:http://www.ncl.ac.uk/sacs/music/funding/index.htm

The deadline for submission of applications is Friday 21 March 2014.  Interviews will take place on Monday 7 or Tuesday 8 April 2014.

Informal enquiries to Magnus Williamson: magnus.williamson@ncl.ac.uk