When it was founded in 1660, the Royal Society was the first institution in England dedicated to the study of natural philosophy (what we’d today call ‘science’). In its early years, the society showed considerable interest in investigating the properties of sound and music. There were acoustical experiments, mathematical and theoretical discussion of the nature of consonance, and even occasional musical performances.
While the Royal Society was at the forefront of new trends in using observation and experiment to find out about the world, they had not yet left behind older traditions of knowledge. One of these traditions was the idea of the powers of music, founded on miraculous tales from classical mythology (e.g. Orpheus), the Bible (e.g. David driving out Saul’s demons), as well as contemporary wonders such as music’s supposed ability to cure tarantula bites (see my previous post on this subject). I’ve been interested in looking at what happens to these myths of music’s powerful effects in the context of the Royal Society’s promotion of new methods of experiment and observation.
Royal Society members did set out to try to test out the truth of some of these stories. One of these concerned music’s ability to break glass. While today we know this to be possible, to the Royal Society this tale would have been every bit as wondrous as stories of music’s ability to cure disease, move stones or tame wild beasts. They received a report from Daniel Morhof (Professor of History at the University of Kiel) who had come across a boy who claimed to be able break a glass by singing. Morhof first asked to witness the phenomenon, then to be taught how to do it. Finally he started to experiment with other ways of making glass vibrate and either shatter or produce sound. On hearing the report the Royal Society commissioned Robert Hooke to begin experimenting, with mixed results. He had success in causing the glass to ring, though failed to make it break. Nevertheless the attempts inspired a whole series of experiments concerning sound and vibrational patterns.
The Royal Society was also fascinated with tales of music’s ability to cure the bite of tarantulas from the region of Apulia in Italy. At first they believed in the phenomenon without question: it was, after all, attested to by several intelligent and credible witnesses and authors. Then they received a report from Dr Thomas Cornelio. a physician and natural philosopher from Naples claiming that these musical effects were merely ‘the fancies of the credulous vulgar’. The Royal Society would have loved to get their hands on a live Apulian tarantula with which they could have conducted experiments and tested these claims, but despite Cornelio’s promises, none was received. This left the Society arguing over the accounts of competing authorities and wondering how, if even even these authorities could not agree on the truth of the matter, a natural philosopher’s report of observations was to be distinguished from mere anecdote and storytelling.
Perhaps most surprising was the Royal Society’s involvement in contemporary debates as to how modern music measured up the standard of the music of the ancient world, and the wondrous effects described in classical mythology. Experimental Robert Hooke suggested that ancient myths might point to truths about the natural world. He drew parallels between the myth of Amphion moving stones with music and vibrational phenomena in which when two strings are tuned to the same pitch and one is struck, the second sounds too. In both cases music moves an otherwise inanimate object. Another fellow, John Wallis (Savilian Professor Geometry at Oxford) explained the myths as hyperbolic stories rooted in the quite ordinary phenomena of rustic people flocking to pipers and fiddlers, and argued that modern music’s contrapuntal complexities made it superior to ancient music, which he believed had relied on a single voice or instrument.
In the early years of the Royal Society myth and science were not yet antagonistic opposites. Royal Society members had a surprisingly firm commitment to the traditional effects of music; if anything the properties of sound they discovered seemed to confirm the underlying truth of these tales. Indeed when contemporary stories came under threat from new evidence, the reluctance of many members to abandon them as false tales indicates an underlying belief in the power of music that was not entirely founded on experiment and reason. While classical myths were no longer the authoritative proof they had been in earlier times, this did not stop such stories forming the basis of lively discussion at the Royal Society or providing inspiration for experiment. Ultimately the Royal Society’s musical discussions would begin to produce new attitudes to music, valuing not for so much for its wondrous effects on the human body and the natural world (increasingly attributed to simpler musics and unskillful audiences), but for the intellectual pleasures sophisticate multi-part music could bring to sophisticated listeners.
If you want to find out more about the Royal Society’s discussions and investigations of tales of music’s powers, you can read my newly published article: Katherine Butler, ‘Myth, Science and the Power of Music in the Early Decades of the Royal Society’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 76 (2015), 47-68 (sadly no open-access version is permitted yet, but I will post one once the embargo period is over).
Does your research touch on ideas of music in the medieval or early modern period as portrayed via myth or story (broadly defined)? Samantha Bassler and I are working on an edited collection of essay on this topic and would welcome your proposals (deadline 28 February).
Throughout this period, stories about music found in classical mythology, ancient history, biblical episodes, bird-lore, and more contemporary anecdotes were all treated as foundations for musical knowledge (of moral or philosophical kind, if less frequently practical or theoretical). Whether treated allegorically or as traces of early history, they were cited to support arguments about the uses, functions, effects, morality, and preferred styles or techniques of music, and appeared in sources including theoretical treatises, defences or critiques of music, sermons, educational literature, and books of moral conduct. As well as these more philosophical or intellectual treatments of musical myths, there were also literary ones. Drama, poetry, and song not only took inspiration from mythological stories, but also created their own plots and narratives which communicated particular perspectives on music’s roles and values. The way in which authors interpreted and weaved together these traditional stories can reveal much about changing attitudes to music across the period.
Our aim in this collection to explore the importance of myth and story in shaping and communicating ideas about music in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Proposals for chapters (of c.7000 words) are invited on any of the following potential topics:
- change and continuity in the repertory and interpretation of myths/stories about music, including the consequences for concepts of Medieval and Renaissance musical cultures.
- varying interpretation of musical myths story across continental Europe
- the changing status of traditional myths/stories in the context of empiricism, rationalism, growing awareness of the New World, experimental natural philosophy, etc
- the role of mythology in debates concerning ancient versus modern music
- music, myth/story and religious experience
- musical heroes in myth/story
- representations of music in literature, drama and opera, and their effects on perceptions of music
Other suggestions related to the overall aims and themes of the collection will be considered and proposals are also encouraged from disciplines other than musicology.
Please send abstracts of 350-500 words by 15 April 2015 to firstname.lastname@example.org
Selected chapters will be requested by the end of September
In the book I investigate the political roles of music (particularly secular music-making) within the court of Queen Elizabeth I. IT’s begins by considering the musical reputation of Elizabeth herself. Did being a musician, music-lover and patron assist Elizabeth in projecting an image of authority, or did it leave her open to accusations of frivolity or even lust (as it often could for musical women)? Whom did Elizabeth choose to perform for and why? How might her performances for ambassadors have influence the course of negotiations – particularly those surrounding her marriage? Also politically significant was Elizabeth’s patronage of musicians: she employed a large number of musicians in both her household and her chapel who performed during court ceremonies, or festivities such as plays, masques, and dancing. In addition visitors often noted the luxurious and unusual instruments that were displayed throughout her royal palaces.
Yet one of the key themes about the book is that music at the Elizabethan court was not solely under the Queen’s direct control. Courtiers, noblemen, even the performers themselves all had influence over the music performed and the politics messages they conveyed. Courtiers who were intimate with the Queen might write lyrics and have them set to music if they thought they were in danger of losing her favour. Others took their opportunity in the tiltyard. Taking on a personal knightly persona they dressed up in elaborately themed armour travelling on a pageant car with a train of followers to present they personal shield to Elizabeth, all to the accompaniment of music. This pageantry before the jousting and other military sports began often revealed much about the nobleman’s political interests, the image of noble masculinity he wished to create, and his relationship with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s summer progress – tours through parts of her realm – opened up further opportunities for political music-making, both by courtiers and those usually more remote from the court. Elizabeth visited the estates of noblemen and made royal entries into towns. She not only visited loyal servants but also those whose activities were more suspected – Catholic gentlemen such as Lord Montague at Cowdray, or the Earl of Hertford who had earned royal displeasure by marrying a lady with royal blood without the Queen’s permission. These were vital occasions when the host (civic or noble) had the Queen’s attention and could make personal petitions or aim to influence her political policies. Music and song punctuated the elaborate entertainments that both towns and noblemen prepared for their Elizabeth, and these were always coloured by the politics of the occasion. Songs flattered the Queen, petitioned her for favour and rewards, made last-ditch attempts at wooing Elizabeth on behalf of suitors, and even criticised her policies and attitudes. All the while the musicians employed in these events had their eye on earning lucrative rewards or even a royal appointment.
I hope this has given you a flavour of some of the fascinating research behind this book. It paints a fascinating picture of how music served as a valuable means for both the tactful influencing of policies and patronage, and the construction of political identities and relationships. In the Elizabethan court, music was simultaneously a tool of authority for the monarch and an instrument of persuasion for the nobility.
If I’ve whetted your appetite, you can order online from Boydell and Brewer. Quote the reference 15800 to receive the offer price of £45 (ends 1/3/2015)
It’s been an exciting few months getting the Tudor Partbooks project underway (see my previous post outlining the aims of the project). We’ve received and processed nearly 12,000 digital images from the Bodleian and British Libraries, covering all the partbooks in their collections dating from the 1530s-1580s. I’ve started typesetting the facsimile editions of the remaining Baldwin partbooks and designed our website which is very nearly ready to go live. I’ve also started work on a detailed study of the so-called ‘Hamond’ partbooks – a fascinating, if scruffy, set which may have started life in a parish church before finding their way into an Elizabethan home (more on these another time!) You can also follow the work of our PhD student, Daisy, whose started her own blog: ‘Music in Tudor England.’
The Tudor Partbooks project will also be holding an extensive series of events, which have already begun. Dr Julia Craig-McFeely led our first seminar on the digital restoration of manuscripts. If you missed it, she’s repeating it on 12 February (3:30pm, Oxford Music Faculty). Entitled ‘Digital Restoration for Beginners: Is this for me and how would I get started?’, it’s an opportunity to find out what digital reconstruction entails, what can be achieved through the process, and how to get started. Register by 1 February by emailing me.
In March we’re holding the first of our workshops on editing and reconstructing the missing Baldwin partbook. Sessions on editing Tudor polyphony and completing missing parts will be led by Magnus Williamson, Owen Rees, Andrew Johnstone and John Milsom. Singers from Contrapunctus will participate on Friday afternoon, trying out editorial solutions and providing the singers’ perspective. Register for some or all of this weekend by 31 January here.
More events for April, May and July are already in the planning stages (details to follow soon). In the meantime we’re starting the task of creating detailed inventories for every partbook in our image collection.
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.
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.
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
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 (email@example.com).
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: firstname.lastname@example.org