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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Florence Alazard, Art vocal, art de gouverner;

la musique, le prince, et la cité en Italie à la fin du XVIe siècle

(Tours: Minerve, 2001) 371 pp, 30 euros

A volume in a series edited by P. Vendrix and the Centre d'Etudes supérieures de la Renaissance, Alazard's book merits close reading by scholars and curieux in general history, early-modern European cultural history, the history of political thought, and the history of music. Alazard addresses all the major questions that can be posed about the links between the political and the cultural, and she satisfies our curiosity about local life in the northern Italian states of Venice, Mantua, Florence, and Ferrara.

The late sixteenth century in Northern Italy was relatively peaceful, especially in comparison with the civil wars in Northeastern Europe. Political developments varied, ranging from continuity in Venice, Mantua, and Ferrara, to quite extensive state-building in Florence; yet the indissoluble alliance between music and politics remained pretty much the same in Florence as in the other states.
Alazard displays remarkable mastery of the scholarly publications in history and music history for the four states she studies. She carefully limits her subject to profane or secular culture and music. She offers a critique of the types of history that musicologists write. As for plain old historians, what they write about music always seems to be an afterthought, a backdrop. She finds that though eager to have music and general history in syntheses, William Weber addresses different publics of readers. She is judicious in her critique of musical performance as merely propaganda ― a special trap into which so many historians fall.

In politics, language and music do things together; they are performative "sound" acts made together by humans to effect listener behavior. J.L. Austin's philosophy of speech acts is noted to convey to the reader the great seriousness of Alazard's project. "La politique," according to G.A. Palazzo, writing in Venice in 1604, "enseigne les règles et les méthodes pour bien gouverner les cités et les royaumes" (p. 28). Let us respect the thought of cultures that expressed their deepest beliefs in commonplaces, classical rhetoric, and Platonic philosophy that inspired awe and emulation in much of Europe in 1600. I shall not mention the major composers from this period and region that have become canonical for concert-goers, but mention instead the virtual inventions of the madrigal and the opera. One key that unlocks this whole great work is to bear always in mind the supreme importance of the human voice, both in discourse and in song. Alazard creates in words a world we have lost, a world of sights, speech, and sounds in the town halls, theaters, streets, canals, and salons ― with no films or T.V.

Chapter I reviews the city/noise - country/quiet topos that derives ultimately from the Georgics. But did Virgil associate noise with urban decay? I simply do not recall. Artillery, bells, and shouting deafened the ears in Venice. Drawing on A. Corbin, the comparison with France suggests a richer priority to ringing in Italy. Visits by dignitaries and greetings in general create vacarme. The acclamation by the crowd says a lot about local politics, just as the intensity of "Vive le Roi" did in France. By contrast, in Ferrara, for example, silence, obedience, and dignity accompanied the music in a public concert. At some point the Gonzaga designed plates with written music on them which, if "played," produced silence.

This chapter is a marvelous evocation of urban life in the sixteenth century, with so many onlookers and "performers," and so much attention from many to the slightest changes. When Duke Alfonso, who loved hunting, ordered that a trumpet be used instead of a horn (cor), the fact was commented upon and interpreted in politically significant ways.

Chapter II introduces the special courtly and urban spaces in which music was played. The princely ceremonies may have only been frequented by small numbers of the elite; but thanks to printing, many could participate vicariously. Thus music as ceremonial became a matter of state. Some festive occasions moved through the streets, creating a special attorno that was known in exceptionalist Venice as rimbombo. The city serves as a soundboard, though less frequently so in Ferrara.

Alazard then takes up the social relations of patronage and servitude that characterized the prince-musician relation ― a relation reminiscent of what Patricia Ranum has found in the Guise household in late seventeenth century Paris. Dedications are not as simple to interpret as they might seem. In this, music-makers in this were little different from master gardeners, dancers, physicians, etc., at court, though only musicians sang and played their dedications on occasion.

Here, however, is where important differences begin to appear. There were 32 dedications in Ferrara in the period, 24 in Florence, 29 in Mantua, and only 14 in Venice. This should not be interpreted as meaning that less music was written in Venice. Quite the contrary. It simply means that the fewer dedications in Venice were the possible result of a different relation with the doges than with dynastic princes in the other three. Equally revealing, Venetians dedicated more of their works to foreign princes than did the other three, and just as dedications in France were addressed to the chancellor, Venetian dedications were sometimes directed more at the office than at the person holding it.

The capacity to inspire subjects to become composer-musicians, and to keep them from leaving varied little (about 75% of those who could be characterized as musicians) in Florence, Ferrara, and Venice, but was 10% less in Mantua. At the same time, it was the Mantuans who exceeded the others the number of musicians serving in the other city states. Alazard points out that both Ferrara and Florence carried on a "politique de grandeur" which inevitably fostered a flow of talent in their direction. Indeed, the flow was greater back and forth between Mantua and Ferrara ­ probably because civic barriers were low and the reigning families accepted this challenge to protection as unique service to one or the other.

The last twenty pages of this chapter explore the unique discourses about the relations between the prince and music, protection, harmony, and creativity. Yes, particular, but also topological. This is the same discourse one finds in France and England, certainly. Harmony depends on princely action; music is not really complete until it is under his auspices; he is a mirror to it and it is a mirror to him. All this leads to the correct inference: propaganda is not about the prince, it is the prince. I know of no better synthesis about court culture ― the social, princely, and artistic are integrated into a topological discourse. Here it is very convincingly articulated, and not only as history but somewhat trans-historically.

Chapter III analyzes why music is published. It develops logically from what goes just before it. Music was written to be played, first before the prince, then before his court and subjects, and finally in the courts and cities of neighboring states. Dedications reveal composers asserting that publication is decided after urging by friends. A topos, no doubt, but also very probably true. There are some references to publication as a way of keeping ownership, but not so much ­ except out of a desire to keep the music as written, and not let it be deformed by someone else. Again, what is true about publishing and music is true of so many other artistic endeavors. Respect for the individual creative act was very low. Even editors ― modern ones! ― fail to respect texts! (See Roger Duchêne's last book.)

And publication permits the reliving of the emotional experience. It is never the same, of course ­ except, perhaps, for the well-trained player who can hear the music as he reads the partition and does not actually have to play it. But even then, each experience is both the same and different. D.P. Walker is evoked to firm up the discussion about just how difficult it is to find an urtext, since other musicians and composers did not (and do not) hesitate to change a work or add to it. This is also true for the descriptions of fêtes and other ceremonies, where considerable variations are noted (as they are for witnesses to a car accident). I think of Félibien and the other texts about the same fêtes. Alazard again evokes J.L. Austin to suggest that, like language, singing is action ― meaningful performance. And it is interesting that the genre of Description is usually not written in panegyric form. And the prince himself is rarely mentioned in the descriptions of fêtes! (p. 147). Yet the performance is his glory. Another remark about genres: the personal narrative written about a fête is often very different in tone and content, and this slowly creates the space for criticism.

Part II is about vocal music as a form of political discourse. There is a citation from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (he is not in the index) to the effect that in regard to public eloquence, vocal and instrumental music differ only by degree, not by nature. Alazard begins with the classic question: "Does music speak?" The beginnings of an answer are derived from observing how instrumental music came to be privileged over the vocal in the eighteenth century, and has not consciously remained so every since. A remark by G. Mathieu-Castellani is most apt: "pronouncing and singing are just about synonymous" (p. 160)

For people in the sixteenth century, civic musical actions are political events. Alazard then explores the importance of celebrations of all sorts: military victories have music that permits the citizenry (and all inhabitants) to relive the battle (p. 165). Henry III's visit to Venice unleashed a particularly splendid series of occasions at which new music was performed with great fanfare (literally!). A remarkable complement to and confirmation of Alazard's analysis is Margaret McGowan's chapter on the rise of court ballet under Henri III, in a beautifully learned volume edited by I. Conihout, J.F. Maillard, and G. Poirier, Henri III Mécène (Paris: Sorbonne, 2006). A Boltanski's chapter on the cultural role of the Gonzaga-Nevers makes the links with Mantua still more explicit. From ceremony to music to politics is on occasion more overt, more manifest than at other times. X. Le Person's Pratiques et Pratiqueurs... (Geneva: Droz, 2002) has the Nevers "center stage" in a world where every cultural form seems to be exploited to the utmost. In celebration there is new music commissioned ― as much, presumably, in Venice (certainly for Henri III) as in her sister city states. Historians of politics will savor how the Venetians veiled their critique of Henri's government over the St. Bartholomew massacres. It has become trendy to remark about the plodding boredom of Venetian political cultures (sometimes by historians of Florence!), but here is an important example of what may well have been a policy decision that received support from some, but not all, in the government. Alazard frames her discussion in the important "young" versus "senior" factions, but perhaps the factions that were questioning papal policy and that would eventually be (very generally) Sarpi-sympathizers, were age-integrated. There is rich material here on the choices of genres in poetry and romance, to be set to music. And there was a professional relation in selection the Orpheus myth, because it is about the powers of musicians! There is a foreshadowing of the discussion about the powers of music that comes later in the book. It is not ears, but eyes that pose the danger in looking back at Eurydice!

After presenting what might be referred to as the "practice" of performing words and music, Alazard turns to what is Humanist learning about music and words. Beginning with the Aristotelian insistence that speech differentiates humans from other animals (there is a quite imperialist fillip in Amyot here about being superior not only to animals but also to "les autres hommes," p. 206), it is the anxiety and fear of not being up to the highest standards of eloquence that pervades these writings. The Ciceronian "moment" and the controversies set off by the Reformation, created high stakes in both style and thought in words. In 1596 Luzzaschi learnedly argues that music should be compliant to the words: "Mà come à nascere fu prima la Poesia, cosi la Musica lei (come sua donna) reverisce, et honora" (p. 215). And the near obsession with finding hierarchies and association between languages and instruments framed many discussions: Latin, more noble, does with lutes and violins; the vernacular with drums and bells.

I am not sure whether or not Alazard has created and has carefully worked out her analysis without taking into account religious practices, but the sung mass comes readily to mind when reading the pages about sung language. For writers on these questions in the sixteenth century, the princely voice was musical, and the tenor voice was considered the most appropriate for political discourse. Among the Greek modes (more on this later), the Dorian ― the most noble, solemn, and masculine ― was preferred for the political. There follows close readings of Zarlino and Francesco Bocchi on all these themes. Fascinated by the possibility that great orators in Antiquity gave their speeches while someone played a little flute, it was the music that enabled the orator to avoid becoming too passionate and too loud and highly pitched, or too low-pitched and "monotone."

Chapter VI begins with a very thoughtful historical description of the analogy and the metaphor: "... le commentaire politique ne peut se passer de la métaphore musicale et l'usage de cette dernière informe en retour le discours politique" (p. 246) One wonders just what proportion of ceremonial music was so routine that, the moment the first bar was played, everyone in attendance recognized the music, and how much was new and commissioned for a special role in expressing the political.

The question of the origins of music prompted debate. The ancient Greeks were much more reflective about music than the ancient Romans; but for Vincenzo Galilei, Greek music could not simply be transferred to Rome. The polis had given music a unique character that could not be effectively adapted to Roman political culture. Galilei also had a general view of the "dark ages" and the remarkable re-flowering in the late fifteenth century. Plato's music of the spheres ― and somewhat later his discussion of the different forms of government associated with the different modes of music ― prompted much reflection but rarely a too-literalist attempt at reconstituting such relations. Instead, it would seem that theorists picked and chose whatever bit of ancient practice could be recommended. Sometimes the result quite obviously is already being practiced, or it is sufficiently vague to avoid clashes with what musicians were already trained to do. For Gasparo Contarino, on Venice:

... si come nelle corde ad ordinare la consonantia del diapason la voce grave con una certa moderata proportione alla acuta risponde, cosi anchora elle con une certa specie realie si convenga con la parte popolare, & finalmente in un concento, & accordo d'ottima Republica, posti in mezzo i mezzani Magistrati, cresca, prenda vigore, aumento & forza

... de même que, dans les cordes qui servent à ordonner la consonance de l'octave, la voix grave répond dans une certaine proportion à la voix haute, de même elle [la partie noble de la constitution] convient avec la partie populaire, & finalement dans un concert & un accord, les Magistrats étant placés au milieu, l'excellent République s'accroit, prend vigueur, augmentation & force (p. 266)

A superb example ― likewise Venetian ― of how analogies functioned, not in theory but in practice, has each note and each half note derived from a specific social activity or place in the city:

Quà ghe sè i numeri della musica. El ton, e'l semiton da i pescaori: l'Unisono de i Organi di San Marco: la terza delle Antee in piazza: la quarta del soller: la quinta scarsa da veder se la gallina ha el vuovo: la sesta delle scuole grande: la settima con la nona, perche molti passa senza pericolo l'anno Climaterico: l'ottava di stendardi: e la decima à i diese Savy; e perche la vose no me serve no posso andar pi alto

Ici se trouvent les nombres de la musique. Le ton et le demi-ton des pêcheurs; l'Unisson des orgues de Saint-Marc; la tierce des arcades de la place; la quarte de la loge; la quante qui sert à voir si la poule a pondu l'oeuf; la sixte des scuole grande; la septième, avec la neuvième, pour que beaucoup passent l'année climatérique sans danger; l'octave des étendards; et la dixième pour les conseillers; et comme la voix neme le permet pas, je ne puis aller plus haut (p. 268)

The final chapter is about music between politics and myth. Not eager to recreate ancient music, but to recover, in one way or another, the powers it was believed to have, the topoi about music's power to alter human minds and moods prompted me to think of Zorastro. What would become amusing in Mozart, in the sixteenth century were sincere claims about the powers of music in politics. Almost more of an attitude than an idea, preoccupation with the weaknesses of the vernacular compared with Latin, especially this Sturm und Drang about music, would be expressed by many commentators, at least down to Rousseau (p. 282).

At this point a terrible mistake on my part comes to mind. In Artisans of Glory I suggest that Bodin is being ironic when he comments on how music can cure illnesses. He was, of course, utterly sincere.

For Giovanni Artusi, too-exclusive attention to music feminizes: thus the Ancients combined music with exercise to avoid this effect. In fact, it has the power to eliminate or weaken the features that separate humans from other animals. And yes, music's effects may make animals more like humans, according to Ludovico Zacconi. The Timotheus-Alexander story fascinated several writers, because it suggested the power of music over the ancient world's greatest conqueror. The gap between ancient and modern is such that it permits logical or analytical surprises. Alexander was excited by music, Henri III was not (p. 300). Only a courtier seems to have lost control at Henri's court and drew his sword. Again, ancient music had power ­ partly because of its ethical features, whereas what was sung or played in the sixteenth century could prompt perversion and treason.

In her final pages, Alazard brings out the particularity of Venice. Musical experiences in crowds is so intense that words such as "extase" and "hors de lui" are used to describe what happens collectively. In Florence, Mantua, and Ferrara music can stimulate, but the effect is personal and almost interiorized. Trance (collective) versus ecstasy (individualized) is what the sources suggest.

Alazard pulls together her findings into very important general conclusions. Music was political, not just an adjunct to it; it was really impossible to have one without the other in the Northern Italian states she has studied. And the differences between the more active participatory Venetian republican character, and the more vicariously participatorily-restrained music of Mantua and Ferrera, did not substantially affect the music-politics synthesis. Similarly, while both music and politics were undergoing major changes circa 1600, these changes did not alter the social order of protection and quite gentle servitude in which composers and musicians, like city-state officials, lived and carried out their duties or roles.

But the prince himself, according to the authors of the treatises on music that Alazard has lovingly mined and literally brought to life, should neither compose nor play. The reasons given do not seem more thoughtful than the appeal to hierarchy, which makes the wielder of power superior to the composer or player.

Once again, Venice is the exception. The differences between hereditary princes and elected-selected ones has already been noted. I understand, however, that Venetian exceptionalism and the myths associated with Venice prompt knee-jerk negative reactions in the thought of the current generation of historians. I recently reviewed a collection of essays on eighteenth-century French historical thought edited by Chantal Grell. Marc Fumaroli introduces it by pointing out how the érudit historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries exploded the myths about the divine foundations of the Monarchy ­ leaving the latter unsustained by a history that united subjects and governing elites. The events of 1789 are on the horizon. The thousand-year history of that most serene of republics still seems to need what Pasquier et al. did to the "history" of Clovis. Alazard is not, of course, directly engaged in this issue. She relies, as she ought, on the excellent work of Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan. But I, for one, enjoyed learning about Venetian exceptionalism in its culture of music, ceremony, and the public-popular character that Alazard has discerned.

Alazard has written a major work of history. Her use of concepts, analysis, examples, and thematic structure is faultless. Her range impresses, her mastery of several learned literatures inspires awe. No works come to mind with which to compare it, except for Françoise Waquet's Le Modèle français et l'Italie savante (Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 1989), and Marc Fumaroli's L'Age de l'éloquence: rhétorique et "res literaria" de la Renaissance au seuil de l'époque classique (Geneva: Droz, 1980).