Sweet Medieval Music

Every now and then the topic of historical listening resurfaces in musicology. There follow a flurry of thoughtful contributions, special journal issues, and more recently fascinating departures like the economy of sound in medieval city scapes. Conclusions are drawn from the careful analysis of historical texts, pictures and scores, bold assertions made about differences between past and present listening practices, and the seemingly inevitable conclusion reached that each human being is a creature of her times, whose musical listening, however it is defined, is a product of environment, culture and context. In many respects those conclusions are inevitable, but uncertainties remain.

Laurentius de Voltolina, Students of the Studium at Bologna listening to a lecture

The basic hardware of human hearing hasn’t changed for tens if not hundreds of millennia, both in terms of the physiology of the ear but also the paths of the brain leading to musical perception. Yet, culture (and ecology) shapes the final ends of that perception, and by extension how human’s use language to describe the effects and feelings experienced in listening to music. Often those terms are metaphorical in the sense that they are borrowed from one domain to function in a different domain. A term that is found in exceeding abundance to described approbative effects in pictures, sculptures, metalwork, speech and music is sweetness. The fact that sweetness is a term used in the first instance to describe the a sensory response by the sense of taste to certain substances, e.g. sugar, doesn’t stop it from it being borrowed into other sensory realms and even emotion itself. The multimodality of a term like sweetness is one that is taken for granted today, but when looking at the past, it often assumes the role in describing how people took pleasure in the experience of smelling certain smells (some of which, like the sweet odour of sanctity of a deceased saint might seem incomprehensible or downright perverse), of hearing certain sounds and of seeing certain sights. Today we still have the idea or concept of sweetness but is it the same as medieval sweetness (allowing for the fact different words were used to denote sweetness), especially when associated to features of music? In particular, consonance and some musical structures that emphasis consonance are described as “sweet”; but would present-day listeners, whose experiences would seem to be so different from those of the medieval, still associate them “sweet”?

With some of these questions in mind, I collaborated with a music psychologist and cognitive linguist in 2018 to conduct a small set of studies that examined medieval and present-day associations of sweetness with musical consonance in medieval music. Of course it would have proven very difficult to find some medieval listeners to participate in the study. So the next best thing we could do was to use the writings of medieval authors to try and reconstruct a simple model for the association of sweetness with musical consonance. We decided to focus on the writings of Johannes Boen, and particularly one of the pieces of music that he discussed in his Musica of 1357, namely the motet Se grasse/Cum venerint/Ite missa est that is found at the end of the famous “Tournai Mass” from the middle of the 14th century. After reconstructing medieval models of musical listening, we conducted two experiments that sought to understand how present-day listeners associated “sweet” words with musical structures in the motet Se grasse and then isolated building blocks of medieval music performed by female and male voices and on a small chamber organ.

I am pleased to announce that the findings of this preliminary study will appear soon in the September issue of Music Perception. Thanks to the generous author agreement, I can share a copy of this article for the purpose of private study (no further use is permitted), coauthored with former UNE music psychology colleague Dr Kristal Spreadborough and UNE colleague in Linguistics Dr Inés Antón-Méndez. The full citation and abstract of the article is:

Jason Stoessel, Kristal Spreadborough, and Inés Antón-Méndez. “The Metaphor of Sweetness in Medieval and Modern Music Listening.” Music Perception 39, no. 1 (September 2021): 63-82. https://doi.org/10.1525/MP.2021.39.1.63

New Chapter: A Blacksmith, Music(a) and Minerva

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new chapter on music iconography. The chapter, entitled “The Harmonious Blacksmith, Lady Music and Minerva: The Iconography of Secular Song in the Late Middle Ages”, has appeared in print in a collection of essays Music, Myth and Story in Medieval and Early Modern Culture, edited by Katherine Butler and Samantha Bassler. Published by Boydell & Brewer, the production quality is tremendous and the editors have done a marvellous job of assembling fifteen chapters that explore the myriad mythologies (beyond the well-known Orpheus story) that shaped not only musical thought, but also its styles, techniques, and practices from the ninth to seventeenth centuries in Europe. Five colour plates (of a total of ten) accompany my essay and further increase its impact.

Cover of Music, Myth and Story

The following is an abstract of my chapter:

A number of fifteenth-century Italian collections of polyphonic song feature at or near their beginning historiated initials showing a bearded figure beating an anvil with two hammers. In his early seminal article, Paul Beichner argues that late medieval literary and artistic sources often confuse the iconography of Jubal, the biblical inventor of music, and his brother Tubalcain, the inventor of smithing and warfare. Part of the fault seems to lie centuries earlier with Peter Comestor who conflated the biblical tradition with the Hellenistic story of Pythagoras’ discovery of music’s proportions. No matter who the blacksmith was for different medieval authors or artists, the underlying iconography is pervasive, symbolizing the musical arts in the vernacular vein. Authors have been quick to accept that the association of this harmonious blacksmith with Lady Music by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century illuminators and painters requires no further explanation. This chapter proposes that the association of Lady Music and the musical blacksmith draws upon the iconography of Minerva, especially in the manuscript tradition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. Two conclusions are reached. First, a fresh understanding of the place of notated songbooks in late medieval musical culture emerges which situates them as objects of musical skill, artistic commerce and learning. Second, recognition of the pervasiveness of the iconography of Minerva provides the basis of a new reading of Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Music (c.1522), which features two canons, one by Josquin and another possibly by Willaert.

Abstract by the author.

Unfortunately it is not possible to provide an open-access PDF of the chapter on this blog. For a limited time, however, Boydell & Brewer are offering customers a 25% discount on the usual price of the book (GBP £60/USD $99).

Order online at www.boydellandbrewer.com. Please be sure to quote reference BB125 when prompted (online this will be at the checkout). This offer ends 10 June 2019.

An Early Theory Compendium in Australia: Louise Hanson-Dyer Manuscript 244 Published

In November 2017, a series of studies on the late medieval–early modern music theory compendium, Louise Hanson-Dyer MS. 244 (LHD 244) of the Rare Books Collection at the University of Melbourne appeared in the latest issue of Musica Disciplina. (Attendees at the American Musicological Society’s Annual Meeting in Rochester would have had an opportunity to browse a copy at the A-R Editions book stand in the same month.)  I am pleased to note that the table of contents for Musica Disciplina Vol. LX (2015; published 2017) is now available from the American Institute of Musicology’s web site. The yearbook is available for purchase from the publisher A-R Editions here.

An Early Theory Compendium in Australia: Louise Hanson-Dyer Manuscript 244

I. Jason Stoessel, “The Making of Louise Hanson-Dyer Manuscript 244”   67

II. Jan Herlinger, “LHD 244: An Early Layer and What It Tells Us”   93

III. Karen Cook and Carol Williams, “New Light on Frater Nicolaus de Aversa: His Plainchant Treatise in LHD 244”   115

IV. Linda Page Cummins, “The Reception of the Compendium Musicale of Nicolaus de Capua: Paris to Melbourne”   149

V. Denis Collins, “Instructions for Keyboard Accompaniment in Music Manuscript LHD 244 of the University of Melbourne”   173

VI. Jason Stoessel, Jan Herlinger and Linda Page Cummins, “Melbourne, University of Melbourne Library, Special Collections, Rare Music, MS LHD 244: Inventory”   201

VII. Melbourne, University of Melbourne Library, Special Collections, Rare Music, MS LHD 244: Complete Reproduction   211

The five essays, an inventory and facsimile edition mark the culmination of an international collaboration between six musicologists from Australia and the United States of America on LHD 244. Early findings from this project were presented by the authors at a symposium held at the University of Melbourne Library in June 2015.

The same issue contains an unrelated study by Alexander Robinson.