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Materialities: Books, Readers, and the Chanson in Sixteenth-Century Europe.

Materialities: Books, Readers, and the Chanson in Sixteenth-Century Europe. By Kate van Orden. (New Cultural History of Music.) Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. [xviii, 320 p. ISBN: 978-0-199-36064-2. $55.]

Materialities--a title drawn from a phrase by Fernand Braudel--combines book-history and the history of learning to take a fresh look at the sixteenth-century French chanson. The book consists of seven chapters, divided between two parts on, respectively, 'a material history of the chanson' (chapters 1-3) and 'Learning to read' (chapters 4-7).

Kate van Orden centres the first part of the book around the chanson, perhaps the central musical genre in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century France, and beloved in much of the rest of Europe as well. Rather than focusing on a specific composer or printer (approaches that would have been the obvious choices until not so long ago), she takes a more 'fuzzy' but eventually more fruitful approach, in an effort to write 'a cultural history geared to the consumption end of the producer-consumer equation' (p. 28). The first two chapters explore the format, circulation, and preservation of chanson and motet publications. The very nature of the partbook format of publication already sets it apart from almost all other types of print and has implications about their use, and although we habitually speak of 'reading music', the literacy that musical partbooks require(d) is of a particular kind, 'as close to numbers, calendars, horoscopes, and maps as it is to letters' (p. 7). As material that, just like modern sheet music, is meant to be used, its survival rates are particularly poor. Van Orden shows how the commercial underpinnings and profitability, or lack thereof, of certain genres influenced publications and their survival, including how the form and format of the editions inform us about their purpose and audience. Copies that do survive often do so bound as part of tract-volumes together with other editions. By analysing surviving sales records and prices, different kinds of early bindings (and what they imply about the status and use of its contents for that particular owner), this part of the book provides an overview of what is nonetheless knowable.

The third chapter, on 'early collectors and modern libraries', goes into the issue of the survival of chanson editions in more detail. Owning books was still more the exception than the rule, as Van Orden points out: even wealthy or educated men (merchants and priests) 'often did not own any books at all' (p. 70). She draws attention to the fact that 'most of the printed music books we work with today survive thanks to a very limited number of collectors' (p. 68). The direct lines that connect Renaissance bibliophiles to major European libraries were known before, but Van Orden lays out the evidence more systematically and in more detail than has been done so far for this repertoire, and, what is more important, she underlines the important consequences of this skewed survival for our view of the music, its use, and any 'averages' and generalisations we may be tempted to construct. She rightly points out, for example, how arguments about whether the printed partbooks themselves rather than manuscript copies from them were used in performance, are shaped by the surviving 'clean' copies of those partbooks, which are precisely the ones that are not representative of how the lost ninety-nine percent was probably used: 'messy, visibly used music books stand to tell us most about music-making in the sixteenth century, but they are few in number' (p. 103). She ends chapter 3 with examples of exchange across a border that nowadays still often separates printed music (i.e., printed notes) from printed poetry (that could be sung to familiar tunes and chansons), an exchange, as she underlines, that went in both directions: music prints were at times pillaged for the verse they contained.

This sets up the argument for the second part of the book on 'learning to read'. This second part, of which the first three chapters (chapters 4-6) are closely interconnected, builds on Van Orden's previous work on connecting music and music education in early modern France within a larger framework of education and acculturation (specifically in her Music, Discipline, and Arms in Early Modern France [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005]). Van Orden is clearly at home in this field, and many of the book's most illuminating parts can be found here. Chapter 4, on 'literacy and song', opens the second part, followed by chapter 5 on 'Latin primers', and chapter six on 'civilities and chansons'. Continually drawing intricate and sometimes unexpected connections between printed ABC's and primers, chanson and motet collections, typography, Robert Granjon's civilite, alphabetic and music typefaces, prayers and devotions, the practice and practicing of memorising, reading, writing, pronouncing correctly, spelling reforms, and of course singing, Van Orden builds a dense and convincing case for her effort 'to revise our notions of the cleavages between oral and literate practices, where they fell, and what music straddled them' (p. 124).

From time to time slowly turning her attention back to the music itself in the course of these chapters, Van Orden, by drawing on this rich background of educational practices, combined with the occasional insight derived from actually singing through these pieces, sheds new light on a repertoire (and sometimes individual pieces) that has been well studied. In so doing, she succeeds in gaining insight in that elusive category of readers (of texts and music alike): the beginners and the semi-literates. Chapter 7 stands somewhat apart from the previous three, addressing a culmination and something of an endpoint to the tradition laid out in the preceding chapters. It addresses the enormously successful 126 moralising Quatrains of Guy du Faur, lord of Pibrac, and their musical settings, including Guillaume Boni's setting of all of them (one of only a few to do so). Flowing naturally from the preceding chapters is Van Orden's argument that it was probably the music's printer Adrian Le Roy who commissioned the music, making this edition 'an extraordinary example of music being conceived as a book from the outset' (p. 256).

Much of the book is an attempt to gain access to that vast hidden world of practises and actions in early modern life that have left no direct written trace. Even when studying oral culture, it is eventually often written and printed (as well as visual) source material that we use. However, like the French (book) historians to which she acknowledges her indebtedness, Van Orden carefully circulates around this source material in an elliptical orbit. At times, she veers farther off from the source material in order to explore the outer reaches of what it is possible to say about oral culture and music in sixteenth-century France, yet without ever losing the gravitational pull of her printed and written 'materialities'. At other times, she heeds closer to her sources to explore their very materiality and what it can tell us. Equally, the book's insights range from small, 'smile-inducing' glimpses into early modern boundaries between the spoken and the written word--as when a scribe wrote down 'tablature de Guy Tern' for 'tablature de guiterne' (i.e., guitar tablature) in 1577 (p. 76)--to larger arguments about the ways oral and written culture intersected. Where Van Orden breaks most new ground, though, is in the second part, where she shows to what extent 'music was part of an educational technology linking print, sacred texts, reading, and memory' (p. 141).

Early on in the book comes Van Orden's argument for 'treating printed books more like manuscripts, studying them one by one (without fetishising them), and putting the cumulative results toward cultural histories' (p. 24). This cumulative approach is one that makes perfect sense given the fragmentary nature of the surviving material and Van Orden's close-up reading of it. The book has the merit of not expounding inflatedly grand new theses--in fact, it ends not with a 'conclusion', but a 'postscript'--but instead steadily builds up a rich mosaic of smaller discoveries, insights, and readings that build into larger arguments about reading, writing, singing, and memorising.

Given the method of Materialities, a few final words may be spent on its own appearance as a book, which is on the whole excellent: it has ample illustrations and typeset musical examples, the courtesy of foot--instead of endnotes, a useful glossary of musical and bibliographical terms, and a detailed index (as well as a bibliography, in which, however, Elisabeth Anna Giselbrecht's thesis Crossing Boundaries: The Printed Dissemination of Italian Sacred Music in German-Speaking Areas (1580-1620) [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012], is not included, although the title is cited in abbreviated form at p. 53 n. 55).

Huub van der Linden

Ecole franpaise de Rome

University College Roosevelt, Middelburg
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Author:van der Linden, Huub
Publication:Fontes Artis Musicae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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