Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse, 1603-1625.
Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy, by Ross W. Duffin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. 760. Hardback, $49.95.
In a valuable new study, Simon Smith draws our attention to the sheer volume of music and song in Jacobean plays and asks how the original audience might have responded to such staged music. While Smith acknowledges that it is important not to assume that all audience members would have experienced musical moments in the same way, he argues that their responses would have been shaped by certain "cultural expectations about how to listen" (3), and that playwrights and playing companies worked to "evoke particular responses from playgoers through musical performance, responses often central to the dramaturgy of the play being performed" (6). The study as a whole offers "a phenomenological enquiry into playhouse experience [and] into sensory encounters in early modern culture" (6). Focusing on 1603 to 1625, it includes a range of playwrights (not merely Shakespeare), and draws particular attention to later plays like Middleton's A Game at Chess (1624) that have not typically been included in studies of playhouse music.
Turning away from early modern music theorists, whose views would not have been widely known among non-specialists, Smith examines the paratexts of printed music books, commercial play-texts, and casual allusions to musical effects across a wide range of genres to uncover "quotidian musical responses" (6). Drawing on the work of Angela Hobart and Bruce Kapferer on the relationship between the "cultural prevalence of an idea of music response and the lived experiences that might occur in that culture," he posits that an understanding of common beliefs about the effects of music can lead us to identify the specific responses that plays invite playgoers to experience (17). Each chapter of the study takes up a different kind of response, exploring in turn how playwrights used music to encourage the audience to listen, look, imagine, and remember.
The first chapter, "Listening," focuses on the idea of musical compulsion, the prevalent early modern belief that music irresistibly seizes the listener's attention. Smith here traces how music is used to compel the attention of characters and audience members in Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy and A Game at Chess, and Shakespeare's Winter's Tale. The next chapter, "Looking," argues that early modern sources treat musical experience as "a fundamentally multi-sensory phenomenon" (70), and that playgoers expected not only to hear but also to see musical performances, an expectation that Shakespeare and John Marston manipulate to considerable dramatic effect in Antony and Cleopatra and Sophonisba. Smith's third chapter, "Imagining," addresses the way that songs invite the listener to adopt the subject position of the singer, particularly in cases when "the staged character is noticeably 'other' to the majority of the anticipated audience members" (120). The final chapter, "Remembering," deals with specifically tactile memory, demonstrating "an early modern emphasis on touch in relation to musical instruments," and arguing that "subjects' own memories of handling instruments provide points of imaginative engagement with a musical performer" (146). The chapter culminates in an in-depth reading of two key scenes in Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness.
Smith's study offers a particularly important contribution to existing scholarship in its attention to the ways in which musical experience involves senses other than hearing. The book makes a powerful case for the idea that, in an age before audio recordings, any experience of music would be visual as well as auditory. As Smith points out, when characters in an early modern play refer to "the music" they are often referring to a group of musicians, not simply to the sounds that these musicians produce; and in a culture where many people were used to playing musical instruments themselves for recreation, the sounds of music cannot be considered separately from the physical experience of producing such sounds. The book also offers an especially valuable and nuanced account of the way performed song can encourage listeners to adopt different subject positions. Instead of adopting either a model in which listeners identify completely with the singer, or an opposing model in which a response is "predicated on a recognition of difference," Smith finds "a tension between simultaneous emphasis on and elision of difference... a tension which is itself generative of a powerful musical response" (118, 119). This acknowledgment of the complexities involved in musical identification is particularly helpful in illuminating situations where singer and listener belong to different social classes or different genders.
The division of chapters into different kinds of musical experience provides clarity and focus, but sometimes it would have been rewarding to see how these kinds of experiences might overlap. Smith refers back to the opening chapter's conclusions on musical compulsion throughout the book, but occasionally I would have liked a more sustained treatment of the possible intersection of different models of audience response. Could one model ever exist in tension with another? In a similar vein, once Smith had discussed the unsettling effects of unseen music in Antony and Cleopatra, I wondered how the visual aspect might affect his reading of The Winter's Tale in the previous chapter. When Paulina calls for music to awake Hermione, is she commanding a group of on-stage musicians? Or does the music issue from unseen--and therefore mysterious--origins? Presumably, the choice would have considerable implications for audience response. In general, the first chapter implicitly raises some questions which it does not fully address: for instance, Smith argues that playwrights used the power of musical compulsion to "compel... playgoers' attention to the drama at a moment of narrative significance" (45); but if music draws a listener entirely into its spell, might it not also threaten to distract from staged events? The chapters that follow seem more alert to potential tensions and complexities in musical response; and overall, the study provides several new and illuminating perspectives on how music functioned on the early modern stage. Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse is essential reading for anyone interested in the role of music in early modern drama, and it also provides a useful model of a phenomenological approach to sense-experience.
Smith notes that while music and song made frequent appearances on the early modern stage, musical notation was never included in play texts, making it difficult--and often impossible--to recreate the original performance. To the rescue comes Ross Duffin's Some Other Note: The Lost Songs of English Renaissance Comedy. A companion to Duffin's Shakespeare's Songbook (Norton, 2004), Some Other Note presents the result of detailed and painstaking musical excavation, as Duffin searches through surviving early modern tunes to identify the music that is sung or alluded to in approximately a hundred plays. (Shakespeare, having been covered in the earlier book, is not represented here.) To his investigation into core repertory, Duffin adds chapters on the music of fifteenth-century mystery and morality plays; sixteenth-century interludes of the court, St. Paul's, the Chapels Royal, and the Inns of Court; and continental influences. The book concludes with a section on jigs, the "farcical song-and-dance playlets that were often inserted at the end or between the acts of more serious drama" (xxix).
As in Shakespeare's Songbook, Duffin begins with the premise that early modern English playwrights, rather than having music newly composed for their songs, simply appropriated tunes that were already in circulation. Wellknown settings by composers such as Alfonso Ferrabosco, he argues, were often written after the play had been produced for the first time, and thus cannot offer clues as to the original performance. Duffin's hypothesis permits and rewards "informed guesswork," because "when a playwright creates a new lyric, it is often with some recognizable song in mind, and there is almost a compulsion to use some of the same key words, or rhyming words, that are in the original song" (xxvii, xxv). Armed with these clues, Duffin is able to come to persuasive conclusions about which ballad tunes fit with which play lyrics. In a number of cases, he offers two or more possibilities. The result is a compellingly rich compilation of early modern tunes, matched and re-matched to different lyrics as form and associations dictate. While some of Duffin's inferences may be more persuasive than others, there can be no doubt that his work provides an immensely valuable guide to the intersection between playhouse and popular music.
The attractive volume includes a foreword by Tiffany Stern, a glossary of key terms, and access to a companion website containing an extended bibliography, lists of all cited materials, and links to the English Broadside Ballad Archive. With this book, Duffin seeks "to bring musical life" (xxx) to early modern comedy, and it is to be hoped that future producers of these plays will take note.
Reviewer: ERIN MINEAR
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|Publication:||Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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