Plague and Music in the Renaissance.
Although largely absent from Europe after 1700, the plague had an immense existential, theological, and cultural impact on the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The outbreak that started in 1347 inaugurated the second plague-related pandemic (the earlier occurrence was ca. 541-750), and for the next three and a half centuries the plague would prove to be the scourge of European life. During the latter half of the fourteenth century, many cities suffered an outbreak roughly every ten years. It wiped out large portions of the population and decimated families. The plague inevitably put pressure upon traditional beliefs regarding health, the contagiousness of disease, the connections between spiritual and corporeal well-being, God's capacity for retribution against the sinful, and the efficacy of spiritual redemption in the face of bodily corruption. The iconography of the plague is readily apparent in any visit to a robust collection of Renaissance art, and its representation in literature is familiar to readers of Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Nashe. Seemingly, and not surprisingly, the plague inflected all modes of existence and made its presence felt in nearly all forms of expression. A force so unstoppable and inscrutable could not help but infiltrate all aspects of European life. Coming to grips with the plague's impact on music, however, is a rather difficult endeavor, and this is the task undertaken by Remi Chiu in his new book, Plague and Music in the Renaissance.
The crux of the investigation manifests in the nature of the "and" in the book's dde. Chiu asserts from the outset that he makes no claim for a shift in the aesthetic nature of music production in response to the trauma of plague, but rather he strives to articulate how "traditional beliefs about music became embroiled in the new discourses about plague and how established musical styles, techniques, and practices were marshaled up to combat the disease" (p. 5). That is to say, the "and" of the title does not attempt to expose a causal relationship between the experience of plague and the development of musical technique or representation. Rather the "and" marks a looser connection wherein tropes surrounding music are employed in accommodating the self to a disease that defied traditional understanding of sickness. More provocatively, Chiu insists that music served as an important strategy for survival in the face of outbreaks of plague, particularly within the public penitential processions many cities organized to placate the stern God that authorities assumed must be the original cause of the plague.
Chiu recognizes the considerable obstacles standing in his way--most notably, the unlikelihood of establishing with any certainty a corpus of "pestilential" works of music (p. 5). The difficulty of determining provenance, much less the kind of biographical detail that would confirm that a given piece was written in response to the plague per se, forces Chiu largely to occupy the realm of conjecture insofar as he wishes to discuss concrete pieces of music. The attendant imprecisions involved in asserting that any given piece necessarily addresses the plague (and very few pieces seem to do so in any uncontestable manner) further erodes the connective tissue implied by the "and" of the title. This serves as the primary stumbling block of the book. In short, for all of the wonderful insights provided into the Renaissance conceptualization of the plague, the connection to music remains rather tenuous.
Chiu presents two ways in which musical works connected to the plague: pieces written in response to the disease, and those employed in penitential processions. The latter were preexistent works, not written with the plague in mind but utilized to perform contrition publicly in an appeal to divine grace. With respect to the former, Chiu mostly depends upon direct textual allusion to the plague, often within pieces dedicated to Saint Sebastian, who gradually became the patron saint of plague victims. With respect to the latter, Chiu draws on manuals that prescribe the singing of the litany. Many of Chiu's attempts to draw a deeper interpretation out of the pieces, however, attempt to build specific readings on rather general musical characteristics. For instance, a discussion of an anonymous setting of Stella celi (pp. 64-68) holds that a brief moment of parallel seconds between the soprano and alto "not only illustrates in sound the effects of celestial disorder" (p. 65) but also gives rise to an "embodied metaphor for directing errant stars" (p. 68). This is a lot of hermeneutic weight to give to a fleeting moment of dissonance in a predominantly harmonious setting.
Chiu avers that there were three groups that were primarily concerned with the plague and its implications: doctors, theologians, and civic administrators (p. 8). The first three chapters investigate each of these areas of inquiry more or less in turn. Chapters 1 and 2 outline the enigmatic difficulties that plague presented to Renaissance medicine founded on the interaction among the four humors. If disease, for the Renaissance, meant an imbalance within the individual body's humoral makeup, then sickness ought to strike isolated individuals and not be transferable. Plague, of course, strikes large populations and is clearly contagious. A similar concern confronts the theologians. If my sin is my own (that is, if sin is not communal beyond "original sin") then why does plague seem to strike the citizens of an entire city, producing the same symptoms in its victims regardless of their spiritual standing or their individual humoral constitution? Many Renaissance authorities assumed a kind of dual causality being the plague: it was the result ultimately of a wrathful God, but God operated in this case through the medium of corrupt air. This accounted for the plague's contagion. Given this etiology, both spiritual and medical remedies were thought to be effective. Moreover, they aligned: doctors and spiritual leaders largely recommended flight from the sources of plague (corrupt air and sin). Music occupies a contested position in the treatment and prevention of plague. On the one hand, music removes one's thoughts from death and calms anxieties that were believed to make one more susceptible to the disease. On the other hand, excessive joy leads to corruption and thus threatens to cause plague by encouraging lust (p. 25).
Chapter 3 addresses the penitential processions. Such processions were deemed expedient insofar as they demonstrated communal repentance but dangerous insofar as they congregated a large group of infected and vulnerable penitents. Moreover, as Chiu aptly demonstrates, these processions put pressure on the body politic, pushing it into an open form of representation and performance that confronted the issue of communal guilt. The end of the chapter examines several pieces that Chiu feels take on "the characteristics of processional music" (p. 118) and therefore may have been employed in the processions. Chiu acknowledges the tenuousness of his assertions, and much of this chapter is replete with noncommittal language. He tends to find allusions to the litany in many of his examples and this assumed connection serves to justify his reading of these pieces as related to plague processions. Chapter 4 traces the emergence of Saint Sebastian as the plague saint. Sebastian had no dealings with the plague in his lifetime. Rather, his association with the plague began during the first pandemic in 680 in Pavia. Chiu persuasively argues that Sebastian's healing propensities arose from the use of relics lent out from Rome (Sebastian is identified with Rome, in part because he is buried near there along with the apostles Peter and Paul) in an attempt to forge a stronger political alliance between Rome and Pavia. The narration of Sebastian's shifting role from ideal military man to plague savior is fascinating and serves as the highlight of the book.
The final chapter examines the madrigal "Santo Guerrier" by Paolo Caracciolo, from his 1582 collection II primo libro de madrigali a cinque voci. This piece is clearly connected to the Milanese plague of 1576-78 and therefore is the least problematic of the musical connections to plague examined in the book. Chiu attempts to construct a four-madrigal minicycle within the book, beginning with "Santo Guerrier" and including a setting of "L'aura serena" by Petrarch.
The connections largely depend upon the implied or explicit references to salubrious versus corrupted air in the texts. Some of the musical interpretations are strained. Chiu describes the appearance of a fleeting, single B[natural] in measure 20 within the G-Dorian setting of "Santo Guerrier" as a "shift into the durus hexachord" (p. 189). The B[natural], however, is immediately negated by a B[flat] in the very same measure and in the very same voice. A mere chromatic inflection can hardly be understood as a hexachordal shift of any analytical/ interpretive significance and this mere ornament cannot possibly bear the weight of a reading that claims that the moment musically marks "the rhetorical change from invocation to vow" (p. 189).
Plague and Music in the Renaissance does a fine job of presenting the pressures that plague put upon medical, theological, and civic understanding. It beautifully outlines the manner in which Saint Sebastian became identified with the plague. This, however, is one of those "X and music" books that provides a far more satisfactory account of the "X" than it illuminates the music or the nature of that "and."
City College of New York
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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