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Rebecca Herissone. Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England.

(Oxford Monographs on Music.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xvi + 316 pp. illus. bibl. index. $74. ISBN: 0-19-816700-8.

With the exception of experimental science, no academic discipline better exemplifies the Renaissance as a period of transition between medieval and modern forms of problem-solving than music theory. At the end of the Middle Ages, the music theorist was principally concerned with relations between musical and other forms of harmony and proportion, often imperceptible to living ears. By the Age of Enlightenment, the same professional was mostly interested in acoustic aesthetics and rules governing the processes of composition and improvisation. The intermediate centuries witnessed a renewed emphasis on amateur and professional performance, an increase in practical musical literacy, and vast improvement in the ranges and dynamic capabilities of what seemed an ever-increasing assortment of musical instruments.

Herissone's is the first book-length study of a particularly important moment in this gradual and complex transition. Most previous work on the history of early modern music theory has focused on Italy, birthplace of such influential genres as opera and sonata, and such important instruments as the violin. With the exception of several extraordinary music theory articles from the late 1960s and 1970s, most modern scholarly studies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English music have emphasized particular genres, styles, and socio-cultural aspects. Music Theory in Seventeenth-Century England is a thorough, path-breaking study that both recontextualizes the broad sweep of music theory in England from circa 1592 until circa 1730 and reestablishes the importance of early modern England to the history of European music theory.

Herissone argues that English theorists during this period placed earlier, greater emphasis on practical aspects of music than did their continental colleagues, who largely remained mired in the ancient heritage of musical speculation. The main reason for this, she claims, is that, unlike other European nations, England produced no works of music theory during the sixteenth century, and that the later resurgence of interest in the topic coincided with the increasing demand for performance self-tutors for a new class of amateur musicians. Although she perhaps overstates the case as well as the clear division between speculative and practical aspects of music theory during this period (she ignores, for example, the great wealth and complexity of musical information published in religious and philosophical writings from the early Tudor era until the Restoration, and passes quickly over the link between seventeenth-century scientific and musical work), her argument is well-supported and convincing. In a departure from earlier practice, and in contrast to the continent (where the most famous theoretical treatises were largely written by men trained in more purely scholarly fields such as philosophy, natural science, and mathematics), she emphasizes that the majority of seventeenth-century English guides to music theory were written by professional musicians who were actively involved in teaching. These vernacular treatises, along with the few more scholarly ones written in English by non-music professionals, serve as an indication of the new social reaches of music during a century of rapid cultural change. They also help to indicate the small general number of scholarly publications on all topics in England during the era.

Herissone demonstrates impressive command of the English music theoretical literature of the late sixteenth through early eighteenth centuries, particularly from a technical perspective. She also has a thorough acquaintance with relevant modern scholarship concerning English music and the general European development of key concepts. Like the finest recent histories of early modern material culture across disciplines, her book emphasizes the importance of economic and social factors in the creation of a market for the product discussed (in this case, vernacular music theory treatises), although she perhaps downplays the place of these works against the background of the growth and development of the English book trade.

The book is both thorough and extremely well-organized. Following a brief introduction to the sources, the author devotes one chapter to each of the main elements of practical music with which early modern theory is concerned: time, pitch structure, harmony, compositional rules, tonality, and texture and form. Four appendices present alphabetical and chronological lists of English treatises between circa 1592 and circa 1728, a list of editions of the most famous and often reprinted one (Playford's Introduction to the Skill of Musick, which went through nineteen editions between 1654 and 1730), and the origin of included material for an era in which scholars routinely practiced what we would now consider plagiarism.


Northwestern University
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Author:Austern, Linda Phyllis
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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