Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music

Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music

by Susan McClary

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In this book, Susan McClary examines the mechanisms through which seventeenth-century musicians simulated extreme affective states—desire, divine rapture, and ecstatic pleasure. She demonstrates how every major genre of the period, from opera to religious music to instrumental pieces based on dances, was part of this striving for heightened passions by…  See more details below


In this book, Susan McClary examines the mechanisms through which seventeenth-century musicians simulated extreme affective states—desire, divine rapture, and ecstatic pleasure. She demonstrates how every major genre of the period, from opera to religious music to instrumental pieces based on dances, was part of this striving for heightened passions by performers and listeners. While she analyzes the social and historical reasons for the high value placed on expressive intensity in both secular and sacred music, and she also links desire and pleasure to the many technical innovations of the period. McClary shows how musicians—whether working within the contexts of the Reformation or Counter-Reformation, Absolutists courts or commercial enterprises in Venice—were able to manipulate known procedures to produce radically new ways of experiencing time and the Self.

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“An enjoyable study. . . . Skillfully dissected in a series of well-chosen examples.”
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Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music

By Susan McClary


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95206-5


The Expansion Principle

The shaping of time counted among the highest priorities for seventeenth-century musicians. Of course, temporality always qualifies as a fundamental dimension of music making. But in the 1600s, composers sought to produce radically new, frequently extravagant experiences of time, alternately expanding and contracting, rushing impetuously forward only to hover in a state of apparent motionlessness. The arrangement of elements we recognize as tonality figured among these, but it often operated within contexts that also encouraged erratic fluctuations or nearly flat, virtually minimalist options. In this chapter, I wish to ask not why musicians persisted in using perverse procedures (the focus of several subsequent chapters), but rather why they occasionally found what we might regard as "tonal" arrangements advantageous. Along the way I will attempt to explain the mechanism that transformed particular modal patterns into tonal configurations.

Present-day discussions of early modern music too often bracket off as "tonal" those elements that seem familiar, leaving as "modal" vestiges those passages that do not work according to later premises. As a consequence, many of these compositions appear incoherent—as odd jumbles of progressive and reactionary features. Bear in mind, however, the fact that seventeenth-century musicians continued to make full use of other options long after they had "discovered" the one traced in this chapter; from their vantage point, the resources deployed in sixteenth-century modality and those characteristic of tonality were not mutually exclusive.

As always, I proceed with the assumption that changes in style and syntax are driven by expressive demands. If there exists no abstract reason why tonality should have developed, plenty of historical ones do present themselves, which is why cultural contexts matter even to questions of musical process. Over the course of the seventeenth century, composers assembled the devices at hand in many different ways, only some of which resulted in patterns that sound familiar to us today. Over the course of this book, I will introduce models that allow for cogent, internally consistent accounts of these repertories within their own contexts, paying attention to the aesthetic reasons why the pieces that move in the direction of tonality do so within the framework of their own range of choices.

Before we can plunge into what appears to be more familiar territory, we need to ground ourselves in the grammar that musicians around 1600 would have understood as transparent. By tracing transformations in a small sample of modal compositional strategies, I hope in this chapter to throw into relief the changes that occurred within the first decades of the seventeenth century.

I should warn the reader that this process will require a considerable amount of rewiring. As I have learned through experience in graduate seminars, anyone who simply plugs in Roman numerals during these discussions, dismissing the modal parts as "yadda, yadda, yadda," will not be able to follow the arguments. Try not to succumb, in other words, to the temptation to read everything as always already (sort of) tonal.

* * *

I shall begin with a composition that operates entirely according to sixteenth-century modal premises. Giulio Caccini's "Amarilli, mia bella" would scarcely seem to need an introduction (ex. 1.1a). Initially published in Caccini's celebrated Le Nuove Musiche of 1601, it quickly became an international hit; a keyboard arrangement by Peter Philips appears, for instance, in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Moreover, it still occupies a place of honor within vocal pedagogy as one of the very first songs typically assigned to voice students. We are so accustomed to seeing it in anthologies for beginners—and to hearing their still-wobbly voices negotiating its melody—that we may think of it as a baby piece. Few other pieces designed for babies, however, include a graphic image of sexual penetration.

"Amarilli, mia bella" operates within the Hypodorian mode, transposed—as it usually is—to G, with Bb in the key signature. In a plagal mode such as Hypodorian, the octave stretches from the fifth degree of the mode down to the octave below, with the final (marked here as a double whole note) located in the middle of the terrain (see ex. 1.1b). More so even than is typical of pieces in this mode, the melody of "Amarilli" stays almost exclusively within the diapente from D to G; only once does it descend into its diatessaron (the fourth reaching from the lower D up to the final, G), but it does so in a most dramatic way. Not only does this move produce a temporary modulation suggesting D as a rival final and A rather than G as the proper divisor of the D octave, but it also produces the effect of penetration mentioned above and discussed in greater detail below.

Amarilli, mia bella,
Amarillis, my fair one,

Non credi, o del mio cor dolce
Do you not believe, o sweet desire
desio, of my heart,

D'esser tu l'amor mio?
That you are my love?

Credilo pur, e se timor t'assale, Believe it, though, and if doubt
assails you

Prendi questo mio strale,
Take this, my arrow,

Aprim'il petto, e vedrai
Open my breast, and you'll see
scritto in core: written on my heart:

Amarilli è'l mio amore.
Amarillis is my love.

I want to concentrate on the unfolding of Caccini's melody in "Amarilli," for that is where his grammar resides. The opening section (ex. 1.1a) presents a series of interrupted descents from D toward G: some of the gestures halt at 3, others at 2, but within a framework that makes its orientation toward G abundantly clear from the outset. The withheld final, G, appears finally only on "mio," thus matching the rhetorical conclusion of the lyric statement.

We are accustomed to tracking melodic trajectories in tonal compositions, of course: think, for instance, of the chorale in the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or nearly any hymn or folk tune. But Caccini's modus operandi differs from these in the relationship between its melody and harmony. From the point of view of functional tonality (the harmony-oriented syntax of later music), "Amarilli" plops into a modal pothole on the word "credi," and it also seems to vacillate indecisively between G and Bâ as potential key centers.

Caccini's contemporaries, however, would have regarded his harmonies as immediately comprehensible, even transparent in their implications—especially so in the context of the diapente-oriented melody to which they lend their inflections. For nearly every pitch in Caccini's tune qualifies as a node of crucial modal information, each one confirmed on a one-to-one basis by harmonic support. Thus the move to F# on "credi" (m. 4) serves within the conventions of the day to put special stress on the descent to scale degree 4 (melodic C), which might otherwise escape notice as a mere passing tone. Moreover, the swerve to Bâ in m. 5 counts among the most powerful means of articulating the top pitch of the G diapente—so common as to sustain a vast body of improvisations (see below, ex. 1.2).

Because of this one-to-one relationship between fundamental pitches and harmonic changes, the music remains tethered temporally to the exigencies of the poetic phrases, allowing for an expressive effect Caccini (following Castiglione) called sprezzatura, an attitude of nonchalance or unstudied grace. Each tiny lyrical phrase points in the same direction as the others, but the harmonic choices offer various shades of coloring, a spectrum of accents, before the inevitable final appears. A singer who focuses on that very low level of activity and nuance may hope to pull off that quality of aristocratic ease so valued in the Renaissance courts.

To be sure, Caccini makes liberal use of leading tones, though he does so intermittently and always for local purposes rather than as a given of harmonic syntax. For instance, the harmonic F# marking the very first move ensures that we hear everything at the outset within the context of G, as does the melodic F# that follows. Indeed, we could consider this first three-bar phrase, with its consistent leading tones, as tonal, though if we were to do so, we would fail to grasp Caccini's choices as significant. From Caccini's vantage point, those F#s freeze us into a holding position, as does his choice of weakly voiced chords with F# and E[flat] in the bass, for both of which he designates a sixth (not a solid fifth) above the bass. The opening three bars consequently serve to outline the terrain of the diapente, always pointing through F# to G as the final yet also delaying any "real" move from the initial modal function, D, the fifth degree. Within the context of "Amarilli," this strategy counts merely as a short-term special effect, though it is precisely this ability of leading tones to prolong that will open up the new world.

And thus the significance of that modal pothole—the emphatic move in the bass to F# on "credi." If the first phrase sustains D (despite the apparent mobility of the melodic voice), the appearance of F# in the bass forcibly pulls the controlling modal line down from D to C, thence to B[flat] and the still-unresolved A, all articulated as genuine syntactical moments. Stopping tantalizingly short of the final, G, the melody returns to its opening position in m. 5, now harmonized with a powerful Bb in the bass. But this time the melodic line halts lovingly ("dolce desio") on B[flat]. At last, with the poetic punch line ("d'esser tu l'amor mio"), Caccini allows for a direct diapente descent all the way from D to G. Note, however, that the quick reference to F# in the bass in m. 7 holds us up on D, while weak harmonies permit the melody to slide unimpeded down to A, which accumulates considerable gravity before it finally resolves to G in m. 10 (see the reduction in ex. 1.1c).

I have trudged laboriously through these few bars in order to tease out how Caccini wields the leading tone—and, more important, his other harmonic options—for the purpose of inflecting his melody, most of which remains identical with the generating modal line. He did not write "Amarilli, mia bella" as a theory exercise, however. His melody line flirts and teases, always stopping short just before divulging its secret, each time starting all over again at D but shading its approach differently. If the tortured melodic and harmonic contour of the first phrase underscores the singer's pathos, the move to C on "credi" insists on his sincerity, and the brief arrival on Bb pauses to savor Amarilli's beauty. Only the last phrase completes the message delivered so haltingly with all those fits and starts. Understanding how all these minute details signify can help the performer make this song something other than just a repetitive melody with a modal pothole in the middle. Imagine the late Marlon Brando reciting the opening terzet with his usual self-indulgence, inserting pregnant pauses between each phrase, putting mannered emphasis on the odd word here or there. Caccini's heavily weighted modal line invites just that kind of rendition.

Now for the middle section, beginning in m. 11. Here our speaker becomes more ardent, pleading his case to the point where he offers up an image of masochistic submission. For the purposes of this argument, Caccini alternates between melodic 3 and 2, with leading tones appearing consistently under the second scale degree, heating up the need for some kind of resolution. Yet regardless of the pressure, the second degree remains in place, creating a kind of membrane that resists further action.

At last, recalling the opening section's success with descents from the top of the octave, the melody commences an approach from D on "Aprim'il petto" in m. 17. But when it comes into the vicinity of the barrier pitch A in m. 19, the harmonic F# (reliable thus far at moments of would-be cadence) suddenly gives away to F[??], thereby reinterpreting A as the fifth degree of the lower D (confirmed by a C# in the bass). All the urgency aimed at transcending A suddenly breaks through to a terrain of interiority not yet even hinted at. That A becomes the surface of the body opened up for a moment of profound erotic surrender.

This moment lasts for only for the duration of three melodic pitches: F[??]–E–D. Almost immediately, the speaker seizes onto his beloved's name and hauls himself hand over fist back to the outside world of the diapente. The ascent requires the assistance of leading tones for what we would call secondary dominants (B[??], C#), all perfectly available and comprehensible within sixteenth-century modal practice; within this context, they contribute to the impression of intense physical effort. And just in case you thought you had imagined that moment of penetration, Caccini lets us hear the entire sequence again, note for note. A brief coda elaborates a major-key plagal ("Amen") effect with E[??] blossoming out on top, before the voice concludes with a chain of ornaments to be executed deep in the back of the throat—a wordless orgasm of sorts.

Caccini composed his songs in Le Nuove Musiche within a court context. He had first attracted the attention of patrons as a solo singer in Rome; when he put this collection together, he was affiliated with the Medici cultural establishment in Florence. Just the previous year he had engaged in a sordid squabble over the invention of opera, and he had rushed his own setting of Ottavio Rinuccini's Euridice into print after he had recognized in Jacopo Peri's original the wave of the future. In his preface to that publication, Caccini set forth the now-familiar story of the Florentine Camerata as a way of backing up his own claim. Le Nuove Musiche, with its detailed account of Caccini's celebrated performance style, meant similarly to nail down his right to having developed the new style long before Peri.

But Le Nuove Musiche principally showcases Caccini's talents at setting lyrical verse, for which he had few peers. His songs served as vehicles for his own chamber performances, as well as for those of his wife and daughters (including Francesca, a prolific composer in her own right). By publishing Le Nuove Musiche he also entered into the burgeoning commercial market, and his songs were evidently sung in households eager to emulate aristocratic culture. Caccini's versions of temporality, subjectivity, and syntax, however, are identical to those of the court madrigal. As exquisite as these songs certainly are, they do not engage the expansion techniques Peri and others brought to the table.

* * *

In order to track the prehistory of what gave Peri the edge in this competition, we have to turn to improvisatory practices—practices also fundamental to court entertainments, such as instrumental dances or the recitation of epic poems such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. These practices date back to periods during which no one felt the need to notate them, but they begin to appear written out in the "teach yourself to improvise" manuals that proliferated in the second half of the sixteenth century. Much like the blues progression of a later time, the formulas that served as the basis for elaboration rely on the most fundamental of patterns: in this case, the diapente descent harmonized in its most powerful and straightforward ways.

We know the most popular of these patterns best from "Greensleeves," sometimes attributed to Henry VIII and sometimes to the unfortunate Anne Boleyn. Like most other aristocratic amateurs at court, Henry and Anne would have known how to ring changes on these familiar formulas, whether or not he or she actually "composed" this particular song. The first part of "Greensleeves" unfolds over a passamezzo antico harmonization of the diapente descent, the second over the romanesca. In each half, the generating descent pauses on 2, then repeats the pattern for a full cadential arrival on the final (ex. 1.2).

In the first strain of "Greensleeves," the passamezzo antico formula harmonizes the fifth degree, D, with the final in the bass, making the mode's identity fully audible right from the outset. To our ears, the first move in the progression may sound abrupt and archaic: indeed, it presents an instance of parallel fifths. Nonetheless, this progression occurs very frequently in modal music (recall the weighted arrival on scale degree 4 discussed above in "Amarilli, mia bella"), even if composers usually worked to hide the baldness of the parallels.


Excerpted from Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music by Susan McClary. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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