- Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut by Judith A. Peraino
Romantic love has long been a popular choice of subject for literary historians of the Middle Ages, from studies of the invention of fin’amor, to more recent interdisciplinary and trans-historical surveys that use the medieval period to help explain the saturation of secular love in twenty-first-century Western culture. Judith Peraino has published extensively on love songs in the High Middle Ages, but equally widely on the lyrics of P. J. Harvey, David Bowie, and Madonna. Peraino’s broad knowledge of musical practice and performance is in evidence in this complex, theoretically based new monograph on musical self-consciousness and expression in medieval song.
This medieval–modern continuity is the starting point of Peraino’s thesis about the medieval lyric ‘I’: ‘[l]ove songs of every epoch’, she writes, ‘from the Middle Ages to the present, embody this paradox: they often fuse the most personal emotion with the most banal language’ (p. 3). This apparently simple observation underpins a serious, detailed, and highly theorized study of ‘voice’ and subjectivity in medieval love songs.
Peraino’s analysis focuses on the monophonic vernacular repertories found in several manuscripts from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. These include lyrics written across several languages, mostly medieval French and Occitan, but also Latin, Spanish, and Italian. Each chapter includes lyrics as well as musical notation. A companion website, through Oxford Web Music, provides sound as well as manuscript visuals. In theory, the companion site is a wonderful idea, but on investigation proves awkward to navigate. It is impractical on other levels, too: Peraino’s prose is lucid and often highly compelling, making it all the more difficult to move from book to screen to benefit from the full sensory impact of her argument.
The book is written very much in the language of Peraino’s field. For the most part, however, it is made accessible to literary scholars and medieval historians, for whom it will no doubt be of great interest, through Peraino’s careful but never laborious explanation of terms. A chapter titled ‘Delinquent [End Page 268 ] Descorts and Medieval Lateness’, for example, explores the Occitan descort lyric – a poem that subverts ‘harmony’ (into discord) thematically and musically. Peraino explains the various linguistic associations packed into the root ‘cort’, which range from chorda ‘to bind’, and cors or corda ‘heart’, to the heart’s own associations with memory, as in ‘record’ (p. 78). Such wordplay is a feature of the medieval songs themselves. The ‘delinquency’ of the chapter’s title is described as a violation: the descort violates the very harmony one might expect of song, that defines it; the ‘ideal linking of sound and sentiment – chorda and cor’ (p. 79). Peraino concludes the chapter by describing the descort ‘as truly subjective music that renders itself banal, that calls attention to the external agent of the performer and to the concept of a love that is so interior as to be the abnegation of self’ (p. 122). The idea of ‘convention’, so often used to gloss over or even to dismiss lyric form and style throughout the Middle Ages, becomes the point of Peraino’s inquiry, in terms of both how and why convention is constructed.
Peraino describes one of the goals of the project as bringing to bear ‘philosophical and theoretical notions about the self … on the nuts and bolts of music’ (p. 8). Her theoretical citations are inflected with the author’s reading of contemporary criticism by Paul Zumthor, Sarah Kay, and Carolyn Dinshaw, as well as the writings of Nietzsche, Lacan, Adorno, Althusser, and Foucault. Each chapter then aims to ‘get at’ a different aspect of subjectivity and individuality in what Peraino describes as ‘corporately created songs’ (p. 8). It seems like a near impossible task, but this is where Peraino’s interest in contemporary...