Singing Games in Early Modern Italy: The Music Books of Orazio Vecchi by Paul Schleuse (review)
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Singing Games in Early Modern Italy: The Music Books of Orazio Vecchi. By Paul Schleuse. (Music and the Early Modern Imagination.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015. [x, 372 p. ISBN 9780253015013 (hardcover), $50; ISBN 9780253015044 (e-book), $49.99.] Music examples, tables, illustrations, appendix, works cited, index.

In the past few decades, scholars of the early modern period have devoted increasing and well-deserved attention to the crucial role that games and recreational activities played in the culture of the time, showing how these reflected their practitioners’ aesthetic and moral values. Notable examples of this trend include the influential work of Alessandro Arcangeli (Recreation in the Renaissance: Attitudes Towards Leisure and Pastimes in European Culture, c. 1425–1675 [New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003]) and, in the field of music history, the works of Laurie Stras (“ ‘Al gioco si conosce il galantuomo’: Artifice, Humour and Play in the ‘Enigmi musicali’ of Don Lodovico Agostini,” Early Music History 24 [2005]: 213–86) and Katelijne Schiltz (Music and Riddle Culture in the Renaissance [Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015]).

Paul Schleuse’s monograph is a welcome and valuable contribution to scholarship on this subject, as it seeks to shed light on “singing as social play and music written and published to function this way in late sixteenth-century Italy” (p. 1). To accomplish this task, Schleuse focuses on the secular music books of the Modenese composer Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), on whom he is a widely acknowledged expert. Vecchi’s music, Schleuse argues, constitutes an ideal case study for an understanding of music making as a recreational activity. Working for most of his career in rather peripheral centers of northern Italy, Vecchi appears to have composed many of his secular works not for rarified courtly environments, such as that of Ferrara (where professional musicians would perform before high nobility), but rather for less formal social gatherings (often in “bourgeois” households) where amateurs would sing for their own enjoyment, not necessarily before an audience. Embedding a wide range of stylistic registers and rich references to contemporaneous cultural and social codes, Vecchi’s music—and the literary texts thereof, many of which Vecchi wrote himself—afforded these amateur musicians an opportunity not only to engage in playful conversation, but also and most importantly to reflect on their own identities and values. Throughout his monograph, Schleuse provides insightful readings of Vecchi’s secular music, shedding light on his imaginative use of styles, forms, and genres, and on his ability to construct social and cultural meaning through music and poetry.

Schleuse divides his monograph into six chapters. He devotes the first four chapters to a particular music book, or sets of books, [End Page 705] by Vecchi, and arranges them chronologically, from the publication of Vecchi’s first two books of four-voice canzonettas in 1578/79 and 1580 respectively, to the appearance of L’Amfiparnaso in 1597. The last two chapters center on themes that cut across the works of Vecchi as well as those of other late sixteenth-century composers who engaged with similar genres. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on competition as a form of social conversation, as seen in pieces that depict games, and the musical and literary representation of identities, with a focus on gender and sexuality.

Chapter 1 explores Vecchi’s development of a new musical genre, that of the four-voice canzonetta. Schleuse portrays works of this kind as recreational polyphony meant to bridge the gap between the rustic villanella tradition and the more elevated madrigal. The hybrid quality of this genre is in many respects reflective of the social status of its intended performers and audience, who typically did not have access to prestigious courts and regarded rarified courtly culture with a mix of fascination and wariness. Throughout the chapter, Schleuse gives close readings of select canzonettas, highlighting how Vecchi negotiated different stylistic registers in both the music and the poetic texts, many of which he wrote himself. Schleuse’s discussion of the poetry is particularly worthy of praise, as it sheds light on Vecchi’s erudition and ability to manipulate topics from the rustic and courtly traditions to achieve comic effects and provide social...