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Music and the Language of Love: Seventeenth-Century French Airs by Catherine Gordon-Seifert (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 3, March 2013
pp. 537-539 | 10.1353/not.2013.0014

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Catherine Gordon-Seifert uncovers a salon culture obsessed with the painful pleasure and (mostly) the pleasing pain of love in Music and the Language of Love: Seventeenth-Century French Airs. Her study focuses on the serious airs of four composers active during the 1650s and 1660s: Michel Lambert, Bénigne de Bacilly, Joseph Chabanceau de La Barre, and Sébastien Le Camus. This period is significant for the emergence of a new style that combined Italian monody with the French courtly love song. Instead of placing their lady on a pedestal, these lovers berate her for her cruelty and faithlessness, all the while deploring their inability to eradicate her image from their hearts. The serious air would eventually embody much that was characteristic of the French vocal style, and with this study Gordon-Seifert seeks to demonstrate what is significant about the air as an artistic object, as well as to show how “this repertory takes on a collective meaning and significance and offers insight into love, relationships, [and] attitudes toward a woman’s place in society” (p. 4). Her understanding of this music and the culture that fostered it is nuanced and penetrating; further, she implements a novel system of stylistic analysis using the principles of rhetoric that will serve as a model to other scholars of French baroque song.

Passion for the spoken word ran high among some elements of seventeenth-century French society, and nowhere more so than in the ruelles, or salons, where it constituted a primary diversion. This was, after all, a culture that gave us jeux d’esprit and treatises on the art of conversation. Gordon-Seifert successfully draws upon contemporary sources on poetics, rhetoric, and music to illustrate not only the importance of orality to this culture, but also how expressivity, inflection, and tone mattered as much, if not more, than the written words themselves. The intent of the serious air was, above all else, to move the passions, and Gordon-Seifert builds a convincing case for why the principles of rhetoric apply. This music sought to persuade and thrill the listener with a logically ordered discourse, containing appeals to the senses that salon participants would have recognized as elements of gallant conversation.

Gordon-Seifert develops the relationship between poetry, rhetoric and the composition of airs over chapters 1–5. As she puts it: “the analysis of the airs is organized according to four of the five components of rhetoric most relevant to composition and performance: invention (inventio, or an identification of the topic and the means of portraying it), disposition (dipositio, or the arrangement and organization of expressions), style or elocution (elocutio, or syntax, diction, and figures), and pronunciation (actio, or performance)” (p. 7). She includes abundant musical examples, which she uses to bolster her argument that “particular combinations of musical devices carried specific meaning” (p. 57). Seven of the principal passions and their textual and musical representations are explored, just as musical idiosyncrasies (meter changes, misplaced bar lines, etc.) are analyzed for their affective significance. Gordon-Seifert persuasively compares the double, or ornamented repeat, with what rhetoricians termed the confirmation, a portion of a speech in which the speaker strengthens propositions set forth in the introduction. Chapters 7–8 explore the veiled erotic language of the airs and chart the eventual backlash against them as wider distribution of published collections began to alarm church officials. Interestingly, Gordon-Seifert points out that “rhetoric and eloquence were the grounds on which the air was attacked” (p. 268).

One of the author’s primary goals is to inspire singers to perform the works of these composers. Accordingly, in chapter 6 she gives practical performance advice, addressing vibrato, style, ornamentation, and pronunciation, among other elements. She bases her comments in this section on Bacilly’s Remarques curieuses sur l’art de bien chanter, first published in 1668, and surprisingly topical as vocal pedagogy, especially in Austin Caswell’s excellent translation. She highlights where uncertainty persists regarding Bacilly’s terminology (did he use cadence to mean vibrato as well as trill?), and her discussion of ornamentation is particularly welcome, given the understandable perplexity engendered by the small cross that appears above certain notes in this repertory...



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