- Sonorous Science and the Baritone Bride: Music and Context Matter: A Review Essay
A nine-member oboe band weaves with choreographed design among dancers, singers, and Italian comedians in a burlesque village wedding staged at Versailles in 1688. The provincial music master Rameau improvises chords from bass notes; in time, his elaborate theories [End Page 229] about them set off a heated journalistic debate. A mischievous Haydn fills his symphonies with false endings, prankish lurches, and laughable minuet references to the social structure which so preoccupies his increasingly middlebrow audiences.
Before the modern era, the practice and especially the theory of music functioned integrally within the pursuit of philosophy; music lay at the heart of the articulation of worldview and cosmology. In the eighteenth century, music shifted from this spiritual and intellectual centrality to a more limited and strictly social periphery. It became a signal of taste and status rather than a philosophic subject and vehicle. Virtually all studies discussed here touch on aspects of this shift, in a welcome opening-up of music scholarship to contextualization.
The books under review, although varied in subject and approach, together disclose notable trends in the study of European music of the early modern era. In our late-century moment, music scholarship resembles postmodern work in other fields as musicologists reach for greater comprehensiveness in their questions, probing beyond the past two centuries’ conventional borders of sound, text, and composition. These studies explore music as experience and performance, shaped by and aligned with relationship to other arts: dance, theater, visual representation, and literature. Scholars pay close attention to context—the physical, cultural, social, personal, and intellectual circumstances surrounding and affecting the music people have made and heard. Like other art forms, music now emerges as a product of history and material circumstance, quite as much as of the imagination and inspiration. Its meaning rests on an interplay of factors individual and social, material and immaterial. Moreover, we find this meaning only by undertaking rereadings shaped and determined by the interpretive lens of our own moment, a lens of which we must remain aware.
The social categories useful in such analysis are markedly material and experiential: occasion, function, funding, performance conventions, gender, social status, and so on. Musical Theatre at the Court of Louis XIV: “Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos,” by Rebecca Harris-Warrick and Carol G. Marsh, unites these considerations in a splendid study that is sure to change dance and music scholarship. It shows the need for studying words, dance, and music together, in terms of the originating context, and it provides a model for doing so. The book uncovers important, previously ignored intersections between performance practice, signifying texts (music, words, and dance notation), social context, and the aesthetics and ontology of the early modern era. Harris-Warrick and Marsh present and analyze a small-scale masquerade performed as a theatrical entertainment at Versailles in 1688. The comical “Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos,” (Marriage of Fat Kate) survives in a manuscript with music by André Philidor—a full score for small...