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Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 11 (2007) 72-82

Reviewed by
Melanie L. Marshall
Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal. By Susan McClary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 386 pp.

Susan McClary used to be a name that struck terror into the hearts of "traditional" musicologists: an unabashed feminist with what was received as a horrifying new approach to musicology that offered critical interpretations relating to gender and sex (the classification and the act) of classics as well as pop music. Bashed by the "traditionalists," Feminine Endings received a good deal of feminist criticism too (notably from Paula Higgins).1 With Modal Subjectivities, the prodigal daughter has returned to her first musicological home, modal theory.2 Who would have thought that thirty years after her controversial debut at the American Musicological Society annual meeting and almost fifteen after Feminine Endings McClary would receive a prize from the establishment itself in the form of the AMS's Otto Kinkeldey Award? This award says a lot about how musicology has changed. During the past decade or so, papers drawing on feminism, gender, sexuality, and queer theory have appeared more frequently at AMS conferences, and the critical musicology project that insists music has meaning has been increasingly accepted, although it is apparently only within the last decade that the Kinkeldey has been awarded for "nontraditional" musicology topics.3

McClary, like Madonna, has lived to tell a number of stories. The ones she highlights here concern composers' use of mode to fashion subjectivities (often conflicted) and the exploding of the cinquecento neomodal tradition.4 More specifically, McClary argues:

from around 1525 the Italian madrigal serves as a site—indeed, the first in European history—for the explicit, self-conscious construction in music of subjectivities. Over the course of a good century, madrigal composers anticipate Descartes in performing the crucial break with traditional epistemologies. . . . They do so . . . by systematizing, allegorizing [the modal edifice], and finally blowing it up from the inside. . . . And they do so in the service of an agenda that interrogates what it means and feels like to be a Self—to be more specific, a morbidly introspective and irreconcilably conflicted Self.


Appropriately enough for such a complex topic, it is hard to summarize just what is meant by selfhood. McClary's introduction to her discussion of Jacob Arcadelt's "Il bianco e dolce cigno" is perhaps the most illuminating:

The madrigal presents an extraordinarily complex model of Selfhood that touches on many of the most important themes of the next several centuries: tensions between a speaking subject [End Page 72] and an inner core of exquisite sensitivity, simulation of the experience of sexual bliss, implied homologies between erotic and religious ecstasy, anxiety over the loss of control entailed in passionate transport, and the mysterious mechanism of desire, which fuels a sense of agency even as it seems to come unbidden from a source nonidentical with the Self.


In her examination of selfhood and subjectivities, McClary wishes to offer up to interdisciplinary readers knowledge that can be gained only from a careful and informed engagement with the music. This is achieved without compromising musical analysis and discussion; indeed, McClary's argument hinges upon consideration of modal and contrapuntal practices. Dispersed in acknowledgments and footnotes, there is an additional narrative, for those who care to follow, relating to "Miss Mode's" "unexpectedly tumultuous" musicological journey from high school student to grad school student to professor to "certified MacArthur Crazy" via madrigal groups, rock concerts, and traumatic AMS meetings.5 The book is ordered chronologically, with chapters on Philippe Verdelot, Jacob Arcadelt, Adrian Willaert, Cipriano de Rore, Giaches de Wert, Luca Marenzio, Carlo Gesualdo, and Claudio Monteverdi—roughly one composer and two or three pieces per chapter. (As a precursor to the forthcoming Power and Desire in Seventeenth-Century Music [Berkeley: University of California Press], this book has a strong teleological feel, heightened by the roughly chronological framework.) McClary's project is framed...


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