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  • Silent Music: Medieval Song and the Construction of History in Eighteenth-Century Spain
  • Charles C. Noel
Silent Music: Medieval Song and the Construction of History in Eighteenth-Century Spain. By Susan Boynton. [Currents in Latin American and Iberian Music.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. Pp. xxvi, 208. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-19-975459-5.)

In 1749 the ministers of the Spanish king, Ferdinand VI, set up the Royal Commission on Archives. This was one of many such bodies established directly by the Crown or at its instigation beginning during the final years of the murderous Spanish civil War of the Succession. They were commissions, committees, societies, and academies that brought together scholars, scientists, artists, engineers, amateur enthusiasts, and government officials. Whatever their particular tasks, their members engaged in research, observation, and analysis of the world around them; they explored nature, geographical space, culture, and the past; they produced studies, reports, works of art, and sometimes lasting and influential institutions; they helped enlarge the intellectual world of Spaniards of the mid- and late-eighteenth century. It [End Page 821] is this slowly expanding cultural world that Susan Boynton explores in her new book.

Of course, the kings’ ministers and ordinary members of these bodies had complex and occasionally incompatible aims. Ferdinand VI’s ministers wanted the Archives Commission to uncover documents that would help strengthen their hand in diplomatic dealings with the Roman Curia. This was at a time when Ferdinand’s government and the ministers of Pope Benedict XIV were negotiating what turned out to be the transfer, defined in the Concordat of 1753, of vast Spanish ecclesiastical patronage from the Quirinale to Madrid.

Wisely keeping the diplomatic negotiations in the background, Boynton focuses on a few of the Commission’s scholars. Her chief protagonists are the Jesuit scholar and educational reformer Andrés Marcos Burriel and his colleague, the highly skilled calligrapher and paleographer Francisco Xavier de Santiago y Palomares. Beginning in 1750, this pair, immersing themselves in the archives of Toledo cathedral, made major discoveries and provided important reinterpretations of Spain’s Visigothic liturgical and more broadly cultural legacy.

Boynton is an award-winning historical musicologist who specializes in medieval Roman Catholic liturgy. Her study of the scholarship of Burriel and Palomares, however, takes its greatest value from the cultural and political context into which she plants it. She briefly but skillfully analyzes enlightened Spanish understanding of the nation’s history. She demonstrates the bare survival of Visigothic liturgical traditions in the later Middle Ages and beyond. She shows us that one of Burriel’s achievements was to underline the independence of Visigothic ecclesiastical culture—its autonomy from Roman influences—until the triumph of Cluniac and Gregorian reform in the late-eleventh century combined with Castilian political docility. The Roman liturgy, by papal order, replaced the ancient Visigothic one almost everywhere. The latter was permitted to survive in just a handful of ancient Toledan parishes where the so-called Mozarabic rite could then still be found. This was the Visigothic liturgy practiced for many generations by Arabized Spaniards living in Islamic principalities. The historical lesson, served up by Burriel, of a successful Roman assault on “Spanish” institutions would have constituted a powerful warning to many Spanish thinkers, already suspicious and resentful of papal prerogatives in the mid-eighteenth century.

As a musicologist, Boynton is perhaps most enthusiastic in her discussion of the notational systems that accompanied these and later manuscripts—including the Toledo codex of some of the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria—400 or so songs celebrating the Virgin Mary composed in the later thirteenth century under the aegis of the great scholar-king Alfonso X of Castile. Both Burriel and Palomares took enormous care to study and reproduce the ancient neumes they found in the liturgical and other documents. [End Page 822] They sought out scholars and musicians who might help them interpret the notes, without success—even at a court as musically sophisticated as that of Ferdinand and his queen, Barbara of Braganza. Presumably the queen’s friend and music teacher for three decades, Domenico Scarlatti, also was of no help.

Boynton will never be able to make this silent music...


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