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  • Plague and Music in the Renaissance by Remi Chiu
  • Chadwick Jenkins
Plague and Music in the Renaissance. By Remi Chiu. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. [ix, 284 p. ISBN 9781107109254 (hardback), $99; ISBN 9781108240765 (e-book), $79.] Music examples, illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index.

Although largely absent from Europe after 1700, the plague had an immense existential, theological, and cultural impact on the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The outbreak that started in 1347 inaugurated the second plague-related pandemic (the earlier occurrence was ca. 541–750), and for the next three and a half centuries the plague would prove to be the scourge of European life. During the latter half of the fourteenth century, many cities suffered an outbreak roughly every ten years. It wiped out large portions of the population and decimated families. The plague inevitably put pressure upon traditional beliefs regarding health, the contagiousness of disease, the connections between spiritual and corporeal well-being, God's capacity for retribution against the sinful, and the efficacy of spiritual redemption in the face of bodily corruption. The iconography of the plague is readily apparent in any visit to a robust collection of Renaissance art, and its representation in literature is familiar to readers of Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, Daniel Defoe, and Thomas Nashe. Seemingly, and not surprisingly, the plague inflected all modes of existence and made its presence [End Page 98] felt in nearly all forms of expression. A force so unstoppable and inscrutable could not help but infiltrate all aspects of European life. Coming to grips with the plague's impact on music, however, is a rather difficult endeavor, and this is the task undertaken by Remi Chiu in his new book, Plague and Music in the Renaissance.

The crux of the investigation manifests in the nature of the "and" in the book's title. Chiu asserts from the outset that he makes no claim for a shift in the aesthetic nature of music production in response to the trauma of plague, but rather he strives to articulate how "traditional beliefs about music became embroiled in the new discourses about plague and how established musical styles, techniques, and practices were marshaled up to combat the disease" (p. 5). That is to say, the "and" of the title does not attempt to expose a causal relationship between the experience of plague and the development of musical technique or representation. Rather the "and" marks a looser connection wherein tropes surrounding music are employed in accommodating the self to a disease that defied traditional understanding of sickness. More provocatively, Chiu insists that music served as an important strategy for survival in the face of outbreaks of plague, particularly within the public penitential processions many cities organized to placate the stern God that authorities assumed must be the original cause of the plague.

Chiu recognizes the considerable obstacles standing in his way—most notably, the unlikelihood of establishing with any certainty a corpus of "pestilential" works of music (p. 5). The difficulty of determining provenance, much less the kind of biographical detail that would confirm that a given piece was written in response to the plague per se, forces Chiu largely to occupy the realm of conjecture insofar as he wishes to discuss concrete pieces of music. The attendant imprecisions involved in asserting that any given piece necessarily addresses the plague (and very few pieces seem to do so in any uncontestable manner) further erodes the connective tissue implied by the "and" of the title. This serves as the primary stumbling block of the book. In short, for all of the wonderful insights provided into the Renaissance conceptualization of the plague, the connection to music remains rather tenuous.

Chiu presents two ways in which musical works connected to the plague: pieces written in response to the disease, and those employed in penitential processions. The latter were preexistent works, not written with the plague in mind but utilized to perform contrition publicly in an appeal to divine grace. With respect to the former, Chiu mostly depends upon direct textual allusion to the plague, often within pieces dedicated to Saint Sebastian, who gradually became the patron saint of plague victims. With respect...