It's hardly controversial to lament that music from the middle ages is still not recognized as profound, inspired and as worthy of performance, attention and analysis as that of any other period. Judith Peraino's new book from Oxford University Press, "Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut" is as powerful an advocate for the superlative qualities of French music from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries as any – and well worth a close look both by those already familiar with the songs of courtly love in French and Occitan, and by anyone who has perhaps caught a snatch of this compelling genre and wants to learn more: Peraino has struck the balance between information for the expert and scholarly study for the specialist very well indeed. But the book is much more too.
There is an extensive literature on the Troubadours, of course, although few really recent anthologies of texts. Peraino's approach is somewhat innovative in that – rightly – it gives as much weight to the insights afforded by the discipline of literature as by that of musicology. There is a precise reason for this: the (genre of) songs examined in "Giving Voice to Love" exhibits a paradox. On the one hand the chansons and motets are concerned with highly personal self-expression, the experience that "I" has of love. At the same time, the songs rely on, exploit and derive much of their impact from musical and poetic conventions, accepted tropes and modes of expression which, at face value, are anything but personal because they are, after all, general; they're codified and stylized.
In fact Peraino shows extremely clearly just how practitioners made the most of this apparent anomaly and turned it to their own advantage. The result was irony, subtle turns of humor, paradox and rich intertextual (self-)referencing where the words were concerned. Another result was an equally important (and particularly well handled in this book) self-consciousness in the music itself… ways in which voice, melody and rhythm themselves comment on the music itself. This meta-awareness has a significant side-effect for listeners 800 years later: freshness and immediacy, accessibility and familiarity. This, of course, does service to the "cause" of mediaeval music.
To explore this at times almost recursive color of the music of the genre needs a steady hand and great insight. It won't do merely to pile example upon example, remaking the (same) point repeatedly. Nor is it enough to hint at such a thesis yet fail to illustrate it. Peraino does remarkably well by striking just the right balance. "Giving Voice to Love" is richly illustrated with examples of the specifics of vocal expression in all its many forms during the period, descorts, motets and monophony as they developed. The presence of every single one throughout the 300 or so pages of the book is justified by a different and highly nuanced explanation and exposition. It's heavy with diagrammatic representations of the relationships, tables, quoted, annotated verses, and the kind of marked up text necessary to illustrate the aggregations inside and across text and score necessary to show just how self-expression worked in the period. This is never overwhelming, always well-presented. The commentary is clear and genuinely enlightening at every stage.
A quick glance at the impressive index, though, reveals immediately and emphatically that Peraino has not just found multiple instances (for there are literally hundreds of musical and textual extracts and examples throughout the book's five chapters with a concise introduction and an apposite conclusion) to advance her central contention. Rather, "Giving Voice to Love" moves forward and leaves you with a different understanding of the way this music worked at the end from that you had when beginning the book. The same is true as you might work your way through examples of the genre itself – although the progression isn't exclusively chronological. The end result is that you're left with a truly comprehensive understanding of the central ideas about self-expression and the often poorly-understood relationship between text and music (Machaut was better known as a poet during his lifetime than a musician). Peraino explains very well how the relationships between text, music and personal experience work. And how the latter interacted with the former and how they informed one another in more ways than might at first be apparent.
Almost as significant for the scholar of music from any period is the analytical framework offered by Peraino in "Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut". The model employed to examine "courtly love" songs of the high middle ages could be used just as effectively the better to understand, say, the political output of Kurt Weill, the tropes of the German Lied or the cantatas of Bach. In this very important book by Peraino not only is much significant ground covered in its own right, but some brush cleared and paths outlined for other scholars.
One also has the best of two worlds by access to mostly specially-recorded audio extracts for many of the music examples on a companion website. High production standards, not to mention running footnotes, bibliography and an index of the around 250 works dealt with, make this book (which is also very attractively priced) a delight to own and use.
"Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut", then, is an imaginatively- and authoritatively-conceived and written book that says a lot more than its quite specific title might suggest. It deals with attendant aspects of the extent to and ways in which poets and musicians were as aware of the relationship between their humanity and the accepted, available ways of expressing it as they were aware of and skilled at artistic production in its own right. Further, Peraino explains most convincingly the need to go beyond a vague sense that such connections exist and to appreciate the intricacies of how they relate to the vocal music of the period in particular. In that "Giving Voice to Love" so successfully explores the essence of music and text, its appeal goes well beyond mediaeval song and touches on the act of creation by individuals conscious of the artistic and social worlds in which they live in a much wider sense. An important book that can be recommended on every criterion.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Sealey.