Claude Palisca (1921-2001) was one of the world's leading experts on "early" music – particularly Renaissance and Baroque opera. His "Baroque Music" ( ISBN-10: 0130584967; ISBN-13: 978-0130584960) is a classic. It's but one of Palisca's many tightly conceived, well illustrated and carefully positioned books on music. Pre-eminent in his field, the musicologist – originally from Italy – also served as president of the American Musicological Society from 1970 to 1972 and held a series of prestigious university musical chairs, professorships and other teaching and research positions at Harvard, the University of Illinois (the publishers of the book here under review), Yale, Queens (New York), Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley. These in addition to posts in Europe… at the Universities of Zagreb and Barcelona, for example.
Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries is no exception to the highest standards of research and presentation which Palisca set. The publicity material supporting the book suggests a rather nebulous topic, the extent to which music (and its form, in particular) "resemble[s] the structure of the human soul" (whatever that is). Yet the book is much more closely written and more precisely directed. It seeks to draw such conclusions as it does draw from hard evidence, empirically. Rather than advance a thesis and find facts to fit.
There is a basic speculation, to be sure: Palisca does begin by asking whether music is a numerical reflection of universal harmony; a means to understanding religious absolute truth; a wordless language that speaks ineffably of emotions; an imitation of nature; or simply a gift to humankind to enrich our lives. So, although, perhaps, it is the "nature of music" itself in which he is interested, Palisca is aware that arguments (historical and philosophical) have been made in favor of each of these proposals. His first strength is in selecting, handling and presenting well-glossed and situated primary sources which speak to one or more of these hypotheses, and others. His second in evaluating each – without prejudice – in its historical context and arriving at conclusions. Ultimately these center around music's power to move, its affective qualities. Essential in understanding "early" music. So Palisca has done the early music movement yet another favor without alluding to the many misperceptions and misapprehensions still current among people attempting to evaluate the glories of music from, say, Josquin to Biber.
And it's that historical context that is so important. To have tried to make sensible generalizations about the relationship between organized sound and any "meaning" it may have for us would have been an almost unmanageable undertaking. And would have been a different book since it would certainly have required making a starting point (or at least making using as explicit commentary) a psychological perspective. Such an angle is here more organically woven into the historical narrative.
Just enough of that historical narrative is given in each chapter for those unfamiliar with, particularly, the tergiversations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe (religious schisms and revolutions; the "renegotiation" of balances of power between monarchs, the aristocracy and gentry; struggles for national identities; advances in science and technology etc) to allow them to draw meaningful conclusions about musical trends and developments.
There are two reasons why anyone interested in understanding how music may reflect what it is to be human turns happily to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Composers and musicians of late Renaissance and early Baroque were routinely "enlisted" at best to explore the changes in power with their patrons; at worst to replicate and project their own priorities. Of course many of the changes in the Early Modern period revolved around and/or dictated advances in science, education, philosophy, polity and even the sense of self… Luther, Galileo, More, Newton, Shakespeare. Given the greater access to the recently-invented printing presses and increased travel, it's no surprise that musical ideas, the expression (implicit or explicit) of new ways in which music and art saw themselves and their place in such upheavals were more fully documented – and more widely read. Dialogues and discourses abounded. Theses were openly disputed and settled (or not). And reputations were made on practitioners' ability to innovate and to conserve. Music was essentially a very social activity. (Contrast this with the twentieth century: it was more common for composers to stand firm in their individuality against the world "outside" them. One thinks of how Shostakovich, the (central European) émigrés to the United States and those whose work we know from the Terezin experience, for example, reacted to their societies. The writing of a Britten or an Ives shows just as much about life as that of Monteverdi or Pachelbel. But composers of our own time typically act more independently.
The second reason is of even greater import: unlike (almost) any other period in musical history – certainly unlike any other period since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – performance practice varied in step with the way ideas developed. This is the core of Palisca's convincing and expertly argued book: If we can understand not only how, but also why, ways of singing and playing changed as they did between the Renaissance and mid Baroque, then we can begin to answer, at least, what musicians in those crucial two centuries as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into industrialization thought music meant to the themselves, their audiences and indeed to the rest of the world.
Palisca does this by extremely detailed yet highly accessible reference to contemporary sources. Above all to reflexive sources which are aware of practice from the past and in other cultures. These, when used, are quoted in translation with the original in footnotes on the same page. This seems an excellent arrangement. But Palisca was at the very height of his powers when writing this book. He was also writing, in some ways, the summation of his life's work in that he was relating religion, politics, philosophy, literature, historiography, poetics and the emergence and maturity of humanism to musical composition and performance.
So we have no dry catalogue in support of an abstruse theory in Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. And, although this is a scholarly book and has an extensive bibliography, chronological appendix of major sources cited (there are some 150 such), it's very accessible to the non-specialist reader. Palisca breaks up his consideration of the salient developments of the period into ten chapters, on harmony; sense vs reason; the poetics of composition; modes; polyphony; monody and dramatic music; scientific discovery; the ancients and moderns; imitation, and rhetoric. Each topic is exhaustively explored with, as has been said, in depth textual support. Although the focus for each theme/chapter is deliberately tight and clear, much cross-reference is inevitable and necessary… the influence of Graeco-Roman theorists for example, and Boethius. Palisca handles this extremely deftly; he never allows the reader to get lost, confused or overwhelmed by the amount of data. Yet he uses it incessantly to make his case. Your impression at the end is that it was an inevitable case: a unified and coherent whole emerges quickly and is sustained most persuasively for the course of the book's 225 or so pages of the text of Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.
Claude Palisca wrote the first draft of Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and submitted it to colleagues for review over ten years ago. But he died as a result of complications following a stroke before the manuscript could go through the rigorous editing process to which he was used and on which he usually insisted. The author's wife requested that Thomas J Mathiesen, the editor of the "Studies in the History of Music theory and Literature" series for the University of Illinois Press, complete the publication process. That happened; the result is none the worse for it. For here is a book that, although ostensibly written for non specialists, is as full of verifiable fact, expert interpretation and apposite illustration as surely Palisca would have wanted had he lived. And – significantly – as any comparable such study.
If either this period in musical history and/or the thesis that music has an integral place in the development of society and ideas interests you, indeed if understanding the music of later centuries is useful or important, then Music and Ideas in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries is a book you should not hesitate to buy and read. Heartily recommended.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.