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Book reviews

Bonnie J. Blackburn

Musical humanism for beginners

Claude V. Palisca, Music and ideas in the 16th and 17th
centuries, ed. Thomas J. Mathiesen (Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2006), $35


Early Music , Vol. xxxv, No. 2 The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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Downloaded from at University of Macedonia on July 9, 2012

Does Ficino make you dizzy? Does Pythagorean number

theory send a chill down your spine? Do the intricacies of
tuning systems in the 16th century perplex you? All these
and much more are explained in Claude V. Paliscas
magisterial Humanism in Italian Renaissance musical
thought (New Haven, 1985), but for non-specialists the
book is rather daunting. Palisca must have realized this
himself, for he has now revisited his earlier studies and
produced a work that is marvellously informative, lucid
and readable, and that should appeal to readers of Early
When Palisca died unexpectedly in 2001 he had nearly
finished the present book, which has been brought to
completion by Thomas J. Mathiesen and appears fittingly
as the first volume in the Studies in the History of Music
Theory and Literature, published by the University of Illinois Press. The task of completing another authors work
is very difficult, and we all have reason to be grateful to
Mathiesen. Reading the book was like listening to Palisca
once again.
The chapter titles give a good idea of the contents of
the book: Musical change and intellectual history, Universal harmony, Sense over reason: the anti-theoretical
tradition, The poetics of musical composition, Humanist revival of the modes and genera, Humanist reaction
to polyphony, Theories of monody and dramatic music,
Music and scientific discovery, Ancient and modern:
styles and genres, Theories of the affections and imitation, and Music and rhetoric, followed by an appendix
of the principal treatises cited. The title is rather more
general than the book itself, for the emphasis is firmly on
16th-century Italy in the first six chapters, and the 17th
century does not extend much beyond Monteverdi
except in the last two chapters, which also discuss Kircher,
Mersenne and Descartes.
Sometimes it is startling to come upon earlier discussions that speak aptly to modern concerns, for example

performance practice. Music and rhetoric had become

a matter of compositional style and analysis for German
theoreticians such as Joachim Burmeister (Musica poetica, 1606), whose theories are applied here to a different
example than the one Palisca had used in his earlier
book (Lassos In me transierunt). Lassos Cum rides mihi
offers a telling example of a range of rhetorical ploys; he
would probably have been amused to see them analysed
in such pompous terms as hypotyposis and pathopoeia. In
such pieces the rhetoric is part of the compositional fabric. But earlier writers considered rhetoric more a manner of performance: the term used is pronunciatio, by
which one judged an orator. Nicola Vicentino (Lantica
musica ridotta alla moderna prattica, 1555) applies it to
music: The measure should change according to the
words, now slower and now faster. The experience of
the orator can be instructive, if you observe the technique he follows in his oration. For he speaks now loud
and now soft, now slow and now fast, thus greatly moving his listeners. This technique of changing the measure
has a powerful effect on the soul (quoted on p.208; for
all translations the original is given in a footnote). We
might think this remark relevant only to solo singing,
and yet Vicentino writes before the age of monody, and
he could very well have vocal ensembles in mind. This is
a lesson that should be taken to heart by modern groups,
especially in sacred music, where the tendency too often
is to sing straight through at the same speed and the
same dynamic level.
Throughout the book Palisca quotes extensively from
the original authors, allowing us to see how they grappled with the problems that interested them. Platos
maxim that in song (melos) the text (logos) should govern melody (harmonia) and rhythm (rhythmos) is a leitmotiv of the whole book. However, most 16th-century
readersand even Giulio Cesare Monteverdidepended
on Ficinos Latin translation, where melos was rendered
as melodia, and they misunderstood harmonia in a narrower (and more modern) sense than Plato intended.
Nevertheless, the meaning came through: the text should
be the mistress of the harmony, the hallmark of the seconda prattica. But considering Vicentinos words quoted
earlier, was the debate ancient or modern, or was it