The materiality of Early Modern ensemble music making

Wistreich, R. (2022) The materiality of Early Modern ensemble music making. In: Royal Musical Association Annual Conference, 7-10 September 2022, Durham. (Unpublished)


At one point in the iconic ‘Artusi-Monteverdi Controversy’ – a ‘dialogue of the deaf’ between music theorist and composer conducted in print around 1600 – Artusi argues that however well performers of a madrigal might nuance ‘illegal’ dissonances “with the greatest discretion and judgement”, they “always are and always will be grating, crude, harsh and insupportable to the ear. And when this song is taken from the hands of these singers, it will inevitably still be insupportable and will remain thus.” Artusi’s throwaway remark about the song being ‘taken from the hands’ of the singers once their performance is finished is an arresting image of a literal separation between the notated ‘material’ and its anonymous executors, who, as it were, leave the part books behind on the table and exit the room. Evoking Roger Chartier’s dictum that “Reading is not uniquely an abstract operation of the intellect: it brings the body into play, it is inscribed in a space and a relationship with oneself and with others” we might extrapolate this and say that performances of notated ensemble music are, in fact, collective ‘readings aloud’ of a particularly spectacular and physiologically dynamic variety, involving what the New Materialist, Jane Bennett, describes as “assemblages … ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts”, that include both human bodies, inanimate objects and the actions and forces that connect them. This paper will present a range of evidence of early modern collective music-making, focussed on reconstituting both the physical, and the relational materialities that they bring into play.

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