The lives of musicians

Wistreich, R. (2019) The lives of musicians. In: The Cambridge History of Sixteenth-Century Music. The Cambridge History of Music . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 288-334. ISBN 9780511675874


Before the invention of mechanical means of recording and the possibility of broadcasting sound remotely, the music that reached the ears of those who heard it either serendipitously or by design in church, in the town square, in enclosed private spaces, or even on the battlefield, could only be produced by the live actions of people with specific and complex skills exercised in close proximity to those listening. This seemingly obvious condition of any kind of early modern musical experience nevertheless reminds us that a historical investigation of this period that aims to understand music as both a social and a culturally dynamic phenomenon (that is, first and foremost as an action rather than a collection of objects) needs to focus close attention on the people who produced those sounds. As such, it should consider not only what they did as musicians (the techniques and strategies of musical practice, which may well, of course, include the ‘performance of works’), but also, as far as possible, the social forces, institutional systems, and other conditions that governed their lives, whether their music-making was essentially an adornment to their overall practice of living (‘amateurs’) or constituted the means itself of making a living (‘professionals’). This chapter focuses on the structures, formal and informal, that governed the lives of those who made their living, all or some of the time, from making music; it also considers the ways in which musicians’ lives both shaped, and were shaped by, the environments in which they practised their art.

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