Philippe De Monte: new autobiographical documents

Wistreich, R. (2006) Philippe De Monte: new autobiographical documents. Early Music History, 25 pp. 257-308. ISSN 0261-1279 (print) 1474-0559 (online)


In a letter written in the year he died, the novelist Italo Calvino spoke of his unease with the writing of the story of his own life: ‘Each time I see my life fixed and objectified I am seized with anxiety, especially when it is notes that I myself have supplied … by repeating the same things [but] using different words I always hope to get round my neurotic relationship with autobiography.’ Such testimony from a still-living creative artist is a valuable reminder of the historiographical conundrums of even the most apparently ‘authentic’ biographical narrative. Those of us who read, research and write the stories of long-dead artists, relying as we must on the contents of documents both written and preserved for all kinds of forgotten and quite likely unfathomable reasons, have learnt to be cautious, if not a little anxious, in our relationships with what they seem to be saying to us. The more consciously autobiographical such writings appear to be, the more circumspectly we tend to tread, trying to temper the seductive pleasure of a time-dissolving intimacy with our subjects which such texts seem to promise with our historians' sense of their Siren dangers. Nevertheless, in the case of the still largely unknown story of Philippe de Monte, whose scarce documentary sources, apart from a rich but small handful of private letters, consist of the often enigmatic prefaces to his published music, the addition of two new, very substantial and intensely autobiographical documents can hardly fail to excite expectations of increased access to ‘the man himself’.

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