Review | Alexander J. Fisher – Music, Piety, and Propaganda: The Soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria

Music, Piety, and Propaganda: The Soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria. By Alexander J. Fisher. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. [xvii, 359 p., ISBN 9780199764648 (hardback), ISBN 9780199311347 (online file), ISBN 9780199311354 (electronic text). Hardcover, $55; ebook, $54.99.] Book: musical examples, illustrations, maps, footnotes, bibliography, index. Companion website: musical transcriptions, extended bibliography, tables, extended references, original language transcriptions, extended commentary, citations.

Bonczyk - book image{1} Whether the sonic scope measures large or small, both musical and non-musical sounds cut through physical barriers in ways that visual images cannot. In Music, Piety, and Propaganda: The Soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria, Alexander Fisher positions cultivated music as one of many “deployed” sounds that constituted the soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria. At home with both the history of early modern music in the German-speaking lands and sound studies generally, Fisher’s monograph is at once a history of music as Counter-Reformation propaganda as well as a study of how articulating and listening to sound shapes and organizes religious identity. The book is organized into six chapters that are further divided into subsections. Over the course of the book, each section successively extends the scope of the urban soundscape from the restricted interiors of churches to the open-air landscape of civic life.

{2} Chapter 1 locates readers in the contested soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria, where the unison singing of Lutheran hymns might suddenly interrupt Catholic sermons as sonic protest to confessionalization. 1 Supported by extant scholarship on the multi-sensorial dimensions of historical experience, Fisher introduces his project of undermining visualist histories of the early modern world, some of which have elevated the illustrated book to suggest the emerging dominance of sight. Images, according to these writers, quickly displaced sonic, olfactory, and other sensorial cues as the primary instruments of administrative correspondence, scientific argument, and aesthetic experience. 2 In arguing for a fully embodied history of culture, Fisher situates his work within burgeoning anthropologies of the senses and the sensorial past, most notably by Constance Classen, David Howes, Louise Meintjes, Thomas Porcello, Steven Feld, and Emily Thompson. 3 The pioneering contributions of Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Barry Truax, and R. Murray Schafer have laid the foundation for the book’s examination of soundscapes. 4 In line with writings by Reinhard Strohm, Bruce Smith, Jill Steward and Alexander Cowan, and A. Roger Ekirch on historical soundscapes and urban life, Fisher’s definition of a soundscape as “the totality of perceived sounds [meaningful or merely present] in a given space and time” locates the politics of religious identity within a larger socio-acoustic arena. 5 Thus, his pre-industrial soundscape of Bavaria emerges from a diversified collection of historically and socially situated materials—some sounding, some silent—such as printed religious songbooks, archival records of confraternities, diocesan correspondences, and the material inscriptions on the bodies of church bells. Concurrent with a broad spectrum of recent scholarship on historical practices of listening, especially by Jonathan Sterne, Ana María Ochoa, and Arnold Hunt, Fisher argues that the techniques of aurally discerning cultural meaning from these collections of sounds were as important as the sounds themselves in shaping social and religious identity. 6

{3} The construction of perceived space through sound and active listening is a central concept for Fisher. He builds his conceptualization of sacred space on Jonathan Z. Smith’s theory of the making of sacred space through ritual actions and Henri Lefebvre’s work on the inherent politics in the production of space. 7 Following Jacques Attali’s work on sound as a political instrument, Fisher then moves to discuss how sound in the domains of public and private life could fashion belief, dispel heresy, and “was systematically denied to those who might disrupt an atmosphere of spiritual and moral discipline.” 8 Guided by Michel de Certeau’s influential theory on the negotiation of individual agency and institutional control, Fisher emphasizes how the everyday actions of individuals, or popular tactics, could resist, navigate, and manipulate official sonic strategies of confessionalization. 9 In spite of the aesthetic and political grandiosity of the Counter-Reformation, church leaders struggled to suppress the oral transmission of Protestant song, to enforce silence during periods of mourning, and to halt impromptu singing, speeches, and the noise of conversation, laughter, and even animals, during church services. In the face of these dissenting popular tactics, church leaders needed to adjust their sonic strategies for print and censorship, civic surveillance, and the liturgy to conform to preexistent oral and aural rituals that moved freely between boundaries of class, education, and belief.

{4} Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate that sound and ephemeral human actions construct sacred spaces that can align or resist confessional reform. Fisher begins by exploring sound and liturgical space in Jesuit churches, such as Dom zu Unsere Lieben Frau, where the removal of obstructing pillars, new barrel vaulting, narrative emblems, and processed litanies all directed travel of the ear and the eye through the devotional space. In spite of the funneling designs of these renovated churches, Fisher gives equal attention to their edges and corners that served as seasonal and occasional spaces of sonic devotion. Funerals, in which hired chanters and choirboys would sing simple psalms or complex polyphony over uninterred bodies, were an occasion for the temporary construction of acoustic space where small groups could articulate their confessional identity. 10 While sound can work within a prescribed confessional program, it can also constitute a creative tactic to subvert institutional control. In an important shift back to de Certeau, Chapter 3 fleshes out how the everyday articulation of sounds and music of individuals negotiated official strategies of power and authority. In Bavarian monastic communities, sound constructed a code of embodied discipline where physical punishment lasted as long as it took to sing the Penitential Psalms. 11 Yet Fisher looks to thoroughbass lieder books dedicated to convents to argue that even seemingly innocuous recreational song allowed the nuns of Ridler house to create a sacral space of their own while subtly resisting forced isolation. 12

{5} In a departure from exploring sound in urban interiors, Chapters 4 and 5 provide geographical breadth to the historical soundscapes. These chapters investigate physically situated sounds that project outward and to sounding bodies that travel. Dedicated almost entirely to church bells, Chapter 4 is rightly at the center of the book as church belfries were often positioned in or near the city’s center. Resounding outward while also drawing citizens inward, church bells projected the spiritual boundaries of the city regardless of whether the church was visible. As acoustic propaganda, bells reshaped urban experience in public spaces through acoustic surveillance, corporate discipline, and the observance of prayer and ceremony. 13 Also moving laterally were short-distance journeys through cities. In Chapter 5, readers follow processions for funerals and Corpus Christi, often brimming with propagandistic flare. Jesuits published officially sanctioned processional songbooks, appointed chant leaders at the head of processions, and recruited wailing, “marching flagellants” for processions on Good Friday. 14

{6} Throughout the book, Fisher insistently redirects readers to imagine the potent mixture of sound and material bodies in motion. The final chapter of the book discusses a thriving culture of devotional pilgrimages. An important element of pilgrimages was the transport of holy relics or whole corpses from one shrine, or parish church, to another. Richly dressed in the sonic propaganda of psalmody and the litany, both the living and the dead moved together in these traveling pageants of sound and image.

{7} This chapter also features the first appearance of a map of Bavaria and its surrounding areas as Fisher zooms out of the city entirely. However, he gives more attention to the concept of Bavaria’s spiritual geography rather than its political geography. Fisher charts cross-country pilgrimages in which congregations and confraternities (sometimes by the hundreds) acoustically broadcasted their confessional identity between shrines and churches serving as “spiritual nodes” that bridged political, municipal, and diocesan boundaries. Again, the tradition of the pilgrimage was an instrument of constructing Catholic identity in which hired song leaders (Vorsänger), professional musicians, congregants, and clergy sonically delineated confessional boundaries over vast distances.

{8} Music, Piety, and Propaganda challenges a persistent historiographical focus on early modern visual culture. In shifting our attention to historical soundscapes, Fisher’s book, thus, contributes to a broad historiographical response to what Jonathan Sterne has called “the cliché that modern science and rationality were outgrowths of visual culture and visual thinking.” 15 For instance, Fisher’s discussion of contrafacture songbooks provides evidence that the un-illustrated, narrative songbook for pilgrims was an effective propagandistic instrument to direct focus on an unseen divine object. Moreover, without the imagistic properties of musical notation, these songbooks relied less on visual literacy than on the aural and oral memory of popular tunes and hymns to be sung to newly prescribed texts. The organization of the book, thus, reinforces the mobility of sound and identity over its visible fixity in physical media, such as in print. In opening outward from churches to city streets to the Bavarian countryside, Fisher emphasizes the liberation of sound and religious identity from seemingly insuperable physical constraints.

{10} In its orientation to cultivated music, Fisher’s monograph departs from conventions of musical analysis and musicological writing. Placing music within a broad spectrum of natural and unnatural sounds reduces Fisher’s analysis to the texts and performance spaces of smaller, palpable musical forms, such as the thoroughbass lieder for Franciscan convents. This restraint from more traditional musical analysis opens the book up to an interdisciplinary readership. Besides the unfortunate lack of audio recordings on the Oxford companion website, both a non-music scholar and general reader with a basic music literacy will encounter few stumbling blocks. 16 Carilloners especially should enjoy the attention to church bells capable of much more than the dry marking of time.

{11} While Music, Piety, and Propaganda carefully reconstructs the early modern soundscapes of urban Bavaria, it also crisscrosses scholarly studies on space and place, the materiality of sound, the histories of the senses, religion, and the politics of identity. And this is its greatest appeal: like the bells of a city church, the theoretical and historical import of Fisher’s book resonates far beyond the strict disciplinary boundaries of historical musicology.


Patrick Bonczyk is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Musicology at UCLA. 




  1. Alexander J. Fisher, Music Piety and Propaganda: The Soundscapes of Counter-Reformation Bavaria (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1-3.
  2. These visualist histories have recently been concentrated in the history of science. See, for instance, Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expedition and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012); Sachiko Kusakawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
  3. Constance Classen, Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures (London and New York: Routledge, 1993); David Howes, ed., The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991); Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990); Louis Meintjes, Ana María Ochoa, Thomas Porcello, et al., “Soundscapes: Toward a Sounded Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 39 (2010): 329-405; Emily Thompson, The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
  4. R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977); Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Soundscapes: Explore Music in a Changing World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006); Barry Truax, Acoustic Communication, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing, 2001).
  5. A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in the Times Past (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005); Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Jill Steward and Alexander Cowan, eds., The City and the Senses: Urban Culture since 1500 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); Reinhard Strohm, Music in Late Medieval Bruges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985); Fisher, Music Piety and Propaganda, 9.
  6.  Arnold Hunt, The Art of Hearing: English Preachers and their Audiences, 1590–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Ana María Ochoa, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Fisher, Music, Piety, and Propaganda, 9, 170.
  7. Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 105; Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford, Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1991); Fisher, Music, Piety, and Propaganda, 10.
  8. Fisher, Music, Piety, and Propaganda, 13.
  9. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California, 1984).
  10. Fisher, Music, Piety, and Propaganda, 156-7.
  11. Ibid., 134.
  12. Ibid., 135.
  13. Ibid., 190.
  14. Ibid., 266.
  15. Sterne, The Audible Past (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 3.
  16. A point that Elisabeth Giselbrecht made in her review of Fisher’s monograph in Music and Letters 95, no. 4 (November 2014), 652.