- To begin at the end, Bruce W. Holsinger calls for a musicology
in his Epilogue to this book. I would argue that all humanistic scholarship
should embrace this quality, but equally that scholarship demands
a good deal more than empathy. If not, then all commentary on human
endeavor would lay an equal claim to the authority of criticism, as
Edward T. Cone so provocatively entitled a seminal article on the
subject. For, if all interpretations, or narratives, are equally valid,
whose narrative will prevail? The most empathetic treatment of an
issue in the realm of humanities still depends on detailed knowledge
of the evidence, skillful argument, and critical acumen to provide
a useful contribution to the ongoing dialogue about the human condition
(see Cone and Treitler).
- Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture contains much
more than empathy. In particular, it provides a very close reading
of a wide range of texts from late Antiquity to the early modern period
that deal with the corporeal production and reception of music. Observers
and practitioners of music as diverse as Clement of Alexandria, Aurelian
of Réôme, and Geoffrey Chaucer provide texts that Holsinger
subjects to close scrutiny for their evidence regarding the role of
music and its practices in medieval society. Some of these texts are
well known to musicologists or students of literature, but few scholars
of any stripe would know all of them or even the majority intimately.
Scholars of literature and music, and of culture in general, will
therefore find much of interest here as well as an important synthesis
of many of the most colorful passages on music from the writings of
- Much of the language of these texts is highly metaphorical, sometimes
shockingly so. In this regard, Holsingers achievement rests
not so much on the range of literature surveyed (as impressive as
that is alone) but rather on his consistently creative and critical
reading of this metaphorical language. When dealing with such texts,
interpretation simultaneously runs the risk of overemphasizing their
literal meaning or delving too deeply into ones subjectivenot
to say empatheticreactions to them. That, of course, is the
point of metaphor: to create a wealth of associations beyond the mere
literal. And any author who uses metaphor invites her or his readers
to invoke their own range of associations. Interpretation is necessary,
even inevitable, but meaning is commensurately elusive, plural, and
- Nevertheless, Holsinger arguesoften passionately and usually
convincinglyfor a preoccupation among his authors with the corporeal
aspects of music-making and consumption. His treatment is nuanced
and avoids imposing a unitary vision on these texts. Still, I would
raise one issue with Holsingers approach, which is best illustrated
with an example. If we accept the Confessions of Saint Augustine
as a sincere attempt at autobiography, then it is clear that Augustine
had corporeal appetites that he felt needed to be controlled. But
are the Confessions a sincere attempt at autobiography? If
they are not, then what is the value of their testimony? Nowhere
does Holsinger address this fundamental issue. To be fair, the book
covers a large number of texts and authors, and Holsinger would be
the first to acknowledge that all of them exist in their own historical
context, as he does in his final chapter on medieval treatments of
the Orpheus myth.1 A comprehensive presentation
of each of these texts, with full consideration of the historical
setting, would require a book many times larger than the present one.
Yet, I am left with the impression that not all of the authors and
texts discussed here necessarily say precisely what Holsinger would
have them say.
- In two central chapters, Holsinger ponders the contributions, literary
and musical, of two important figures
Two-voice conductus "Presul nostri," from Magnus liber organi. Holsinger, 174.
- Now, if metaphorical language is difficult to interpret, as mentioned
above, how much more so is music? Allusive and associative rather
than representational, all musical language, of whatever culture or
era, depends heavily on context for its meaning. I honestly do not
know whether the wide leaps in Hildegards melodies, which make
her music so distinctive, accurately represent her sense of desire,
or whether Leonin inscribed the physical passion of sodomy in the
intertwined voices of his organa, and neither does Holsinger. To be
sure, these gestures mean somethingto Hildegard and Leonin,
to their contemporaries, and to modern listeners, including myself,
Holsinger, and the readers of this journal. But what do they mean?
Can we know, with any certainty, how Hildegard and Leonin conceived
of them? Why should Holsingers reading of them be any more authoritative
than anyone elses?
- Here is the point at which a musicology of empathy breaks
down. For the danger is not that we would become the historical figures
we study so closely. Identification with subject, and sometimes over-identification,
is a widespread occurrence in humanistic research. Ethnomusicology
(from ethnography) has given us a powerful tool for understanding
it in the recognition of the phenomenon of participant observation.
Instead, the danger is that those historical figures, silenced by
time and entirely dependent on us to be their voice, become us.
- I close with an indictment of the series in which this book appears
and its distinguished press. The cogency of much of Holsingers
argument depends on his documentation. To give one example, although
he freely avails himself of published translations in his interpretation
of the primary texts (and no one, least of all me, would criticize
him for doing so in view of the wide range of literature in a number
of languages he covers), he has rarely stopped there. Virtually every
quotation, if not in the original language, as it often is, is supported
by a reference to an edition in the original, and the published translations
are always reviewed in light of Holsingers own appraisal of
the text in the original. But no one would know that without flipping
to the back of the book and excavating the note that conveys this
information. A critical book like this one needs critical readers,
and critical readers want and need to know the basis for Holsingers
sometimes controversial and always provocative interpretations. There
is absolutely no excuse nowadays for printing the notes at the end
of a book. If I can put them at the bottom of the page with a five-year
old laptop running ten-year old software, then Stanford University
Press ought to be able to do it. This practice does an equal disservice
to author and reader. Some of the principal strengths of this fine
book, then, lie hidden under a bushel through no fault of the author.
Edward T. Cone Member in Music Studies, School of Historical Studies, Institute of Advanced Study
University of Western Ontario
1. Curiously absent from this discussion is any reference to the essays in Warden, ed., Orpheus, the Metamorphoses of a Myth.
Cone, Edward T. The Authority of Music Criticism. Journal of the American Musicological Society 34 (1981): 118.
DeWalt, Kathleen M. and Billie R. DeWalt. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002.
Treitler, Leo. Gender and Other Dualities of Music History. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholoarship. Ed. Ruth A. Solie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 2345.
Warden, John, ed. Orpheus, the Metamorphoses of a Myth. Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 1982.
Wood, Elizabeth. Sapphonics. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. Ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas. New York and London: Routledge, 1994. 2766.