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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

‹‹ Table of Contents
Volume 21 (2015) No. 1

Published 2017

Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy. By Andrew Dell’Antonio. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. [235 pp. ISBN: 978-0-5202-6929-3. $57.95.]

Reviewed by Stefanie Tcharos*

1. Introduction

2. Dell’Antonio’s Nexus of Discourse Makers

3. Lelio Guidiccioni, “Godly Courtier”

4. Conclusions


1. Introduction

1.1 The act of listening to music, while sometimes a singularly private experience, can also be a vibrant social process. Listeners often express to others and sometimes exchange collectively what they heard and what that music meant. Scholarly interest in this process over the last twenty years has made the subject of musical listening fertile ground for a cultural study of music, where the centrality of discourse analysis becomes the heart of interpretation—what is said about music, as well as how and by whom, can be as or more important than the music itself. In his recent monograph, Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy, Andrew Dell’Antonio boldly makes a similar argument using a fascinating array of internal evidence as his guiding principle. Listening comes to signify much in this book as Dell’Antonio reveals that within the chosen context for his study, the process of hearing and responding to music was not just an aesthetic process or a mechanism for spiritual practice, but also evidence of social struggle.

1.2 The book’s main narrative centers on Rome and its intricate cultural network of figures associated with the Curia, other noble families, and influential literati, who all vied for social power and cultural representation in the early decades of the seventeenth century. Though wide-ranging in issues and ideas, Dell’Antonio’s study is almost entirely focused on this locale and historical era for good reason. Rome in this period provides a crossing point where several interrelated forces intersected. These included the overwhelming influence of post-Tridentine Catholic reform, the rise of Jesuit spirituality and its attendant pedagogy, and the concentration of clerical and princely nobility, whose competitive use of artistic patronage for the display of social prestige cultivated an abundant presence of music makers involved in a vibrant range of musical practices. The cultural study of music often works well to expose the diversity of a society’s influential cultural forces, but rare is it to find a book that interweaves such multiple domains so compellingly.

1.3 Among the personages that Dell’Antonio historicizes are the individuals who wished to cultivate but also discipline the rise of what was considered “new” music. As the author recounts, music in these decades had become more powerfully expansive in its uses and expressive power. What he uniquely argues, however, is that the new capacity for expressivity (often achieved through solo singing) not only attracted listeners fascinated by novelty, but that musical sound itself was also seen as a viable source for achieving religious transcendence, as if the experience affected by emotive music could forcefully imitate Christ’s passion, inspiring rapture and the intensity of divine spirituality.

1.4 Dell’Antonio qualifies that music was also dangerously slippery. The same individuals who embraced music also warned that in the wrong hands and with improper treatment, music could superficially seduce with sensual pleasure only, and thus work against the values of spiritual edification. Here the author stresses key cultural developments that had significant bearing upon the direction of music’s early modern history. His study is rooted right after the transformation from makers to receivers, when music was no longer the recreational activity of elite practitioners but had become an act for their consumption. Those who listened (who were often male, and almost all elite) were entertained and emotionally moved by highly trained, virtuosic performers (often women, and typically of a professional class). Of particular concern was the fact that singers could assert a new form of control over potentially passive listeners. Class and gender implications were greatly significant, and according to the author’s research, they were part of the heated tensions that generated newly articulated opinions and discussion about listening practices. By identifying and exploring these discourses, Dell’Antonio uncovers a vigorous debate that ensued over the ontology and rightful ownership of musical meaning.

1.5 One must bear in mind that the centrality of discourse makers in his argument shifts Dell’Antonio’s study away from some expected musicological norms. This is not a book that details concrete information about music via its composers or performers, through reception of actual musical works, or from the inner workings of a score (although he discusses relevant genres and musicians). Neither is this a book limited to the study of patronage, nor is it solely focused on the subject of sacred listening practices. I imagine that some readers wanting a singular focus on any of these subjects might be disappointed. But this is not the book that this author set out to write. The aims of Dell’Antonio’s historical analysis are to uncover music as experienced, without a doubt a tall order of a topic. Yet he does not shy away from the challenge and, in fact, embraces his chosen methodological stance with a good measure of reflexive insight as to its gains and limitations.

1.6 These very aims indeed shape the author’s narrative trajectory, a structure that builds from a broader scope of listening to a more specific perspective on apprehending music as the reader moves through the four main chapters (the fifth and last reads differently in its purposeful transition away from the book’s Roman models by using a French context to create points of comparison and difference). Dell’Antonio’s writing reads very clearly, however, later chapters tend to cohere best around the logical organization of detail and clarity of argument. The reader benefits from the accumulation of data and ideas that develops from chapter to chapter, making the author’s analysis all the more powerful as one proceeds. For this reason, this is not a book in which excised chapters are easily read as stand-alone pieces: read this way, a reader will miss the book’s richer and more complex “big picture.”

2. Dell’Antonio’s Nexus of Discourse Makers

2.1 Each main chapter introduces a diverse array of internal evidence that reflects the range of agents and practices profiled in Dell’Antonio’s book. Chapter 1, “Rapt Attention,” mines post-Tridentine clerical writings on reform, guides to sermonizing, instructional manuals on rhetoric, music for devotional rituals, and painting depicting the rapture of St. Francis. The interrelated connections made by Dell’Antonio make clear that all parties, in every case, were interested or engaged in receptive activities with the intent to express or experience affetto, a vague term loosely translated by the author as “the ineffable nature of human emotional/spiritual response” (15).

2.2 Dell’Antonio persuasively posits why listening was so critical, and the extent to which the sonic turn became the linchpin of post-Tridentine spiritual practice. In effect, Catholic reformers discovered the vital importance of making all attention rapt, and they felt that hearing could be more immediate than sight. This interest in the direct effect and expressive power of sound was consonant with the stress placed by reformers on an ecstatic transcendence, which they understood as the fundamental goal for achieving union with the divine. Dell’Antonio makes a strong argument through his use of documented evidence as to why music, of all listening experiences, was often seen as the most effective for this desired transport. Yet, he nuances this point very carefully. While music was certainly privileged for its capabilities, it was not an end in itself; it was a means, or “a mere trigger” for other things (34).

2.3 This realm of other things is where the core of the book starts to coalesce and becomes most compelling. What we come to find out is that music is not just a trigger for spiritual understanding but is also a means to instantiate social and spiritual distinction. Chapter 2, “Aural Collecting,” and Chapter 3, “Proper Listening,” explore the interconnected forces that suture together spiritual reform and social contestation in a number of critical ways, placing music, all the while, at the center of this nexus.

2.4 Following the model of art connoisseurship, Dell’Antonio begins Chapter 2 by qualifying how the process of collecting was more complex than mere acquisition and how it affected a unique cycle of interlocking pressures. Courtly patrons, often vulnerable in their political status, depended on the goods of culture in all their attractive novelty as a necessary means to establish social standing. Dell’Antonio emphasizes that for music this pressure drove up the demand for professional musicians, especially for solo singers, whose competitive ascendancy in this period amplified the level of craft and forced a more nuanced cultivation of listening skills.

2.5 In order to manage this explosion of goods and to refine reception, elite households came to rely on hired cultural advisors, liaisons who could mediate between princely patrons and their artist creators. In Listening as Spiritual Practice, Dell’Antonio’s lens is particularly focused on these very agents whose connoisseurship also involved attention to music. This is an important move, as fields, especially art history have studied more thoroughly the profile of those occupied with cultivating artistic taste. Music has not received similar critical attention, especially when placed alongside other objects of cultural media. Although the names of a few of these brokers (e.g., Pietro Della Valle, Vincenzo Giustiniani) are familiar to musicologists, scholars have tended to read and analyze them as important contemporary essayists and chroniclers of music.[1]

2.6 Dell’Antonio builds from this knowledge, but he also makes a strong argument as to why we need to place these individuals in a larger cultural milieu, which may indeed shed a different light on why they wrote what they did and prompt how we might re-read them. He widens our understanding by capturing a more explicit profile of the taste-making connoisseurs to whom nobility entrusted their reputation and status. They were literate men, members of the lower nobility, often with clerical training, yet frequently hired as household administrators. In a sense, they were “professionals,” yet their quasi elite status and superior sensibilities set them apart, allowing them to become “virtuosi of taste,” a term Dell’Antonio borrows from Marc Fumaroli but reworks into his own analysis of early Seicento listening culture.[2]

2.7 There are several critical reasons why this concept of connoisseur virtuosity acquires such importance in this book and becomes so effective when adapted to the specificities of music.[3] Dell’Antonio’s virtuosi of taste skillfully capture performance through discussion, or more precisely, through their discourse about music, a distinction constructed by Dell’Antonio that forms the central theoretical frame of his book by bringing attention to discourse as the “defining aspect of musical meaning” (5). Put another way, more important than what they listened to was what tastemakers relived through memory and then said about their experience. The idea was to find effective strategies to revisit that memorized event by placing performances in categories for comparison, or to synthesize two or more musical experiences into an altogether re-created framework. In short, interpretative skill had become a kind of virtuosity all unto itself, a process Dell’Antonio describes as a form of “musicking” by adapting Christopher Small’s theoretical concept to reveal how discourse was akin to performance and had become a new form of creativity.[4]

2.8 In Chapter 3, “Proper Listening,” he expands his purview beyond the issues of authoring musical meaning in the courtly world and links this to the spiritual concerns and attendant reforms that tremored deep within the post-Tridentine Church. He holds the Roman context close in order to inspect a cultural nexus where the dual realms of aesthetics and spirituality loomed large. Dell’Antonio rightly points out how the connection between each is often overlooked or not addressed with enough depth.[5] In fact, rather than see the realms of aesthetics and spirituality with differing sets of tensions, he cogently argues that in this context they essentially fused as one.

2.9 Chapter 3, then, charts the cultivation of a particular disposition, one that reveals how (and why) the virtuoso of taste was equally a spiritual connoisseur. He explains this through the critical acculturation process of Jesuit education, the institution that systematically trained both Catholic nobility and upper classes and thus formed the elite discourse makers, who adopted the principles learned in Jesuit exercises (active engagement, imitation, personal interpretation, prudence, and self-discipline) and transported them into the communal exchanges between virtuosi, regardless of whether they took place in specifically sacred or secular contexts. The importance of shared language and restricted communal knowledge among virtuosi is especially highlighted in this chapter. A case in point is Giambattista Marino’s Applausi poetici (1639), which Dell’Antonio reads as a collection of unique metaphors about “proper listening” and as evidence of discourse makers translating metaphorical aspects drawn from music to a higher realm of interpretative exegesis. Using such examples, Dell’Antonio argues that discourse demarcates a critical boundary between those especially equipped for high-level dialogic exchanges (and thus, possessing the ability to understand “correctly,” what was characterized in Catholic Reformation writings as recte sentire) and those “who lacked the intellectual and spiritual ability to engage fully with the repercussions of divine beauty on earthly matters” (72).[6] For the appointed tastemakers, proper listening was a means to display a necessary social distance from any realm of craft, and to reclaim social and spiritual authority by appropriating virtuosity through discourse. Effectively, it was not music but the meaning of music that was wrested back to elite control.

2.10 In all of this we see a profound recalibration of power that, even if unmentioned by Dell’Antonio, underscores the distinguishing characteristic of a Foucauldian paradigm that authorizes knowledge through the management of discourses.[7] What should be emphasized, however, is that Dell’Antonio’s approach reveals a cultural history of the social sphere that comprehends how discourses forge representations of culture. In essence, we come to understand how a defined collection of disparate individuals with shared dispositions constructs and, most importantly, interprets for others a specific sense of social reality. This critical power move involves an act of mediation between two separate registers: that of music “sounding” and that of music “interpreted,” with a critical “gap” in the middle.[8] Dell’Antonio attempts to probe this middle, though I think he could have been more assertive and explicit in underscoring the unique contribution his research on music offers not just to musicology, but to the broader field of cultural history. Taken as a whole, his book reveals how words and gestures about music expose a range of difficult junctures that emerged in the seventeenth century, ones that spanned the fragile control of elite society and an apprehensive Catholic church in the throes of major reform. In both arenas music is positioned as a multifaceted concept that gets pulled in for the sake of brokering crisis. And through this, Dell’Antonio demonstrates the dynamic place music holds in the study of culture. Historians of different stripes would gain by reading this story.

3. Lelio Guidiccioni, “Godly Courtier”

3.1 The book’s last main chapter, “Manly and Noble Understanding,” returns us to a figure mentioned earlier in the book, yet without due attention. In this chapter we finally come to know well Lelio Guidiccioni: an art connoisseur, poet, orator, founding member of the Accademia degli Umoristi, esteemed cultural advisor for the famiglia of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, and later for Cardinal Antonio Barberini (the Younger), and ultimately, preeminent influence on the growing discourse of the virtuosi of taste in early modern Rome. Guidiccioni’s name is most familiar to musicologists as the dedicatee of Della Valle’s “Della musica dell’età nostra.” Dell’Antonio, however, embraces Guidiccioni so we might see him in contradistinction to the better-known Della Valle, and repositions him as a fully influential and progressive voice on music within this exclusive circle of intellectuals. Dell’Antonio achieves this revision by way of a previously unstudied archival source—Guidiccioni’s own “Della musica”—housed in the Vatican Library’s Barberini collection (V-CVbav Barb. Lat. 3879),[9] which Dell’Antonio reads alongside a series of Guidiccioni’s other writings that also display his distinct interest in the power of sound for achieving transcendence.

3.2 The array of materials and Dell’Antonio’s analysis of them in this chapter vary in value and impact. The historiographical critique is excellent, as Dell’Antonio properly places Guidiccioni in a milieu of intense competition; this may indeed explain why some contemporary sources move from semi-satirical criticism of Guidiccioni’s writing to praise of his gifts of rhetoric in the next breath. This close and nuanced reading by Dell’Antonio brings vitality to the context, whereby intellectuals easily traded barbs and praise with quick wit and elegant virtuosity, and it counters the flattened assessment by historians who too easily have read these criticisms only at face value. However, not all of Dell’Antonio’s arguments regarding Guidiccioni’s writings are equally convincing  His exploration of the poet re-creating a pastoral “soundscape” for Cardinal Scipione’s guests at his country sojourn (villeggiatura) feels forced in its analysis. He urges us to assume that Guidiccioni gives a “sophisticated interpretation” by “providing his own sonic commentary” of the pastoral, when we are merely given a rendition of this event through an excerpt from a secondary source; the reader gains no direct evidence of Guidiccioni’s words or commentary (103). While the effect in this case is underwhelming, other examples in the chapter reflect Dell’Antonio’s typically adept choice in materials and his critical examination.[10]

3.3 The chapter truly soars analytically in the focused discussion of Guidiccioni’s “Della musica,” which Dell’Antonio sees as the touchstone of his book. He reads “Della musica” with a careful eye for the essay’s architecture and rhetorical subtleties, scrutinizing the details and appraising their value and meaning.[11] We come to understand that the poet’s choice to start with the concept of virtù was strategic, as it becomes a recurring topic throughout the essay and a point of necessary recasting. At the outset of “Della musica” Guidiccioni acknowledges the use of the term virtuosi to describe singers, but his point is to reveal the mistaken assumption that a performing musician can truly possess virtù, which, in the opinion of Guidiccioni and his fellow virtuosi of taste, was altogether a different category.

3.4 Guidiccioni sets apart the noble connoisseur by reasserting the essential spiritual component of one who possesses virtù. For example, he dwells at length on God’s gift of musical transcendence to selected saints. His account of Saint Francis’s transcendent musical experience is the climactic moment of “Della musica” and demonstrates the author’s most evocative prose and passionate argument for the power of music.  Guidiccioni writes: “no greater riches [than music] are sent from above to those who are most beloved on earth” (Appendix, 154). The last part of this clause is most revealing since it bespeaks the social tensions at the heart of religious reform; vis-à-vis Guidiccioni’s self-asserted perspective, it reveals a Catholic church not newly progressive but, rather, one that was deeply hierarchical. The most beloved, the most gifted by God were only those well-disposed listeners who possessed recte sentire, who, like Saint Francis, Guidiccioni, or other virtuosi of taste, could properly receive, understand, and relate the transcendent capabilities of music’s most otherworldly powers.

3.5 Ultimately, we see many of the book’s principal themes consolidate in Guidiccioni, a paradigmatic figure who essentializes the tightly shared disposition of the “godly courtier” with all the particular markers of social authority, masculinity, and spiritual identity that entwined during these very decades of Reformed Catholicism. We can imagine Listening as Spiritual Practice starting with Lelio Guidiccioni and fanning out from there; indeed, we might assume that the book’s conception originated from the discovery of this source, and the issues related to the larger context then followed. Whatever the method, it was a masterful choice to build gradually toward Guidiccioni as an epitomizing high point and to use the detailed excursions of the previous chapters to enrich and bring to fruition our understanding of the contested terrain over music’s signification and its role in the construction of socio-religious identity within this particular context.

3.6 The gears shift suddenly as we reach the last pages of Chapter 4 and take in Dell’Antonio’s assessment of Guidiccioni’s impact. After much effective argument over Guidiccioni and why his writings are important, Dell’Antonio ends this chapter and, in a sense, his book with a significant admission: well-disposed listening and “musicking” as a means to spiritual transcendence was really short-lived. It “does not seem to have taken significant hold in Italian musical circles beyond midcentury” (120). Dell’Antonio’s concluding chapter, “Envoy, From Gusto to Goût,” explores this observation as he migrates his focus to France to show that the analogies of transcendence between the Italian spiritual elite and the seventeenth-century French court began similarly but were eventually destabilized through the process of translocation, whereby ideologies lose the particulars from whence they were nurtured. We find out that the lack of a religious imperative in France altered the tenor of taste-making discourses toward worldly concerns of human interaction and social comportment only.

3.7 I found the enquiry and historical observation made here to be engaging and of great potential but somewhat underserved by the restricted space of an epilogue. It is indeed revealing to consider that the systematic contact between Italian and French elite may have provided a framework for secularizing aesthetic transport that marked early Enlightenment discourse on musical aesthetics. Even though Dell’Antonio admits that further exploration is warranted, I felt the initial issues raised in this discussion (ranging from cultural translocation and appropriation to worldly Epicureanism, Arcadianism, sensibilité, and the rise of the subject) were traversed too briefly to reap fully their critical potential. We also never learn in depth why the priorities of transcendence waned in Italy after the demise of the Barberini dynasty, though perhaps such an account might have run the risk of precipitating a larger study too weighty for concluding remarks. Instead of introducing concerns over longer-term historical development, Dell’Antonio’s parting thoughts could have well embraced more forcefully the singularity of his chosen moment of study as a crucial window into the socially specific ruptures—of class, gender, religion, and culture—that otherwise have not been viewed so syncretically via music practices.

3.8 The other lesson missed here is that the idea of struggle and assertion of authority in the face of crisis might be better understood in contradistinction to other voices. Were there any competing opinions among clerical writers over using sensual resources for divine purposes?[12] At times I wished for a more nuanced view so that distinctions could be drawn out to create a complex picture of music’s varied reception. Part of that could have been aided by further detail regarding music heard in situ: did a specific style of composition, genre, or perhaps individual piece connected to an event elicit more forceful responses than others? Was some music meant to be avoided? (It does seem that opera and its parallel history to sacred musical practices remain the elephant in the room.) But, in order to stay faithful to the priorities of discourse makers in his study, Dell’Antonio specifically avoids any discussion of actual music. I can understand his desire to refrain from tracing discourses to specific musical repertories or to make this a study about musical details. The effects of such choices would have limited the scope of his otherwise expansive approach, and I fully appreciate his subtle reading of discourses about music with great care and analysis of the rhetoric involved. Nevertheless, I wonder if his position goes too far, since this move misses the potential overlaps and revealing disjunctions that occur in the mediated “gap” between music sounding and music interpreted.[13]

4. Conclusions

4.1 Without a doubt, the rewards for reading this book are rich and plentiful. For a while now we have witnessed the scholarly shift in musicology away from composers and its turn toward patrons, performers, and of course, listeners. Dell’Antonio, however, is unique in capturing a fuller profile of the broker of culture, the tastemaker whose elite status and spiritual disposition inspired a particular interest in sound (for its transcendent capacity) and in the powers of listening to music. Through his study, we are reminded of the ways in which listening could be creative, virtuosic, performative; how listening represented forms of identity by which it could counteract historical forces and appropriate knowledge. Dell’Antonio reveals in this context that listening was rarely a solitary act. Its activity flourished best in a communal setting (albeit tightly shared among a restricted milieu) where meaning could be debated and eventually ordered and fixed by interacting discursively. The vital social dynamics at work in this context are a distinguishing feature of this author’s analysis.

4.2 For all these reasons this book is chock full of ideas that will attract a range of readers, from those interested in the sociocultural study of music, or the methodological treatments of listening and reception, to the period specialist focused on Seicento musical practices, both sacred and secular. Readers will be struck at the broad and interdisciplinary sources with which Dell’Antonio is conversant. He delves deeply in his reading of secondary literature, offering angles from the perspective of his evidence and analysis that finds new meanings in the writings and theories of other authors. I was enlightened by the sound studies of Bruce Smith, Steven Feld, and Peter Szendy as they applied to Dell’Antonio’s given case study, and I came away with new ways to read cultural historian Renato Ago’s analysis of elite collecting practices and to rethink Carolyn Abbate’s provocative gnostic vs. drastic debate.[14]

4.3 For readers of this journal, Dell’Antonio offers an especially important analytic regarding generic description of music, and he cautions against our application of anachronistic lenses. As he argues, seventeenth-century virtuosi of taste would have rejected the language that modern scholars wish they could find in contemporary accounts: technical description of the music, details about the composer, or mechanics of performance. These were elements associated with laborers of craft and were thus incongruent with connoisseurs’ interest and elite status. Most revealing is that discourse makers concerned with music were intentionally hermetic in their accounts. What could be read as seemingly superficial or enigmatic (appearing as if music were relatively unimportant or merely ornamental) was likely a shorthand, a means to jog one’s memory for more elaborate engagement and refined conversation over music’s subtle meaning(s). This critical revelation overturns our conception of music consumption. Perhaps we have put too much pressure on an event-driven perspective, missing—as Dell’Antonio effectively argues—that music could indeed be fixed in memory rather than tossed away after the moment. Memory was in fact a concern, as music had achieved a position of singular importance and increasingly inspired rapt attention.

4.4 If there is a word to mark the benefits from reading this book it would be to think of Dell’Antonio’s study as “inviting.” It is generous in its ideas and in its imperatives.  Listening as Spiritual Practice in Early Modern Italy invites us to read, and read anew the opaque traces that emerge from the texts of our research. Rather than providing final conclusions, Dell’Antonio encourages us to rethink our historical narratives as being less about a confirmed reality and more about revealing the individuals who constructed them—their individual desires, their spiritual dogma, their politics, their social concerns, and their changing views of music. This urge to think of history as a dynamic process may be the most valuable takeaway of all.

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