Renaissance Art and Music

: the space between

Interdisciplinary Music: playing nice with the other kids

From Chansons d'Amour, France 15th Century.

From Chansons d’Amour, France 15th Century.

Musicologist Susan McClary addresses music and interdisciplinary study in her controversial and seminal book, Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal. She points out that most New Historicists depend principally on literature, theatre, and painting for their evidence, not music, mostly because of the specialised knowledge required for musical analysis. Often, interdisciplinary scholars such as Penelope Gouk have interrogated music’s contemporary place in early modern history/culture, but essentially eschew any involvement with the actual musical notes.

As McClary cautions, ‘if music is to figure as anything other than a mere epiphenomenon … then we must find approaches that will allow us to examine its meanings. Otherwise, we will continue simply to graft music onto an already-formulated narrative of historical developments; more important, we will fail to learn what music might have to teach us or to question seriously what may be incomplete accounts of the past’.[1]  This is a basic issue of the interdisciplinary humanities in a New Historicist world. But I cannot help but wonder if this idea short-changes the technical knowledge specific to the study of, for example, art history? With my untrained eye, I can look at a painting and make observations, identify some iconography, and make personal judgments, and certainly those not trained in music can do the same by hearing a work played. But I suppose the inherent difference is that unless one knows how to read the score, a piece must be performed (an act inherently mediated), therefore making music seem a lot less accessible to the layperson than art, which doesn’t need to be recreated to exist.  The ease with which a non-art historian may appropriate certain techniques from the discipline, makes it seem more available than a lifeless sheet of music… but is it? (Any art historians have a comment on this? I’d love to hear it. Perhaps there are forms of mediation in the presentation of art that are less obvious, like reproductions or the way a curator displays the works, etc.) Something tells me there must be a way around this.

What we are presented with is an issue both systemic and ideological, one I have seen throughout my academic life as a musicologist who hangs out primarily in the history and English sections of the library.[2] Early modern scholarship is particularly receptive to interdisciplinary study, perhaps because the constructed divisions between disciplines were naturally more blurred in this time period. In the early seventeenth century, for example, music was a science, studied not only by patrons, composers, and musicians, but it also figured centrally in written works and studies by the first empirical, scientific minds: Francis Bacon, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton. Yet even with the innovative interdisciplinary ‘renaissance studies’-type departments/degrees cropping up all over, rarely do you see musical training or musicologists involved at all. Students in such programmes might receive instruction in Latin language, reading Shakespeare historically, iconography, and archival work, but not musical analysis. Moreover, it is similarly rare to find a master’s degree in musicology that provides deliberate training in iconography and the analysis of visual art.

Would a musicologist work in an interdisciplinary department if they cannot teach analysis? Should it be offered as an optional module like the Latin language often is? Or do we teach it historically without technical analysis? But if we take technical analysis out of music are we left with McClary’s ‘mere epiphenomenon’, simply, as Peter Burke has also cautioned against, appropriating the developments of other New Historicist interrogations of literature and art without adding anything new or preserving the (supposed) unique and inherent value of musical analysis?[3] Music was as central a part of early modern life (and our existing representation of it) as theatre, art, and poetry. Do we then require that students of renaissance history also learn the skills necessary for proper musical analysis? And what skills are those exactly? Not simply reading the score, but also how to interpret the music in a meaningful way. McClary has put forth her answer in Modal Subjectivities, though, in my opinion, it is still unapproachable to most.

How might these issues be addressed or overcome, while still doing justice to the unique capacities of each discipline involved? Clearly we cannot answer such lofty questions in a humble blog post (if such answers exist at all), but I hope that the RA&M initiative, along with early modern scholarship’s somewhat ‘natural’ interdisciplinary tendencies, will help to begin addressing some of the questions brought up here, not only for renaissance art and music, but for music’s role in interdisciplinary study in general.


[1] Susan McClary, Modal Subjectivities: Self-Fashioning in the Italian Madrigal, 1st ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 9.

[2] The issues are somewhat different in the US and UK academic systems. My undergraduate institution in America struggled with new and better ways to integrate music history and theory, to varying degrees of success, while also trying to prevent the alienation of non-music majors who may have wished to take courses from the Music Department. Should innovative courses that attract non-majors (and of course, funds) to the department, such as the Music of the Caribbean or the History of Electronic Dance Music just focus on the history or do they include analytical portions that may challenge or deter non-musically trained students? This, of course, isn’t as much of an issue at select universities in the UK where students basically need at least two grade 8s plus one in theory just to be admitted to read music (or even chemistry…).

[3] Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Use of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

2 comments on “Interdisciplinary Music: playing nice with the other kids

  1. Maxime Rischard
    January 28, 2013

    It’s so much easier to explain a painting to a layperson than a symphony. You can’t just show them something, you have to convince them that it’s in the music, and that the composer intended it. ‘How do you know?’ Is a hard question to answer.

    • renaissanceartandmusic
      January 29, 2013

      Particularly difficult in the early modern period, as we have so little remanence about the composers/artists (let alone their intentions!) at all. Thanks for your comment, Maxime!

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This entry was posted on January 28, 2013 by in Blog Post.

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