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Music as Text and Music as Image

Music as Text and Music as Image

Danielle Trynoski reports on the Opening Address at the Medieval Academy of America and Medieval Association of the Pacific Conference, UCLA, April 10-12, 2014: “Music as Text and Music as Image” by Susan Boynton of Columbia University.

Music as Text and Music as Image

The first event on the agenda for the 2014 joint MAA-MAP conference at UCLA was the opening address on April 10. Conference attendees were welcomed by Dr. Massimo Ciavolella (Director, UCLA Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies) and Dr. Scott Waugh (Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, UCLA). They praised the appropriate timing of the conference’s presence at UCLA, since the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies celebrated its 50th anniversary in the previous year. Drs. Ciavolella and Waugh praised the leadership of former directors Lynn White, William Matthews, and Patrick Geary, and expressed enthusiasm for the Center’s next 50 years. This opening led into another introduction, that of Sharon Gerstel, Professor of Byzantine Art and Architecture at UCLA. Dr. Gerstel welcomed Dr. Susan Boynton of Columbia University for the conference’s opening address. Dr. Boynton earned her Ph.D at Brandeis University in 1996 and is a highly recognized scholar of musicology. She was the recipient of the Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society in 2007 for her book Shaping a Monastic Identity: Liturgy and History at the Imperial Abbey at Farfa, 1000-1125. She followed this honor with the Robert M. Stevenson Award from the same society in 2012 for her publication, Silent Music: Medieval Song and the Construction of History in Eighteenth-Century Spain. Dr. Boynton contributes blogs for the Huffington Post, and has recently finished a book co-authored with Diane Reilly of Indiana University.

Capital in the basilica Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay _ Photo by Waldstein/Wikicommons
Capital in the basilica Sainte-Marie-Madeleine at Vézelay _ Photo by Waldstein/Wikicommons

With that description of her career highlights, Dr. Boynton took the stage and presented her paper “Music as Text and Music as Image.” Her presentation was accompanied by live performances of excerpts by UCLA Sounds Early Music Ensemble: ‘e.g. de Musica’  and members G. Edward Bruner, Christen Herman, Chris Green, George Sterne, Christopher Walker, directed by Martha Cowan. This was an extraordinary accessory to an interesting paper which examined the manifestation of medieval music in text and images. She started with a comparison of the 12th century capitals from Vézelay with demonic characters and musicians. Comparing these capitals to an Italian ivory from the 11th century, it was clear that the images had similar depictions of a musician playing a wind instrument and carrying a string instrument on his person. Are these images showing the topic of music? Or the topic of musicians? Was music being portrayed in a negative or positive matter? Dr. Boynton discussed some of the problems with interpreting the portrayal of an abstract idea such as sound, and the complications which time, religion, and cultural beliefs could have on those interpretations. In her paper, she explored some of these themes such as the idea of seeing music in a visual context, the conjunction of sound and image, and music as the subject and context of meaning.

She continued to make comparisons, examining sculpture and manuscripts. In the Musée Farinier capitals from Cluny II, now at the Cloisters, she demonstrated how some images could be directly related to medieval music, such as creating a progression which imitates chant modes. The characters in the progressive capitals sit, crouch, and stand, representing higher and lower tonal ranges. She paired her description of the capitals with a tonal manuscript from Toulouse, now in the British Library, but cautioned the audience that there are inherent difficulties with attempting to match particular images with particular sounds or musical elements. We can make broad connections, but should be wary of drawing direct relationships.

In her next example, she referenced Psalm 150:3-6 which encourages the worshipper to praise the Lord with trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dancing, strings, pipes, cymbals, and everything which has breath. Dr. Boynton points out that this cacophony of instruments would never be played simultaneously, but they are frequently depicted together to represent this Psalm. She showed two late medieval Italian pieces, a painted altar panel and an ivory carving. Both show choirs of angels actively playing these instruments. In these depictions of music and sound, the images are based on the text, rather than the realistic portrayal of musical performance. Dr. Boynton looked at other examples of music in manuscripts and discussed pages in psalters and books of hours. Illustrations in these books are linked to performances of prayers and chants, and inspire the reader/performer to hear music, animals, people, and birds with the images depicted. Dr. Boynton made a humorous reference to the noisily active fans in the room’s ceiling, exclaiming, “Indeed, we can hear the birds even now!”

Roman de FauvelAnother example of relationships between music and manuscripts is in the recording and illustration of songs. In the tradition of the Charivari, a medieval wedding custom, newly married couples must be awakened by a raucous song and music. This tradition is recorded in the Roman de Fauvel, and an extant copy with musical notation and extensive illustration is held by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. In the manuscript, readers are treated to a medieval multimedia presentation of lyrics, musical scores, and images on a single folio. Other ‘multimedia’ presentations exist in copies of the virelai, a danced song, which is a cyclical song format typically paired with a circle dance. Related melodies use repetitive lyrics to help dancers on beat. This discussion included a solo performance of the song in French/Old French, ‘Dame, a vous retollir.’

Dr. Boynton then returned to discussing images, and how popular image motifs inspired composers and musical trends.  The Icon of the Utmost Humiliation was a popular image copied in many locations and mediums, but based on the original in Constantinople at Santa Croce in Gerusaleme, c.1300. The image was copied widely in manuscripts and came to be associated with the prayers of St. Gregory. These prayers were set to music by the composer Josquin and became widely known. This discussion included a performance of the song by the group of the second prayer from Josquin des Prez’s motet. This piece of music did not have a place in the liturgy but was just a response to the visceral image of the icon. It included lyrics which directly referred to the physical elements of Christ’s suffering and would supposedly help the listeners or performers relate to Christ.

“Lord Jesus Christ, I adore you wounded on the cross
Sated with gall and vinegar; I beseech you that
Your wounds may be the healing of my soul.”

Next, she examined how text could directly affect images in popular thought and worship in the Short House of the Cross and specifically the Patris Sapientia hymn, recorded on a manuscript held by the Morgan Library. These Hours show cycle of hours with illustrations alongside the musical poetry of the hymn. This particular publication created a strong association between the poem and select images of Christ. The poem was set to music by the composer Loyset Compère. The audience was treated to a live performance of a hearty excerpt from this hymn including the Terce and the Domine strophes.

Since texts, compositions, and performances didn’t have assigned places in the liturgy, their interpretations were loose for singers, musicians, and listeners. When certain songs became associated with certain images, the meaning and perhaps the context of performance changed.

Dr. Boynton’s last example was an image of the Third Mass of Christmas, from a manuscript held in Osnabrück. Again, the reader was treated to a multimedia presentation. An image of the Holy Family was framed by an angel’s choir above and a nun’s choir below, with musical notation and lyrics accompanying the image. The nun leading the choir holds up the music for the choir to see, and points to the words on the page. This is likely representing the manifestation of the angels’ wordless choir in the earthly environment. Not only did the image personify the allegory of heavenly music being manifested on earth, but the idea of the musical record was present in both the image and the accompanying notation.

Dr. Boynton concluded that while music is manifested in a variety of forms in medieval media, “music is a constituent part of the self” and it would likely continue to entertain, amuse, and fascinate.

Below is an excerpt from the musical performance that accompanied this paper. Thank you to Sarah Kam-Gordon for providing this recording.

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