The Artusi-Monteverdi controversy: The ‘Mistress’ of Harmony

Novelty is contentious. Breaking preconceived expectations of formal structures will immediately cause the establishment to question why. Claudio Monteverdi was not invested in pragmatism. His madrigals, and their unruly denouncement of acceptable musical practices implies this. The Monteverdi-Artusi controversy remains a key example of compositional change whereby an older generation of artists, Giovanni Artusi in this instance, were repelled by a novel reinterpretation of the madrigal. Due to the lack of clear modality and, thereby, ‘instability’ in his writing, Artusi described Monteverdi’s music and being ‘unnaturally feminine, and feminizing of both its practitioners and its listeners’. Artusi’s approach highlights the so-called ‘weakness’ of the new radical music in the eyes of conservative musical practice. In response to these remarks, Monteverdi stated that his novel style of musical composition was as a result of building music determined by the text that he set. By arguing that ‘words are the mistress of the harmony, not the servant’, we can assert that Monteverdi’s focus is on how text is conveyed, utilising and bending predetermined rules and expectations of compositional form in a new form of rhetoric.

But what does this gendered language mean culturally? Views on gender in Renaissance Italy were just as complex and diverse as they are now. Part of unpacking this dispute relies on understanding the difference between two tropes regarding femininity. Artusi’s statement plays on concepts of feminine (not women, crucially) as unstable and overly emotional, and therefore frightening. His issue is with a lack of balance. Monteverdi claims that there is in fact balance, simply that it is flipped around. He still posits the music as a masculine, commanding force, but that the balance is found in equal servitude and new rules. Crucially, a mistress has class connotations. She has power, responsibility, and in some cases, forms of direct capital. She also has institutional positioning, which implies some sense of known boundaries and control. In a sense, she is the “good woman” who knows her place (the second trope of femininity). 


What this means in terms of sexualization of singers is another story for another month!

Drama at the Court of Ferrara

Following on my last post, we’ve been inspired to base it’s second opera production on the lives of the Concerto Delle Donne. This project will help counter the deeply prevalent bias in the Oxford choral scene towards male composers in late 16th-century Italy by showing the creativity and cultural relevance of Cesarina Ricci and the Concerto Delle Donne. Featuring a dramatised performance of Cesarina Ricci’s Il Primo Libro di Madrigali and songs by Barbara Strozzi, this opera collage explores the lives of three courtly women on the night of Anna Guarini’s murder by her husband in the last days of the D’Este court at Ferrara. Ricci’s works have not been performed since their publication in 1597. 

Our production aims to uncover the nuances of the women involved in this prolific ensemble. We hope to demonstrate their passions, fears and flaws in an attempt to move interpretations of these women and their artistry beyond the notion of the ‘sexualised other’.  Dates are set to be February 21 & 22 in St Mary Magdalen Church- you heard it hear first!

The Power of the Female Voice in Italian Madrigals
By Isobel Rose

Image result for barbara strozzi‘Women will always be the centre of sexual difference’ ~Bonnie Gordon, Musicologist at University of Virginia

Taken from her reading of Italian Madrigals performed by women in the early sixteenth century, Gordon’s views on this extremely interesting era of music making hilights Italian madrigals as an alternative space to sacred vocal settings. This is a useful starting place to unpack our understanding of women and performance in Western Classical music. This topic has fascinated me since my undergraduate studies, with many scholars using the Italian Madrigal as an example for contextualising the sexualisation, and therefore compartmentalisation of women in musical settings, both sacred and secular. Over the coming months I will be exploring existing debate on the topic, the ways in which they are realised in contemporary performance spaces, and how we might attempt to navigate these objectifying readings of women in order to tell new narratives that go beyond the preconceived ‘sexual difference’.

Image result for concerto delle donneThe Concerto delle donne were a group of professional female singers in the court of Ferrara who provided a regular a source of controversy. Two sisters, Lucrezia and Isabella Bendidio, Leonora Sanvitale and Vittoria Bentivoglio were the first women to perform as part of this, originally amateur, group. They performed virtuosic works for the court of Ferrara (the House of Este), which, Suzanne Cusick argues that, demonstrated the style of the Madrigal as an unruly female form. This was not simply through the act of performing ‘modern’ music that deviates from conventional compositional practice, but also deeming women as the sexualised ‘other’, thereby immediately objectifying their performances, regardless of the content they performed. Such a conception of women in music is not unrecognisable today. Sexualisation of contemporary female artists is a regular occurrence, from misogynistic content of numerous hit songs, to female artists being consistently held to standards that undermines their artistic agency in the music industry. Macy argues that according to Pseudo-Galen medical understanding of the female anatomy of the 16th century, it was accepted that the upper and lower region of the female body were mirror images of each other. The throat and mouth were considered as having identical mechanism and functions of the vulva and vagina. It was believed that if a woman was to use her throat and mouth for singing therefore, the emission of pleasant sound might be deemed as an inherently sexual act. As absurd as this sounds today, the fact that women’s voices were inherently sexualised through this anatomical understanding in the early 16th Century reinforces the perception that women might only sing for sexual gratification as the sexualised ‘other’. Their voices were thought to have held no other power beyond this expectation.

This does not mean that women have been unable to reappropriate such assumptions of sexuality to obtain agency in performance. The female voice can offer a liberation that defies the alleged political and social limitations of the sexualised ‘other’ of which women are often perceived. Will women ever escape this paradigm? One has to assume that liberation can only lie in the adoption and ownership of the sexual difference which our voices appear to represent. 

Practical music making and feminist pedagogy:
A short introduction
By Isobel Rose

What is a choral director? What do they look like?

Following a basic browse search experiment for ‘choral directors’ – I was offered a host of descriptions, and the following from Career trend offers what I believe to be an epitome of conventional expectations:

“Throughout the rehearsal process, a choir director both teaches his singers the music and finesses their interpretation of the delivery of it. Additionally, the director ensures that the appearance of the choir meets the organizations standards. Once the music has been perfected, he leads the group in performance.”

I will take it as read that these expectations come as no surprise within, certainly the British, choral tradition as we see it in contemporary music culture. It is commonly accepted that choirs today, from small school chamber choirs to large scale Choral societies follow the standard construct of following a pre-determined director in the form of a conductor, whether professional or amateur. This individual is responsible for the artistic, and practical arrangements of the ensemble. The director, in order to be offered, or self-appoint, such a position, is expected to hold a significant amount of practical experience, and musical expertise and knowledge, which they can successfully deliver in the form of regular rehearsals and, eventually, a performance. Patricia O’Toole’s dissertation on the subject regularly refers to Foucault’s philosophy on the subject of power operations within an establishment, creative or otherwise. Foucault himself discusses the idea of Bentham’s panopticon watchtower, a theoretical geometrical whereby a central watchtower stands at the centre of a circle allowing for clear, uninterrupted surveillance of those members that exist as part of the circle. Such a structure of surveillance can be clearly seen in the physical space which creates a choir. At the centre of a semi-circle of singers stands the director who can be seen by all and whose power over the group subsequently removes autonomy of individual singers who are part of this ensemble. Through this structure, the director holds spatial, political and creative power. O’Toole argues that, in such an uneven power dynamic, we can often see detrimental impacts to the individuals that make up the directed group. Personal autonomy is systematically undercut.

It is impossible to ignore the fundamental pedagogical undertones that exist as part of musical ensembles. As mentioned above, directors are commonly expected to hold a wealth of knowledge and experience which they can pass on to ‘their’ singers in order to aid the artistic development of the group. This can take all manner of forms, from awareness of tuning, intonation and strong vocal technique, to interpretation the music performed and the choice of repertoire to suit the accessed skills of the singers in the ensemble. Music making is an inherently educational process, achieved through social interaction and collaboration, and personal appraisal of skills and their implementation.

However, when one individual takes unchecked responsibility and control of these elements, ensembles run the risk of becoming spheres where only those with predetermined power and privilege can go on to determine its artistic output, and the subsequent development of skills within the ensemble. This hegemonic power goes on to perpetuate itself in multiple avenues, whether this be the choice of repertoire, it’s interpretation, the expectations of singers, and types of singers that are offered the opportunity to take part in the performances. To explain in simple terms, this is how the musical canon is created: music written, almost exclusively by white, cis-gendered men in the Western Classical genre, is then endorsed and performed by the kyriarchal (all oppressive systems including the patriarchal) structure in which their work is promoted. This work can then be easily published into sheet music allowing for further performances to take place, thereby solely reincarnating the work of white cis-gendered men.

There is hope, however, in the potential to fundamentally restructure the expectations of choral singing, one which I believe can be achieved through feminist pedagogy. Feminist pedagogy is not a specific study of solely cis-gendered women and girls within education. Whilst it commonly offers women as an example of a marginalised group within establishments and cultures such as choral singing, it focuses instead on self-inclusion, amongst groups that face marginalisation within established educational settings. It aims to promote inclusion of groups on an intersectional basis, including those of all gender, race, class, sexuality, religion and age to name but a few. Feminist pedagogy, according to Wolfe-Hill, looks towards equalisation of power dynamics within an educational space. Wolfe-Hill quotes the work of Crabtree, concluding that feminist pedagogy aims to promote ‘development of the individual, through learning environments that are “cooperative rather than competitive”’. I argue that such cooperation within supportive working environments offers key development for personal development through autonomous learning, a fundamental aspect of contemporary pedagogy. The individual must work in tandem with the collective in a balanced, interdependent partnership.

In practical terms, feminist pedagogy within a choral setting takes the form of fluid leadership, whereby directorship, if applicable, is rarely focused and controlled by one individual. Instead, directorship is both shared and inclusive. This can be seen most clearly in ensembles that do not have a conductor. Instead the director, if they exist for practical reasons, performs as part of the ensemble, thereby removing the politicised space of a central ‘watchtower’ of knowledge and power at the centre of the ensemble. If there does happen to be a conductor, this is for purely practical reasons of maintaining a beat, offering leads, and being an outside pair of ears that can offer suggestions to the group from an external perspective. This is part of a mutually understood agreement that each individual in the group is part of a wider collaborative experience, whereby the autonomy of each performer is both respected and encouraged. Such collaboration can be achieved in a number of ways. KC has enjoyed exploring its repertoire through discussion and experimentation. On a practical level, limits on rehearsal time requires some executive decision to be made on behalf of the group. This directorship however, changes regularly, and functions as part of an open, accountable forum, in which all members are free to put forward ideas and interpretation should they feel so inclined. Not only does this encourage autonomous learning, but it also promotes a wider acceptance of pedagogical space, where experience and knowledge is shared between multiple individuals. In this way, the group will always aim to remain accountable and open to new ideas, stories and artistic interpretation.

What I’m Reading:

Click to access O%27Toole%20I%20Sing%20In%20A%20Choir.pdf

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