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Sex in the Early Modern City: Musical Eroticism in Rome

Final Report Summary - SEMCMER (Sex in the Early Modern City: Musical Eroticism in Rome)

Sex in the Early Modern City: Music and Eroticism in Rome examined the ways that norms of gender and sexuality were created, circulated, reinforced, policed and subverted in vocal music. It considered how the fashioning of gendered and sexed identities distinguished by class, ethnicity, race, region, religion (among other axes of difference) happened in, through and around music. It explained the function of erotic or equivocal song within specific social contexts, and its role in enabling the performance of early modern identities.

The project identified a body of sixteenth-century Italian secular and sacred song associated with eroticism. This corpus includes madrigals, strophic song, and sacred song dedicated to cardinals, bishops and other church men; noblewomen; and noblemen. The researcher transcribed and edited music from sixteenth-century prints, and examined archival documents associated with Roman baronial families, particularly the Orsini and Colonna. Early modern song texts depict a variety of archetypes distinguished by class, ethnicity, race, region, religion, gender and sexuality. It is rarely possible to identify precise audiences for music prints, but it is possible to consider the broad historical and cultural context of specific songs and publications, and to draw conclusions about the significance and meaning of those songs.

The sixteenth century saw a transformation of erotic cultures. The popular story is one of a move from comparative freedom of practice and licence to create, disseminate and consume erotic art, literature and song at the beginning of the century to a more restricted climate at the end of the century following the new moralism after the Catholic Reformation (also known as Tridentine Reform, and the Counter Reformation). Yet things were not that simple. Practice and ‘freedom’ varied between regions and towns, and intersecting sociocultural factors such as status and gender (among others) also significantly alter opportunities available. Women and men in lower social orders had a great deal more marital and relationship autonomy than elite people. Noble families controlled women’s sexuality in the families’ interests; young noblewomen not destined to marry and reproduce were enclosed in convents as brides of Christ. Young noblemen destined to marry were given keys to the house and a room on the ground floor so that they could explore a variety of sexual activities prior to fulfilling their reproductive function. Noblemen in the church were often not bound to celibacy. Indeed, Rome was famous salons in which cardinals and churchmen mingled with refined courtesans.

Much notated secular song employs layers of sexual innuendo that cannot be reduced to a single meaning. Rather, songs allow for multiple levels of understanding depending upon the audience’s familiarity with the contemporaneous erotic lexicon. Highbrow and lowbrow songs served to educate young women and young men alike in a range of practices and emotions, although it was not appropriate for them to respond in the same ways. Songs gave voice to feelings that would have been inappropriate to express in certain contexts. Strophic songs in particular could carry political valence. They often stereotype the presumed erotic license of lower social orders and voice resistance to authority, yet ultimately they uphold dominant social orders and values.

Unanticipated opportunities enabled the consideration of related issues in contemporary musics and culture. This included analysis of issues of subjectivity, labour, commercialisation, and fandom in relation to Lady Gaga. The researcher analysed sugar work creations of the star singer, including cakes of Lady Gaga created by fans, and an unlicensed commercial exploitation of Lady Gaga by an ice-cream parlour with a breast milk ice-cream.
The second strand was a feminist analysis of the discourse of purity around singing early music in twentieth century Britain. This found purity to be a discursive construct used to claim some singers and reject others. It implicitly classifies those identified as ‘not belonging’ as impure. The ideology of purity sits at the intersection of many axes of difference; its genealogy is one of moral, sexual and racial purity. The persistence of this discourse today contributes to the reproduction of cultural ideals that marginalize minorities while reinforcing the dominant social order. In vocal early music performing practice in Britain, sounds and vocal production techniques that could be related to Anglican cathedrals and collegiate chapels (countertenors, choirboys, and women’s voices considered choirboy-like) were associated with purity; sounds and techniques associated with classically-trained women singers, and with folk-influenced vocal production were considered impure and inauthentic. In the late twentieth century, the discourse over purity in early music was one way in which Britain’s anxieties over belonging were worked through in cultural production. The Immigration Act (1968) and the Nationality Act (1981) bookend a period of overlapping approaches to women’s early music singing: one a ‘noisy’ approach using folk singing techniques, the other a ‘pure’ one associated, correctly or otherwise, with Anglican institutions. By the 1980s, the ‘noisy’ trend was firmly rejected and the ‘pure’ one embraced. The sound of women’s early music singing that subsequently dominated is akin to a sound of white Britishness.


Impact and Use
Music is complex dynamic system enabling identity development and performance. In addition to contributing to the history of music, the research contributes to the understanding of the history of sexuality, and, since sexuality is fundamental to the way in which we become subjects, questions of subjectivity and agency. Work in these areas can help to make diverse sexualities and diverse ways of being human visible, speakable and culturally intelligible. This is an important issue to young Europeans (European Community White Paper ‘A New Impetus for European Youth’ [COM (2001) 681 Final]). It is vital to make clear the long history of sexual diversity in Europe, and the long history of music’s role in sexualities, as a means to work against discrimination on grounds of sexuality and to support and encourage a healthy attitude to diversity.

The work on discourses of purity in early music performing practice carries implications for the current turn toward multicultural fusions of early music with world and folk musics. Such fusions might serve to highlight whiteness without dismantling its attendant power structures. The research begun during this project has the potential to prompt reflection and stimulate change in cultural production.


Further Information

Dr Melanie L. Marshall
Department of Music
University College Cork
Cork
Co. Cork
Ireland

ml.marshall@ucc.ie


Prof. Jonathan Stock
Department of Music
University College Cork
Cork
Co. Cork
Ireland

j.stock@ucc.ie


Project Website and Blog

http://www.melanielmarshall.com/