Decency

Paul Schleuse in a comment on a previous post raised the issue of decency and ensemble performance – titillation or something else? This is something that Paul deals with brilliantly in an essay he wrote for a collection I’m co-editing in relation to quasi-theatrical song. I’m not going to preempt publication here, but there’s certainly food for thought in the issues raised: who is the audience for this kind of thing? Who sang it? And what does it mean, what is it’s cultural significance in the various performing contexts and for the various parties involved?

The issue of decency is fascinating. Giovanni Della Casa, in his Galateo (published posthumously), points out that declaring something decent or indecent is not at all straightforward. Words can have an entirely decent (innocent) meaning but be comprised of hidden indecencies. Della Casa’s example is rinculare, which includes the suggestive syllables in cul (in ass). My guess is Della Casa’s having a bit of fun with this, and with his interlocutor. However, there are times when a composer might choose to highlight hidden indecencies in setting the text. (Well, there is at least one time: I have a particular example by Perissone Cambio in mind.) Under these kinds of circumstances, there’s an element of plausible deniability–the writer/composer could claim the obscenity is in the reader’s/musician’s/censor’s mind. In effect, that this is a kind of queer or obscene reading strategy. There are plenty of examples of obscure poetry that make more sense when read in this manner than when read only with a ‘surface’ meaning (Burchiello, for example).

Performing suggestive texts (as opposed to downright obscene texts) in well-to-do circles, I have argued, might be a kind of test of gentility–does everyone respond in a socially acceptable manner? Do they exhibit appropriate decorum? Do they laugh when they are supposed to laugh and do they ignore the doppi sensi (double meanings) when they are supposed to ignore them? But I am becoming increasingly suspicious that many of our ideas about what was socially acceptable in sixteenth-century Italy are still somewhat influenced by Victorian-era thinking. Sure, 16th-c moralists would have preferred there to be no innuendo. (One point made in Galateo is that the trouble with hidden meanings is that you might be misunderstood: in order to make sure there is no confusion, one should speak as clearly and straightforwardly as possible.) And they would have liked there to be no bawdy song or lascivious singing too. But society was not composed entirely of moralists. People sang dirty ditties anyway. Monks embellished tunes to such an extent that they offended some sensibilities and were subject to accusations of lasciviousness and vanity. It is not properly representative to interpret a culture just through the lens of moralists’ theories about how things should work. People rarely do what they’re told, and the number of times the complaints were repeated suggests that the moralists were fighting a losing battle.