Suggestive Song Facilitated Care of the Self

Palazzo Barbaran Da Porto

Palazzo Barbaran Da Porto by David Nicholls (netNicholls).


In ‘Music and Care of the Self’ last month I wondered whether certain accounts from the Proceedings of the Old Bailey could indicate something of how music was seen to interact with ideas of selfhood and subjectivity. In the stories I selected, it seemed the accused’s response to music was considered to reveal something about their nature: in Mary Raby’s case, frequenting music houses indicated a predilection for sin, while John Swift walked away from inappropriate music-making as an act of self-defence. And I was curious about the potential relationship between these stories and the collection and performance of suggestive strophic songs in sixteenth-century Italian academies.

The strophic song genres I was thinking of are the villotta alla padoana (quasi-peasant song in the Paduan manner) and the canzone villanesche alla napolitana (peasant-like song in Neapolitan style). They’re often written in dialect, although the language can be toned down for publication. The names villotta and villanesca are thought to derive from the Venetian and Italian words for peasant, and for a long time the songs were thought to be songs of the people (the folk, in that German, 19th-century invention). It seems to be a bit more complicated than that–yet to be teased out–but the songs we know of from the middle of the 16th century were printed and often dedicated to minor nobility. They were owned by academies (and others).

One publication that still fascinates me is Filippo Azzaiolo’s first book of villotte from 1557. Azzaiolo dedicated the book anonymously to Pandolfo Rucellai, the nephew of Giovanni della Casa, and the cover of the book bears the device of the Accademia dei Costanti of Vicenza. The Costanti (the Constant Ones) met for about 10 years starting in 1556. Few records have survived, but it seems to have been an opportunity for men from elite Vicentine families to get together to hear and discuss lectures, poetry, literature, and to make music. It was rather like the Accademia Filarmonica of Verona, which was founded in 1543 and is still going today. Montano Barbaran was a member (that’s his palazzo in the picture—the facade is by Andrea Palladio, the famous Vicentine architect); he employed a musician in his household, owned a number of musical instruments, and appears also to have enjoyed Vicentine dialect poetry.

Azzaiolo’s songs draw on an extensive erotic lexicon—there were thousands of Italian words with double meanings—that means they are open to quite subversive readings.  There’s a song asking a girl called ‘Tasty’ (Saporita) to bring her ‘fresh fig’ to her lover, and comparing her to the famously beautiful Princess of Salerno—a compliment for Saporita, and an insult to the Princess of Salerno; other songs allude to erotic acts that were then illegal or considered immoral. And some songs seem entirely innocent. Azzaiolo published three collections of villotte, all with similar content. This first book and the third book open with dedications that make reference to the power of music to spur people to action, or provide respite for afflicted souls. This kind of expression of the importance of music is usually associated with highbrow genres rather than with the lowly strophic song. So, it seems that, if only for Italian academicians (not just in Vicenza but also in Verona, Venice, Siena, Florence, Rome, Naples…), even suggestive song was considered to have potential benefits for the soul.

Justifications of music as a way of caring for the self were nothing new, and were not exclusive to musicians. For example, Baldassare Castiglione’s popular Book of the Courtier contained similar pronouncements in the debate over whether the courtier should play music. (There is a proper time and place for music, and the courtier mustn’t do it too much lest he neglect his duties.) Gioseffo Zarlino, a composer and organist based in San Marco, Venice and author of several music treatises, devoted several chapters to the importance and significance of music study. He says that it is key to combine practical and theoretical study of music, and he also urges temperance—like someone who drinks too much, someone who plays music too much makes a fool of themselves, and overindulges their senses. Zarlino says that music and gymnastics should be studied together so that a certain balance is kept. He is keen to distinguish music from the bodily discipline of gymnastics, and make it instead some other kind of training—I want to say intellectual, but perhaps he saw it more in spiritual terms. (The body-mind-soul division comes later.) In any case, he says that music and gymnastics should be studied together so that a certain balance is kept. Even Zarlino doesn’t really distinguish between kinds of music; he makes a passing comment about indecent/dishonest music, but that comes together with his thoughts on avoiding sensual excess, so it might suggest an occasional lascivious song is ok. It’s worth thinking about Zarlino’s audience, here, too. Zarlino is concerned to establish music as something to do in leisure time, which might suggest he’s not really aiming his thoughts at professional musicians, but at dilettante musicians.

Putting this together with the stories of Mary Raby and John Swift, it seems that there is a time and a place for everything. Music can be an important way to care for the self, providing it doesn’t become an intoxicating over-indulgence. You want to play or listen to music in the right place and hobnob with the right people (develop genteel contacts rather than cutpurse contacts–so avoid Mary Raby’s music house). But music can also function as a way to demonstrate that you know how to respond. This is perhaps especially true of suggestive song. It’s not always a life or death matter as it was for John Swift, but when a young man is sitting around with fellow academicians of an evening, he needs to be able to laugh the right amount at the right things. Academies provided an opportunity to develop a social network, and to foster social cohesion. They do that by providing people with opportunities to demonstrate that they know the social codes, and when it’s ok to bend or break them, and when it’s important to follow them. That kind of training could be important when an acquaintance starts singing dirty songs under a lady’s window.

If you’re interested where this is heading, you may wish to have a look at the summary of my paper for the Oldenburg selfhood conference.