Music and Care of the Self

Old Bailey

I’m working on a paper for a conference next month on subjectivation, subjectification—how one becomes a subject. I was struck by Foucault’s passing remark in ‘The Subject and Power’ that to look at an idea, one can start by looking at its opposite—to look at sanity, one might study madness, and so on. (This is exactly what Foucault did.) I began to wonder about looking at unmusicality. What would that entail? Perhaps looking at records of music students, instrumental or vocal pupils, who are apparently unteachable (of which I am yet to find any evidence—it seems only good reports have survived), or perhaps examining other kinds of unmusical sounds. So, I began with trying to find instances of noise making. Following Jacques Attali and Peter Bailey, I’m treating noise as a broad category—that is, not defining it solely as white noise, background noise, or as culturally unintelligible sounds, but also as ‘music-out-of-place’ (Bailey’s phrase), music that is happening in the wrong place at the wrong time, and sounds that are out of place. Legal records seemed like a good place to start, since that’s where one might expect to find not only complaints about sound-out-of-place (breach of the peace and that kind of thing) but also because in court defendants are often required to give an account of themselves, and the court judges the truth of that account. If defendants won’t account for their behavior, or if the court thinks the explanation is faulty, then the court gives an account which is considered to be the truth. (Obviously there’s much more going on, but this is just a blog post!) I came across some interesting incidents in the Old Bailey Online, including some which I think illustrate that the understanding of some kind of relationship between music or noise and ideas of selfhood.

Certain types of music-making are recounted by witnesses or descriptions as preludes to a crime. In one case, music covered the noise of another crime: William Linch, an Irishman, and three friends took turns at singing ballads loudly at the street door so that the noise would cover the sound of the others picking the lock of a trunk. But more significant, I think, is the mention of bawdy song and musicke houses as a first step toward a life of crime, or as an incriminating detail about someone’s behavior.

Mary Raby, alias Rogers, alias Jackson, alias Brown appears in numerous criminal records in the late 1690s, sometimes described as a common strumpet, or a lewd woman, but most often her name is connected with theft (grand larceny). Mary was executed, on 3rd November, 1703, for a robbery that she claimed she did not commit. At the gallows, condemned prisoners were given a final opportunity to confess their sins, to speak the truth about themselves to God before the watching public. Mary was given several opportunities to speak since the Newgate Ordinary was concerned that she hadn’t yet owned up to her part in the robbery, and eventually she gave a relatively full account of her self in relation to other sins. Mary “owned that she had been a very great Sinner indeed, One that was guilty of Sabbath-breaking, Swearing, Drinking, Lewdness, Buying, Receiving, and Disposing of Stoln Goods, Harbouring of ill People.” When pressed further to confess to the robbery for which she would hang, Mary said, “often she had been abused, by being accus’d, and thought guilty of Facts which she had not done, because she had the Name (and that not undeservedly) of being an Ill-liver.” Mary even ventured to explain how she started down this path: on her own admission, “her frequenting Musick-houses, and such like Places, was the beginning of her ruin”. Mary offers this detail as an explanation of how she fell into criminal behavior; its function in this narrative is to tell a truth about her self.

Something similar can be seen in the account of a murder trial of January 1681. A gentleman called John Swift went to supper with Charles Jones and another gentleman in the Savoy, London. Swift and Jones quarreled over Jones’ “Singing a Baudy Song under a Ladies Window, which [he] did aggravate with many base words”. Evidently they got into some kind of fight, and Jones was restrained by another, unnamed gentleman. Swift, “desiring to avoid farther mischif” left for home, but Jones got away from the man holding him and followed Swift. The latter, “standing upon his defence had the ill hap to wound him under the right Pap [breast], of which wound in a short time he dyed.” The jury “found that what was done, was for self Preservation, and thereupon returned [a verdict of] Se Defendendo”, self defence. It seems to me that Swift began to defend himself long before he drew his sword. In fact, he began to defend himself when he walked away from the bawdy singing. The act of singing under a lady’s window is dishonorable for many reasons: it insults the lady—the term indicates a woman of good character and perhaps some social standing—and, if there was one, the man of the house. Swift did not want to implicate himself in this act and walked away, thus defending himself from accusations of impropriety or of insulting someone’s honor. Music-out-of-place serves to illustrate truth about selfhood: the man who did the singing is clearly antisocial and insulting, and thus it is more believable that he should initiate a physical attack on his departing friend. Swift, in walking away, showed himself to be made of more honorable stuff. By not participating in music-out-of-place, Swift reveals truths about himself: good judgement, and self-control. Not only is this evidence of his good character and lack of ill-will, but it also suggests there is little need for the court to discipline him, since the narrative shows he has the ability to discipline himself.

In late seventeenth-century English courts, bawdy singing reveals an individual’s lack of self-control, lack of self-discipline, and, if not criminal behavior in itself, does suggest a propensity to criminality. It’s a kind of gateway to moral decay. Of course, these are the values set out by courts prosecuting crimes that are much more serious than making music in the wrong time and place; it is quite possible that there was a right time and place for bawdy song (as there seems to have been in sixteenth-century Italy, but that’s material for a future post). The one thing these accounts share is that in each case music has not been used to care for the self, to improve the self and strengthen virtue, but rather to corrupt the self.


Photo of the Old Bailey by Joe Dunckley on Flickr.


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.