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.


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.