Fifty Shades

Article excerpt

Fifty shades Desire and pleasure in seventeenth-century music Susan McClary University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2012); xiii, 34opp; £41.95, $60. ISBN 978 o 520 24734 5.

According t? Susan McClary, the central experiences of 17th-century music are desire, in the form of protracted, and often frustrated, approaches to the cadence ('extended trajectories of desire') and pleasure ('prolonged, yet affectively heightened stasis'). She has written before, and most illuminatingly, on modal music in the 1 6th century (notably in Modal subjectivities, University of California Press, 2004). In Desire and pleasure she focuses on a period in which modal and diatonic languages co-existed in 50 shades of tonality, so that analysis needs to take account both of the varieties of modal resolution and the more familiar dynamics of tonal cadences. This, then, is a book about the evolution of a sense of direction in 17th-century music.

McClary would probably challenge the Darwinian implications of 'evolution'. She is concerned to deny that music progressed from mode to scale, and we are expressly warned not to see the one as leading inevitably to the other. Tonality, she argues, is not to be considered a more sophisticated language than the modal system; indeed some of the earliest manifestations of tonality in Venetian opera were regressive, a blatant response to commercial pressures to produce music that was both quick to write and easy to understand. The contemporaneous move from monody to aria reflected the same priorities. There is a convincing range of examples to show that something was lost - a degree of seriousness, a nuanced expressivity, subtle structural ambiguities - in the rampant growth of diatonic tonality. On the credit side, tonality enabled new genres to emerge, bringing coherence to expanded units of thought. The goal-oriented impulse of tonal music, with defining perfect cadences, structured sequences of modulations and reprises of tune and key, was quick to generate new forms that replaced the 'moment' in a Renaissance madrigal by the 'movement' in an 18th-century sonata. Above all - and the development is most noticeable in liturgical music - musical forms were freed from dependence on verbal texts.

Only France resisted the trend, prolonging the use of modal language as an occasional flavour, often indicative of high social status or sophisticated expression, through to the end of the 17th century. In three chapters devoted to the special case of French music in the late baroque, M c Clary, in a happy metaphor, contrasts the narrative effect of Italian music with the still life of French models. National taste and cultural politics conspired to dictate the necessity of putting as much clear water as possible between French and Italian culture. Only tragédie lyrique retained recitative as the language of heroes, with airs relegated to servants and confidants. Only French keyboard music avoided the extended modulatory schemes of Italian and Germanic suites and sonatas, and rejected textures that exploited imitation and motivic coherence. Remarkably, France had to wait until 1682 for the first native opera in which the majority of numbers are in diatonic major keys: Lully's Persée. This opera is also notable for its powerful portrayal of the tragic anti-heroine Mérope, whose unresolved passions of love and revenge linger to cast a long shadow over the happy ending. …