Monteverdi's Unruly Women: The Power of Song in Early Modern Italy

By Vavoulis, Vassilis | Notes, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Monteverdi's Unruly Women: The Power of Song in Early Modern Italy


Vavoulis, Vassilis, Notes


Monteverdi's Unruly Women: The Power of Song in Early Modern Italy. By Bonnie Gordon. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism.) [x, 234 p. ISBN 0-52184529-7. $80.] Index, bibliography, music examples.

This monograph is the latest addition to the series "New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism" published by Cambridge University Press. The first chapter, subtitled "Mouths, Breath, and Throats in Early Modern Italy," uses the Aristotelian and Galenic views of the human body prevalent in the late Renaissance to present a thought-provoking reading of Monteverdi's soprano duet "O come sei gentile" (seventh book, 1619). Gordon sees this as "an affair of throats [that] allows for a discussion of the ways that throats were imagined to work and the discourses that circumscribed that working" (p. 12). Her argument is that, by singing this music, women of the time transcended the condition and ethos (in the Aristotelian sense) customarily attributed to them, and became bold, warm, singing bodies. This is an act of empowerment as, traditionally, female bodies were thought to be cold(er) than those of hot-tempered men, an attitude nurtured not only by the patriarchal status quo, but also a long-standing medical discourse that saw female bodies in this way. Galen lived at the end of the Greek medical tradition and his views, and mistakes, remained current up to the sixteenth century when the Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius began his challenge of the Galenic doctrine. Despite this, Gordon, and others scholars, believe that Galen's views remained valid well into the seventeenth century and beyond, and she presents a substantial defense of the importance of Galen throughout the period covered by her examples (p. 13).

Galenic medicine imposed an interesting identification between the female throat and the vagina as two openings which interconnected and were the source of heat in female bodies, pulsating during the menstrual cycle, intercourse, and, as Gordon proposes, singing. This connection is not as strained as it seems at first, if one considers that early medicine considered the female neck area to elongate during sexual activity, when the cold female body changed to hot transcending its normal condition. This discourse, Gordon argues, is not only valid for how women singers saw themselves, but also for how they were perceived externally, and how composers wrote for them using sensual and sexual themes in the covert metaphorical language of the time.

It is not that this link is made here for the first time (see Camillo Maffei's 1562 letter on singing; Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 199O]; and Laura Macy's "Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal," Journal of Musicology 14, no. 1 [Winter 1996): 1-34). But by putting the whole argument together and shifting it towards its empowerment conclusions, Gordon creates a paradigm that looks at the singing throat as a complete organ, and a gendered one.

Although Gordon's argument is convincing (albeit with some methodological problems discussed below), I find that the message can be just as interesting and empowering for us, if shifted a little outside its gendered context. This view of the intricacies of Renaissance singing as the result of the palpitations of the warm throat can provide an imaginative shift in our approach to the vocal artifices of the period. Rather than viewing them coldly as the result of technique emanating from the vocal chords, we might be able to emulate them better by steering our imagination towards a warm, loose, and malleable throat.

Chapter 2, "Back Talk: The Power of Female Song on the Stage," is based on Gordon's 1999 article "Talking Back: The Female Voice in Il hallo delle ingrate," Cambridge Opera Journal 11, no. 1 [March 1999]: 1-30, exploring Monteverdi's L'Arianna and Il hallo delie ingrate. …

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