Music as Erotic Magic in a Renaissance Romance

Article excerpt


In sixteenth-century France, few books were read so avidly as the series of two dozen novels known collectively as Amadis de Gaule. Yet although it was a roaring success at court, Amadis was scorned by many humanists, who condemned its racy tales of sex, magic, and adventure as lascivious and silly, at best a waste of time better spent on more profound reading. (1) Amadis would seem an unlikely vehicle for the exposition of systems of occult philosophy, usually confined in the Renaissance to Latin texts circulating in a predominantly masculine intellectual community. Yet this was exactly the function imagined for the novel by the alchemist Jacques Gohory (1520-76), adapter of several volumes from the middle of the series. Gohory admitted that many who knew his "studies in more serious and difficult subjects" would find works so "fabulous ... merry and wanton" beneath their attention. (2) Such critics would not only underestimate the need for leisure to balance graver matters, he argues, but, more importantly, would misunderstand romance's power to convey occult wisdom in the form of fable. In Gohory's hands, Amadis was serious stuff: through extensive modifications and additions to his source texts he wove concepts of natural magic and occult philosophy into the narrative structures and textual conventions of his Spanish models and of the previous French adaptations. (3)

Music played a vital role in his project, and added song poems and elaborate scenes of musical performance constitute a significant difference between Gohory's versions and their sources. Music is a point of synthesis for Gohory's seemingly disparate interests in medicine, alchemy, the occult, and romance, bridging problematic gaps between the masculine domains of knowledge, science, and the intellect, and a feminized world of fantasy, recreation, and sensuality. An approach to Gohory's work through music can reintegrate aspects of his career often treated separately, demonstrating how both music and romance participate in the therapeutic goals that inform his more overtly medical, scientific, and magical writings. At the same time, such an approach can address a thorny problem in the history of early modern concepts of music, medicine, and natural magic. The most-often-studied Latin tracts of Neoplatonism and occult philosophy make few explicit or implicit links with identifiable musical repertories, and are frustratingly vague about details of performance practice. Connections with extant music must be constructed by the modern scholar, and generally the move has been a textual one--from philosophical, medical, and occult literature to musical scores and questions of compositional technique--that leaves connections to potential performance contexts unexplored. Related to this, there has been relatively little work on how magical concepts may have spread beyond learned circles into the wider culture to condition contemporaries' experience of music and musical performance. (4)

Gohory's work is particularly valuable in addressing these issues. Unusually among occult philosophers of his generation, his interests in practical music-making have left traces both in imaginative fiction and in contributions to printed music books. In the context of his other writing on natural magic and medicine, reading Gohory's musical prefaces against his adaptations of Amadis provides a unique window onto how a writer steeped in alchemical and medical thought imagined performance situations in which musical magic might be used, and how it might accomplish its effects. Though his Amadis adaptations stop short of providing notated music or citing specific pieces, they nevertheless demonstrate strong links with music prints, the chanson repertory, and its performance practices in French courtly circles of the mid-sixteenth century. Unlike the discussions of music in treatises of Neoplatonic philosophy or in the medical literature, the novels work to establish connections between occult understandings of music and the performance of music at court. …