The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

Synopsis

Wye Jamison Allanbrook's The Secular Commedia is a stimulating and original rethinking of the music of the late eighteenth century. Hearing the symphonies and concertos of Haydn and Mozart with an ear tuned to operatic style, as their earliest listeners did, Allanbrook shows that this familiar music is built on a set of mimetic associations drawn from conventional modes of depicting character and emotion in opera buffa. Allanbrook mines a rich trove of writings by eighteenth-century philosophers and music theorists to show that vocal music was considered aesthetically superior to instrumental music and that listeners easily perceived the theatrical tropes that underpinned the style. Tracing Enlightenment notions of character and expression back to Greek and Latin writings about comedy and drama, she strips away preoccupations with symphonic form and teleology to reveal anew the kaleidoscopic variety and gestural vitality of the musical surface. In prose as graceful and nimble as the music she discusses, Allanbrook elucidates the idiom of this period for contemporary readers. With notes, musical examples, and a foreword by editors Mary Ann Smart and Richard Taruskin.

Excerpt

Ethos is made known through action, through motion, through the image of a charac
ter “at work.” … If one is only fully oneself when one is “at work,” it follows that only
in action will characters display the true object of their desires—the thing that
“makes them tick.”

These sentences from the first chapter of The Secular Commedia capture something important about the spirit of the book and its author. The book argues compellingly, if never quite explicitly, for the centrality of the relationship between character and expression; and the author’s intuition about that essential link permeates her writing on every page. Her historical observations and musical interpretations—her professional expressions—are everywhere colored by her character: her warmth and generosity, and her special gift for community-fostering friendship. We believe that it was her sense of an affinity between musical style and the depiction of diverse and encyclopedic humanity that drew her to writing about comedy—both in opera, in her famous first book Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart, and now, here, in the instrumental music of the late eighteenth century.

The Secular Commedia is a filled-out version of the Ernest Bloch Lectures that Wye J. Allanbrook—henceforth Wendy, as she was known to all her friends and colleagues—delivered at the invitation of the University of California at Berkeley’s music department in the fall of 1994. These lectures were, in the memory of all who heard them, the best set of Bloch lectures that ever were. All were aware that they were witnessing the birth of a major work. And when the senior faculty of the department retired en masse that very same fall, as a result of the university’s cost-cutting “golden handshake” policy to encourage the early departure of expensive graybeards, the department . . .

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