Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Negotiating Traditions of English Song: Performance, Text, History

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Negotiating Traditions of English Song: Performance, Text, History

Article excerpt

As a musical entity, song seems beyond the ken of most literary scholars. It appears evanescent, intangible by virtue of the differing complex conditions of its performance. Thus despite the fact that song represents perhaps the most pervasive genre of literature across both time and space, literary scholars hav tended either to ignore song altogether or to attend to song in ways that evade its existence in performance.

Both practices depend on locating literature within the boundaries of verbal texts and separate from the domain of performance. Yet if we define the "work" of literature as the interaction between the text and the conditions of its production and reception, then song, by virtue of its existence in performance, illustrates in exemplary fashion the dynamics of all literary work. To study th interplay between the song text (score and lyrics), performers, listeners and the particular physical, social and historical conditions of song performance can make manifest how meaning is produced through the interaction between any text, responses to it and the social and historical contexts of those responses it enables us to see how not just song but all artistic work resides in the domain of performance.

Such an approach involves the erasure of the distinction between the "cultural" and the "material" by showing how the cultural "works" through the material. This type of song criticism would approach songs not as reified texts but as sites of social practice, treating them as performative activities responding t and acting on the cultural process. In what follows, I want to illustrate how one might engage in such a "cultural materialist" criticism by examining two types of Renaissance English song--madrigals and lute songs. These songs are especially pertinent to the question of performance for two reasons. First, critical response to these songs reveals the ways in which performance of the songs is evaded by some literary and music scholars. Second, the songs themselves represent in their tendencies two historically conflicting approache to "performance." "To perform" has meant "to complete, finish, perfect (an action, [or]...work)," though this meaning is identified as now being "obsolete (OED). Today the term usually means: "To carry out...[or] execute (that which i commanded....)" especially in the sense of doing "what one has to do; to...do one's part" (OED). It is this latter meaning which we more commonly think of when describing the performance of art. The OED's definition of the act of artistic performance as "To do...or execute formally or solemnly (...a piece of music, play, etc.)" continues the sense of performance as a matter of doing "what is commanded."

The two senses of performance are distinguished particularly by the relationships each posits among those parties involved. If performance entails completing the incomplete, all participants in the production of the "work" wil share creative responsibility: in the case of songs, composers, lyricists, singers, instrumentalists--and even publishers, audience members and patrons. The now more common sense of performance, however, places most participants in role of submission to one in command: they must do what is "commanded," and do so "formally." Criticism adopting this sense of performance imposes an "Author" on the work and, as Roland Barthes observes, "To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text...to close the writing. Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is 'explained'--victory to the critic" (147). In the case of song criticism, those critics who do not simply dismiss song as too evanescent to merit attention hav evaded the location of song in the activity of performance because of the threa this sense poses to the Author (or its hypostases) by its emphasis on the participation of numerous parties--singers and instrumentalists, listeners, interpreters--in the production of song. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.