Songs without Words: Keyboard Arrangements of Vocal Music in England, 1560-1760

By DeSimone, Alison C. | Notes, September 2018 | Go to article overview

Songs without Words: Keyboard Arrangements of Vocal Music in England, 1560-1760


DeSimone, Alison C., Notes


Songs without Words: Keyboard Arrangements of Vocal Music in England, 1560-1760. By Sandra Mangsen. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2016. [xvii, 263 p. ISBN 9781580465496, $99; ISBN 9781782048350 (e-book), $60.] Music examples, illustrations, tables, bibliography, index.

Every so often, a musicological study comes along that illuminates the historical importance of works that previously resided on the periphery of music history. In Sandra Mangsen's Songs without Words: Keyboard Arrangements of Vocal Music in England, 1560-1760, these works are keyboard transcriptions, arrangements, and intabulations of music originally composed for voice--works that became increasingly ubiquitous in England during the late Renaissance through the eighteenth century. These are also works that, prior to Mangsen's thorough and deftly argued study, have been largely ignored by most other musicologists. In her introduction, Mangsen lays out the value judgments inherent in prior scholarship. In part, some argued that transcriptions and arrangements created in distant historical eras lose their meaning for modern performers who can no longer access the original texts that went with the music. Many others resisted admitting transcriptions and arrangements into the oeuvre of canonical composers (George Frideric Handel's vocal works transcribed for keyboard by other composers, for example), reasoning that this somehow dilutes the value of the composer's original works. Ultimately, the field of musicology has long regarded transcriptions and arrangements as secondary to the primacy of the urtext and considered these subsidiary works to be less valuable than manuscripts or originally composed musical material. Thus, Mangsen's monograph focuses on an area in desperate need of attention and is highly successful in its enterprise. Songs without Words puts into context the role of vocal music in the world of amateur keyboard performance as it grew between the 1500s and the 1700s, revealing fascinating new ways in which composers and audiences interacted with vocal music in a variety of other mediums.

Songs without Words is well organized, progressing through the history of keyboard arrangements of vocal music from the English virginalists of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the amateur performers who were consumers of eighteenth-century keyboard anthologies. Mangsen's introduction and conclusion accomplish the theoretical heavy lifting, the former laying out the case--and the questions--for the book, and the latter drawing many of the conclusions gleaned from the five main chapters of rich musical and historical description. In her introduction, she parses her terms, defining "transcription," "arrangement," "copy," "paraphrase," and other synonyms (p. 2). Perhaps most importantly, she discusses the relationship between "the work" and its arrangement, making a case for why musicologists have ignored this vast repertoire of keyboard arrangements. Mangsen argues not only for their importance in understanding the published musical marketplace, but also for how the arrangements reflect back on the original work itself. As she puts it, "the musical work becomes a moving target, its existence being confirmed by the sum total of all its extant versions (preserved, remembered, or created by the reader)" (p. 7). In perhaps the most forceful argument of her book, Mangsen advocates for equal status for the performers of these arrangements, who as consumers owned them just as much as the original arranger--or even the original composer. In part, the success of these keyboard arrangements relied on the consumer's familiarity with the original song and text. Such arrangements give insight into market tastes of any particular dme period.

Mangsen's main focus is on music published between the 1680s and 1760s; only chapter 1 ("Ballads Transformed") considers the intabulations and other vocal works arranged by sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century virginal composers such as William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, Thomas Tomkins, and others. …

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