With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made

By Haines, John | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made


Haines, John, Notes


With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made. By Leo Treitler. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. [xxx, 506 p. ISBN 0-19-816644. $145.] Music examples, facsimiles, illustrations, bibliography, index, compact disc.

This is a book by arguably the most influential North-American musicologist of the late twentieth century on the Middle Ages, Leo Treitler. We encounter here the celebrated trademarks of Treitler's prose: dense, thought-riddled sentences which pull the reader into a startling juxtaposition of medieval detail and contemporary, sometimes personal anecdotes-in a word, to the younger generation of musicologists nourished on Treitler, inimitable. How often does a medievalist combine a recent table conversation with Notre Dame polyphony, or Goethe with Gregory the Great (pp. 55-56 and 188-189)? As either a review or introduction to a prominent writer on medieval music, this handsome tome of Treitleriania is indispensable.

All seventeen of these chapters previously appeared over a thirty-three year period. It is frequently the practice in such a collection to leave the original essays just as they were, often with their original pagination; not so for the present volume. To begin with, each essay has been refitted to Oxford University Press' house style. Each is preceded by an introduction in smaller font ranging from a half a page (chap. 3) to twenty-one pages (chap. 6) that contextualizes and often amplifies each essay. The introduction to chapter 13, for example, is comprised of five sections that briefly comment on different aspects of music writing. Within each essay proper, textual alterations range from slight changes in phrasing to lengthier inserted material-a labor Treitler shared with the book's editor Bonnie Blackburn, as stated on p. xiii. The result is a honed text that the first chapter, "Medieval Improvisation," illustrates well. Of smaller changes, one telling instance is the removal of "and improvising" from the following sentence (words in brackets were removed): "Even in the late Middle Ages composing and performing [and improvising] could [all] be thought of as a single act" (p. 12). Small changes of this sort are found on every page of the book. In the same chapter, we find larger additions: a one-page discussion of a recent book (pp. 22-23) and an entirely new section treating the gradual Scient gentes (pp. 26-32). Only one paragraph was excised on p. 34. Throughout the book not only have all musical examples and tables been refurbished but some figures as well, such as the relief sculptures in plates V-VI. To these refinements the author added a sixteen-track compact disc in a sleeve on the book's inside back cover. Its most inspired track to my mind is Lightnin' Hopkins' blues tune "Goin' Away" (track 10), with its rich timbre and subtle melody. The remaining performances presumably demonstrate what Treitler does not find in the singing of "Solesmes and their followers": "the vocal virtuosity, versatility, and sensuousness implicit in the written record made by notators of the Middle Ages" (p. xxiii). Listeners mayjudge for themselves.

The significance of Treitler's contribution in the late twentieth century is partly to have anticipated postmodern anxiety over the beholder's influence. One of this book's most poignant moments comes in the introduction to chapter five where Treitler ponders his ambivalent relationship to postmodernism, he whose lifetime "has spanned the shift," as he puts it (p. 104), from modernism to its alter ego. For Treitler has never doubted the possibilityas early as 1968 and as late as 2001-of a better understanding of medieval music, as he reiterates throughout this book. For over three decades, he has been reminding us of the need to unlearn our own perspective in order to try to grasp a medieval perspective, and each essay here contributes in its own way to this end. He begins in the first two chapters by sensitizing the reader to the problematic notion of "improvisation" and its post-medieval associations. …

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