Nils Holger Petersen

title.none: Berger, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory (Nils Holger Petersen)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.020 06.02.20

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Nils Holger Petersen, University of Copenhagen,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Berger, Anna Maria Busse. Medieval Music and the Art of Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 288. $60.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-520-24028-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.20

Berger, Anna Maria Busse. Medieval Music and the Art of Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Pp. xvi, 288. $60.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-520-24028-6.

Reviewed by:

Nils Holger Petersen
University of Copenhagen

Anna Maria Busse Berger's recent book takes up one of the key concepts within medieval studies of late, the concept of the art of memory. Most prominently this topic has been explored by Mary Carruthers in her highly praised The Book of Memory (1990) which has proved fruitfully challenging for a number of medieval studies disciplines. Berger sets out to raise fundamental questions concerning the production of medieval music and the role the art of memory played in this. She questions traditional music historiography claiming that "scholarship has tended to focus on the musical texts and their interrelationships, rather than on the cultural practices that produced the sources in which these texts are preserved" (1).

Berger focuses on the so-called Notre Dame polyphony which in traditional music history allegedly was composed by Leoninus and Perotinus in the last decades of the twelfth century. Especially "Perotinus" has been constructed in music history as the first Western "great composer," and Berger devotes a large prologue (9- 44) to a critical discussion of mainly early twentieth-century music historiography highlighting one of the early key figures of medieval music history, Friedrich Luwig (1872-1930) but also bringing in recent scholarship, a discussion to which I'll return below. Berger finds an alternative approach in the writings of Jaques Handschin (1886-1955) which is more sympathetic to the cultural practices and art of memory basis of Berger's account.

The main part of the book is divided in two parts; the first, "The Construction of the Memorial Archive," deals with the interplay between memory and writing in the establishing of music knowledge. The second, "Compositional Process in Polyphonic Music," centers on compositional practice.

Berger claims that the technology of writing opens new ways for the operation of memory (45): "Throughout this book my argument will be that musical notation, like writing, does not replace performance from memory, but, on the contrary, may be used to aid it." One main point is that visualization makes exact memory possible. In the following chapters, Berger describes the tools used for teaching music in the Middle Ages with the aim to see to what extent and in what ways memory was employed consciously as a means to achieve knowledge of music.

In the first part of the book, Berger discusses tonaries, general music theory, as well as organum, discant, and counterpoint treatises, the latter of direct relevance for the musical repertory which is then discussed in the second part of the book. Both directly in treatises and--to a much higher degree--indirectly in the construction of these educational documents she finds similar devices to the techniques for memorizing which more generally have been described by Mary Carruthers. She notes how treatises of various sorts, used for instruction of singers, give rules which-- from a modern perspective--surprisingly do not summarize examples of a similar nature but indicate long lists of--seemingly trivial-- individual cases. In tonaries, in the use of the Guidonian Hand, and in the treatises about rules for polyphony, what needed to be known by the student was presented as sets of individual information to be memorized: concerning the recitation of psalms and the church modes, concerning the interval patterns of the modes, and concerning the possible acceptable harmonic progressions in organum, discant, and counterpoint. In order to be memorized, large amounts of individualized pieces of information were structured by divisions and various other memory aiding tools which were often graphic (as the Hand) making it possible to visualize what needed to be memorized, some times through architectural metaphors.

Throughout these discussions of various treatises Berger establishes fresh and convincing insights bringing new perspectives on previously studied materials. Berger also reports insights from psychology and neuroscience in order to bring in confirmation of the usefulness of medieval memorizing techniques. She refers to modern anthropology, in particular Jack Goody and his studies of the impact of writing on the organization of thought and on memory. Goody provides her with the claim that "only writing made verbatim memory possible" (82). This interdisciplinarity is an important part of the construction of Berger's book. It makes the book interesting and challenging, but also raises certain problems.

Interdisciplinarity creates obvious difficulties, also for the reviewer who is not competent or well read in all involved discourses. On the other hand, it is necessary in order to avoid what has often been a problematic isolation of music history from a general perspective of cultural history. Berger's book demonstrates how new points of departure, new questions, give rise to new--and well-founded--understandings of well-known source materials. In this way, Berger admirably shows not only the advantages, but the necessity of bringing in broader cultural perspectives. After the discussion of the thirteenth-century Vatican organum treatise (leaning to a large extent on analyses by Stephen Immel), in which she concludes that "the formulas in the Vatican organum treatise were memorized and then applied in either oral performance or written composition" (128), the well-known Homer scholarship of Parry and Lord is brought into play together with statements by more recent authors such as Walter Ong and Jan Ziolkowski (the latter specifically on medieval Latin poetry) in order to give a generalized picture of medieval music with respect to the relationship between oral and written practices (129-30): "I think the situation for medieval music is not much different from that of medieval Latin poetry. It is the situation of a musical culture that knows writing, but that still operates within a predominantly preliterate framework."

At this point--but also earlier--Berger does not take into consideration that these questions have been dealt with in recent musicology. Less in the area on which she focuses, but the reference to Parry and Lord--for almost any student of medieval music--brings up the name of Leo Treitler and his employment of the idea of formulaic composition for early medieval chant. It is the more strange as Berger cites Treitler (in other contexts) and lists Treitler's fundamental publications on the question of oral and written transmission of chant in her bibliography (among them "Homer and Gregory: The transmission of Epic Poetry and Plainchant" from 1974). Ideas similar to Treitler's were brought into a discussion of chant transmission in a later (twelfth to thirteenth- century) context by Eyolf Oestrem (The Office of Saint Olav: A Study in Chant Transmission, Uppsala 2001). Earlier in the first part of the book, Berger uses Goody's thoughts (as mentioned above) to enter into a brief and--as she admits-- purely hypothetical excursus concerning the possibility of a written "archetype" of the Carolingian chant at Charlemagne's time citing the hypothesis of Kenneth Levy, the main opponent of Leo Treitler's hypothesis concerning the role of oral transmission (84). The debate between Treitler and Levy--and others!--stimulated new scholarship providing more nuances to the understanding of the technology of music writing and the historiography of musical composition including ideas such as Treitler's "oral composition." Although the passage in question stands as a digression from the main account, Berger's use of Goody to provide a fast--and as admitted by herself hypothetical--answer to this debate with no reference to the arguments (or the name of) Treitler raises two issues.

Firstly, the use of a general anthropological statement (as Goody's) to provide a direct answer to a long-standing musicological debate leads to the question of how general models of cultural history or anthropology may be used meaningfully in specific contexts. Such a question is not treated by Berger. Most of the time, however, she uses general theories mainly as inspiration for questions to bring to her materials and then explores these by methods for which she can account more fully. Thus, the mentioned problem does not seem to affect the validity of the main analyses of the book.

Secondly, a question concerning her treatment of the history of scholarship arises. As mentioned, music historiography forms an important point of departure for Berger. In her account of the historiography of Friedrich Ludwig, she points out how this--at least in many respects--determined the agenda for generations of musicologists (especially concerning Perotinus). She mentions (among others) Fritz Reckow, Craig Wright, Wulf Arlt, and Jü rg Stenzl, claiming that they have perpetuated Ludwig's view of Perotinus as a composer in the modern sense of the word (39-44). Jü rg Stenzl's article "Perotinus Magnus: Und die Musikforschung erschuf den ersten Komponisten. Nach ihrem Ebenbilde erschuf sie ihn" ("Perotinus Magnus: And Musicology Created the First Composer. It Created Him in Its Image") in a volume, Perotinus Magnus published in 2000 which Berger discusses is not mentioned, however. (Neither did she discuss it in her 2002 review of that book in Plainsong and Medieval Music which brings many of the thoughts of the prologue of her new book). There can be no doubt that Berger brings in new and pertinent historiographical questions concerning the Notre Dame polyphony, but why does she not recognize the extent to which--for instance--Jü rg Stenzl provides historiographical points in the same direction? The interest of the music historical discipline in the early twentieth century to construct a beginning for itself is a main point in Stenzl's article (as is obvious already from the title).

Leo Treitler's 2003 volume With Voice and Pen (listed in Berger's bibliography) reprints fundamental essays concerning the early transmission of chant and includes important new historiographical reflection (see especially chapters 5 and 9) which supports some of the fundamental aspects of Berger's prologue. It is not mentioned in her text. Carl Dahlhaus whose scholarship altogether in so many ways reflects precisely the general historiographical concerns of Berger is only mentioned in one footnote as the first to have recognized Ludwig's biases. The interest in the historiography of Medieval Music has led to important recent publications not referred to by Berger. Annette Kreutziger-Herr's Ein Traum vom Mittelalter from 2003-- recently followed up by a summarizing article in English in the 2005 issue of Studies in Medievalism (which, of course, Berger has not had a chance to include)--gives what is probably the most thorough general description of the reception of medieval music in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One wonders about Berger's polemical account of modern music historiography--to which she returns several times--in the light of her selective references and in some respects unbalanced characterizations. Even so, she does take the historiographical discussion a step further through her discussion of the interplay between music writing and memory. I wish that she would revise these parts of the book for a future second edition.

In the second part of the book, Berger discusses the uses to which the "memorial archive" of medieval musicians could have been brought for compositional practice. In one chapter (chapter 5), she discusses her hypothesis that the Notre Dame polyphony was transmitted orally. Her main argument--briefly summarized--concerns the ambiguity of modal rhythmical notation combined with the earlier established understanding (in the first part of the book) of memory aiding devices now especially developed with regard to the mnemonic value of the rhythmic modes claiming that it was the function of "the regularly recurring modal patterns to help the singers to memorize the pieces" (187). This provides a scenario of oral transmission resulting in written records that are individually considered as re-compositions (p. 174)--thereby (indirectly) recalling ideas in Leo Treitler's studies of oral and written transmission of chant. Along the way interesting references to analogous phenomena in other media are given--for instance to David D'Avray's studies of sermon transmission and his idea of "written improvisation" (164 and 173).

In the final chapter of the book, "Visualization and the Composition of Polyphonic Music," Berger deals more generally with the use of visual imagination in the planning of medieval musical compositions; more specifically, she discusses the fourteenth- century ars nova "isorhythm"--or "periodic articulation", the notion she prefers (210)--as music which has the character of "finished products" (211-12) bringing in again Jack Goody's understanding of the significance of writing. She describes isorhythmic motets as "a notational playground" (238) and claims that singers could only sing the complex, playful, tenors by heart "when visualizing the pitches" (246). Leaning on the scholarship of Reinhard Strohm, she concludes (251) that "mensural notation ultimately resulted in what we would consider a modern artwork, a composition where the composer would determine the pitch and rhythm of every part, where he could develop a sense of ownership."

Whether the introduction of the concept of the "modern artwork" and the discussion of the character of a finished product of ars nova music might expose Berger to the same kind of historiographical criticism, as she has brought to earlier musicology concerning its similar ideas concerning the Notre Dame polyphony, ought to be discussed. On the whole, I find Berger's music discussions convincing. However, with her critical historiographical basis in mind, one must ask whether her account simply postpones the construction of "the first great dead white male composer" (9) one century and whether it thus fundamentally changes the traditional music historiographical perspective on past music which primarily belonged to ritual practices far removed from the contexts of "the modern musical artwork." In this regard, Berger seems to stay comfortably within a traditional music historical discourse. 7