09.01.07, Leach, Sung Birds

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Alice V. Clark

The Medieval Review baj9928.0901.007


Leach Elizabeth Eva. Sung Birds: Music,Nature and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 345. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4491-3.

Reviewed by:
Alice V. Clark
Loyola University New Orleans

"Is birdsong music?" That is the starting point of Elizabeth Eva Leach's fascinating study. While she admits that the influence of modern history, coming from her husband, was a major impetus for this project, her perspective remains rooted in medieval sources, providing a rich hybrid that ranges from philosophical discussion to musical analysis to close study of manuscript notation to a coda that considers attitudes toward nature and music since the Middle Ages.

As twenty-first-century listeners influenced by romantic notions of nature, we might instinctively affirm that birds make music. Medieval writers, though, would usually disagree: however pleasing the sounds made by birds, and even occasionally by other animals, they are not rational and therefore cannot be music. Music--at least sounding music--is therefore a uniquely human act rooted in understanding at least as much as pleasure, and the rational activity that makes it music should be located both in the producer and the hearer. This may not be entirely surprising to the reader of Boethius's De Musica, a central text for the study of music in the schools into the modern era, since Boethius is careful to distinguish the true musician as one who does not operate instinctively, but rather is capable of understanding and judgment. Augustine, for whom music is the "scientia bene modulandi," similarly argues that not only birds but also instinctive performers stand outside the realm of true music.

The first two chapters of the book focus on music-theoretical and philosophical literature, as well as lyric and narrative poetry, and Leach's discussion should be of value to readers of all those genres. It is worth keeping in mind that music for medieval writers is much more than mere sound: music forms part of the quadrivium, the four mathematical arts, and sound is the least important of the three types of music Boethius describes. The notion that music has ethical and cosmological implications, realized at least in part through mathematical intervals and other rational activity, is at the heart of medieval writings about music, even where the authors seek to provide theoretical or pedagogical information that can help the performer. In this world, where "the music of the spheres" is the highest form of music, it makes sense that the irrational song of birds, however pleasing to the senses, is a lesser art.

At the same time, though, singers are occasionally compared to birds, especially to the nightingale. This formulation, found in both Latin treatises and vernacular poetry, leads Leach to consider the relative roles of nature and art in medieval thought. Perhaps particularly important here is her discussion of the distinction Eustache Deschamps makes in the fifteenth century between "natural music" and "artificial music," the former often equated with poetry, the second with song. As she makes clear, while Deschamps favors the natural over the artificial, he actually sees song as a "'marriage' between these two species of art and nature" (59), textless music and musicless text. Deschamps's self-styled mentor, Guillaume de Machaut, wrote both his texts and their musical settings, as indeed did most medieval composers who did not draw from liturgical or biblical sources. From the fifteenth century, however, this coincidence of activity begins to lessen, and composers more and more choose poetry by others as the basis for their musical works. This notion that the music is an addition--some might even say a distraction, as Goethe did of Schubert's setting of his "Erlknig"--to an already-existing text arguably makes it a rather different thing than it had been before. Leach might consider expanding her discussion of such questions and publishing the results elsewhere, in a forum more easily accessible to scholars of literature as well as music.

Further complicating the intersection of birdsong and human music, nature and art, is a group of widely transmitted fourteenth- and fifteenth-century songs that imitate naturalistic sounds, especially those of birds, in the context of a sophisticated musical work, and these form the subject of Leach's chapters 3 and 4. Many of these songs make use of rhythms technically unavailable in the theoretical systems of the day. The surface rhythmic complexity of late- fourteenth-century French song is known today as the "ars subtilior," but it has recently been reinterpreted by several scholars as more a written trace of singerly virtuosity than intellectual complexity for its own sake. (In teaching I frequently compare this to modern efforts to write down Hindustani performance or the improvisations of John Coltrane: they look fearsomely complicated on the page but are by no means intended to sound that way.) The virtuoso singer of these songs survives only in the complicated notated trace on the manuscript page, and oral and written musical practices intermingle.

These two chapters include close textual and musical readings of a number of songs, and these analyses will likely be off-putting to those who are not comfortable with musical notation. (Those easily intimidated by musical notation may be relieved to know that it only makes one other appearance in the book.) Leach makes every effort, however, to make this material accessible, in part by careful annotation of her examples, and her readings are not so forbidding that they are completely inaccessible to those who do not read musical notation. Those who persevere will be rewarded.

Chapter 4 moves beyond birdsong, which like human music at least has discrete pitch, toward the unpitched realm of dogs barking and human shouting, as seen particularly in songs about and descriptions of the hunt. The turn to the clearly unmusical (though embodied in music or discussed in musical terms) returns us to the realm of politics and morality, for the hunt is bound up with the ideals of nobility, or the failure to live up to those ideals. Here Leach includes a substantial discussion of Gace de la Buigne's Roman des Deduis, a treatise originally commissioned by Jean II for the instruction of his youngest son, Philippe. As Leach points out, most musicologists have only examined three short sections of this work, and most other scholars have only mined it for information about hunting practices. Musical theory, however, underpins much of the work, so she provides an extended reading of the debate that makes up the second half of the poem: which is better, hunting with birds or dogs? Gace concludes that it is nobler to hunt with birds, but hawks do not sing, so hunting with dogs pleases both the eye and the ear. This notion, however, can serve to criticize the search for pleasure, whether from hunting dogs or from flatterers at court, so the reader is urged to sublimate those pleasures in song and therefore to seek the nobler end.

Moral considerations are also present in chapter 5, which deals with the siren, a hybrid figure of bird and woman whose danger comes specifically from the beauty of her song. The idea that musical beauty is dangerous is a familiar one, going back to Augustine's Confessions and even Plato's Republic. Here the irrationality of the animal and the irrationality of the female, or the effeminate, are linked through the siren's song.

The final chapter takes us from the Middle Ages toward our own time. As she notes, in the late eighteenth century the earlier mistrust of the senses shifts toward a mistrust of reason. This carries with it new attitudes that valorize both nature and music, specifically untexted music, which speaks directly to the senses without any need for mediation by the mind. Birdsong therefore becomes musical and can even take on a value above that of humanly organized sound. Meanwhile, advances in technology begin to compete with nature, in part by creating new mechanisms for making music, from music boxes and bird toys to sound recording. These technological advances have implications for what music is and how it is created, transmitted, and received, and we are still learning how views of music will change as a result.

The book is very well produced indeed. Footnotes are properly positioned at the foot of the page, where the reader can use them without difficulty, and appendices appear where tables or other materials are too long to fit into the text without major disruption. Tables and musical examples, even where they take up several pages, are well laid out and easy to use, and manuscript images (in black and white) are clear and appropriately placed in the text. Both the author and the publisher are to be highly commended for the tremendous amount of work it took to create a book that allows the reader to focus not on its presentation but on its argument.

Leach correctly notes that music and ideas about music are under- utilized by other medievalists, even though music formed part of the quadrivium and its theoretical texts often coexist with other works of Latin literature. This is beginning to change, as contact increases among medievalists of all stripes, but we all apparently have more work to do to bring the study of music, whether as sound or as idea (or both), into the mainstream of medieval studies. Leach's book is a step along that path, and I hope we all will continue on that journey.

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Author Biography

Alice V. Clark

Loyola University New Orleans