12.09.10, Rothenberg, The Flower of Paradise

Main Article Content

Daniel E. O'Sullivan

The Medieval Review 12.09.10

Rothenberg, David J.. The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 288. ISBN: 978-0-19-539971-4.

Reviewed by:
Daniel E. O'Sullivan

In this extensively documented and illustrated study, David Rothenberg offers a series of case studies of how "sacred and secular materials interacted within music from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries" (22). As such, the book is selective rather than comprehensive in scope, however, it does nevertheless advance scholarly discussion of Marian devotion, early polyphony, and the intersections of music, literature, and art on several fronts. Subsequent studies will have to fill in the blank spaces left between these case studies, but Rothenberg has offered a fine model for those future investigations.

After an introductory chapter outlining the place allotted to Marian devotion in liturgical practices, Rothenberg offers another six chapters organized around a particular work, a musical trend or a genre. The first two focus on motets: the author describes how the Assumption narrative becomes enacted in two motet families before moving on to study how the incorporation of the In seculum tenor in several motets "invoked liturgical associations of all of the occasions on which its source chant was sung" (58). Chapter four is dedicated to the relationship between Guillaume Dufay's Vergene, bella, and the Italian lyric tradition. Finally, each of last three chapters treats a piece of secular song that came to be used as cantus firmi in other vernacular compositions.

Musicologists and medievalists in other disciplines will appreciate the lucidity of the discussions and the usefulness of the volume for further reference. Technical vocabulary is limited to only what is necessary for understanding the point under discussion, which non- musicologists will applaud. That said, readers will have to be familiar with basic medieval musicological terminology or have the New Grove Dictionary of Music close at hand. Literary scholars who work with various lyric genres and devotional themes will be most pleased to see the many tables listing texts that find their way various musical and material contexts.

In the two motet chapters, the author considers the extent to which motet tenors, that is, bits of plainchant woven into multi-voiced compositions, can provide textual commentary on the texts sung above it. For example, the Flos filius eius and Regnat tenors have their source in the Assumption vespers services, so someone familiar with those original contexts, upon hearing the chant sung below other texts would make connections among the various voices, thereby affecting understanding and interpretation. In Quant revient et fuelle et flor / L'autrier joer m'en alai / Flos filius eius, for instance, the motetus voice above the tenor is a pastourelle text wherein a knight ambles into an orchard to pick a flower and there he encounters a maiden singing of love. The triplum text is derived from a high-style, courtly canso (love song). Rothenberg rightly concludes that all these voices find their thematic nexus in flowers, a common symbol for the Virgin Mary in liturgical and paraliturgical texts alike. A sophisticated listener might hear exactly what Rothenberg concludes: "The Marian associations of the Flos filius eius tenor point our attention to the potential Marian resonance of this pastourelle text. The maiden fears that her end is near, but she is overcome with amorousness. Her conflicted words at the end of the text ('I am in love, what shall I do? It is the end, the end, whatever anyone says, I will love') resonate with the words from the Song of Songs 5:8, which, when sung in antiphon 5 of the first Assumption vespers, are allegorically understood to be those of an intensely amorous Mary who longs to join Christ in heaven upon her death" (46-47). Such careful attention to the text(s) is to be commended since many scholars, in the opinion of this reviewer, play too little attention to context and close reading.

In light of these sophisticated readings, however, questions of audience and the openness of interpretation must arise. As Rothenberg rightly points out, Johannes de Grocheio famously wrote in his De Musica that the motet should not be performed before a (lay) public that cannot understand the refinement of these musical compositions. However, that does not mean that motets were not performed before such audiences. (In fact, motets may very well have been performed widely, thus prompting Johannes to write his cautionary note in the first place.) And does interpretation always proceed from the secular to the sacred? The tenor may very well comment upon the motetus and triplum, but couldn't interpretation work the other way? Moreover, surely as these tenors were reused repeatedly, they gained some independence from their original liturgical contexts. It is quite plausible that some audience members recognized the tenor only from other motets. Perhaps the intertextual play in the minds of some listeners occurred primarily among the secular, not sacred, texts in these motets. Rothenberg's readings are by no means invalid or even improbable, but competing interpretations might have been explored further.

In the book's middle chapter, "Guillaume Dufay's Vergene bella, the Cantilena Motet, and the Italian Lyric Tradition," Rothenberg undertakes an ambitious task: a study of the intersections among the English cantilena, French polyphonic chanson, and Italian lyric. The discussion includes the works of such luminaries as Petrarch and Dante, specifically, the former's Canzoniere and the latter's Commedia, Vita nuova and De vulgari eloquentia. Relying heavily on the work of Teodolinda Barolini (especially her Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture [Fordham UP, 2006] and Dante's Poets: Textuality and Truth in theComedy [Princeton UP, 1984]), Rothenberg makes some perceptive connections among all of these traditions, but, frankly, a whole book could be written on the subject. The chapter serves, therefore, more as a signpost to future work than a definitive study.

The final three chapters form something of a triptych: each treats the reworking of music in subsequent compositions of varying sentiments. In "Walter Frye's Ave regina caelorum in Musical and Visual Culture," Rothenberg considers how Frye's work was treated as a cantus firmus for several polyphonic compositions in the fifteenth century and found its way into three visual depictions of the period: two votive paintings by the painter known only as the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, and a painting on the ceiling of a private oratory in a Loire Valley château. He concludes convincingly that Frye's work "bridged the gap between court and church, between chansonnier and choirbook, and between an earthly garden and heavenly paradise" (150). This multi-media discussion prepares the reader for the final two chapters focused on other composers who began using secular love song as cantus firmi in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Hayne van Ghizegheim's rondeau "De tous biens plaine" was wildly popular, and Rothenberg studies how it was incorporated into several sacred works of the period. Just as he does with the motets, Rothenberg analyses these pieces with sophistication and aplomb. Finally, in chapter seven, he turns his attention to another rondeau, "Comme femme desconfortée," a complainte, that is a song wherein a woman laments losing her lover, and reflects on it role in five different compositions. Once again, Rothenberg handles complex issues of music, meter, and meaning with facility, highlighting how allusions, adoptions, and adaptations can produce stunning musical effects in the mind of an initiated listener.

David Rothenberg is to be congratulated on this, his first monograph, and we look forward to reading more of his work in the future. Scholars, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates in medieval music and culture will find Rothenberg's volume valuable for its in- depth discussion of source materials, its methodology, and the resulting rich interpretive possibilities.

Article Details

Author Biography

Daniel E. O'Sullivan