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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

The question is, are there any homologies at all between music and nature? There is one, Galilei contended, if by nature we mean human nature: and that is speech, or what linguists still call “natural language.” Plato himself had accounted for the “ethos” of the modes—their ability to influence the soul—on the basis of this homology. In the Republic, Socrates asks that just two modes be allowed for music in his ideal state: the one “that would fittingly imitate the utterances and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare or in any enforced business, and who, when he has failed, either meeting wounds or death or having fallen into some other mishap, in all these conditions confronts fortune with steadfast endurance and repels her strokes”; and the one that imitates the speech of “a man engaged in works of peace, not enforced but voluntary, either trying to persuade somebody of something and imploring him—whether it be a god, through prayer, or a man, by teaching and admonition—or contrariwise yielding himself to another who is petitioning him or teaching him or trying to change his opinions, and in consequence faring according to his wish, and not bearing himself arrogantly, but in all this acting modestly and moderately and acquiescing in the outcome.”3 Glaucon, his interlocutor, informs Socrates that he has described the Dorian and the Phrygian modes, respectively.

So human speech—not just words, but intonation, pitch, tone of voice, and every other “paralexical” aspect of speech that communicates over and above the literal meaning of the words (aspects that, in case of contradiction or irony, are to be trusted over words)—is the true object of musical imitation within Galilei’s radical humanism. And notice especially that Plato’s Phrygian mode is the persuasive mode. That is the purpose of music: it is the great persuader. So Galilei’s radical humanism is another, particularly literal manifestation of musical rhetoric: music as an art of persuasion. “Therefore,” Galilei concluded,

when musicians go henceforth for their amusements to the tragedies and comedies played by the actors and clowns in the theaters, let them for a while leave off their immoderate laughing and instead kindly observe in what manner the actors speak, in what range, high or low, how loudly or softly, how rapidly or slowly they enunciate their words, when one gentleman converses quietly with another. Let them pay a little attention to the differences and contrasts that obtain when a gentleman speaks with one of his servants, or one of these with another. Let them consider how the prince converses with one of his subjects or vassals; again, how he speaks to a petitioner seeking a favor; how one speaks when infuriated or excited; how a married woman speaks, how a girl, a simple child, a witty wanton; how a lover speaks to his beloved seeking to persuade her to grant him his wish; how one speaks when lamenting, when crying out, when afraid, and when exulting with joy. From these diverse observations, if they are carried out attentively and considered with care, one can deduce the way that best suits the expression of whatever meanings or emotion may come to hand.4

What musicians will gain, in short, will be a true stile rappresentativo: a true “representational style.” Such a thing was not unknown to the madrigalists: we have already observed some pretty effective and accurate imitation of speech in Cipriano de Rore’s Dalle belle contrade (Ex. 17-15). But even in the most effective and rigorously representational polyphonic setting, there is a fundamental contradiction between the singleness of the expressive poetic or textual voice and the multiplicity of actual singing voices. The solution Galilei proposed was not a return to literal monophony but to what he called monodia, “monody”—namely, a single voice accompanied by the lute (likened in this context to Apollo’s lyre). In this way not even expressive harmony need be sacrificed to representation.

He was proposing, in short, a kind of music that he had already long since advocated and exemplified: solo singing to the lute, a variety of continuo practice, one might say. But what had long been one performance option among many (and one rarely committed to writing) now became a high cause. And the vocal style now advocated was new in that, even more than the polyphonic madrigal’s, it took its bearings from actual, enacted, enunciated speech rather than from the formal arrangements of verse. Galilei made a setting of some verses from Dante’s Inferno the next year and performed them for Bardi’s Camerata as a demonstration of the monodic style. Neither these nor any other monodic compositions by Galilei have survived, however; the kind of music Galilei imagined on the basis of Mei’s research can only be inferred from the work of others.


(3) Plato, Republic, 399a-c, trans. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including theLetters (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961), pp. 643–44.

(4) Galilei, Dialogo, p. 162.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019003.xml