A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear the legendary English folk singer Shirley Collins perform. One of the songs she sang was & # 39; Awake, Awake & # 39; written by Thomas Deloney in 1580, but apparently forgotten until Ralph Vaughan Williams heard it singing in July 1909 from an older Herefordshire woman over 300 years, borne by countless voices, by the performance itself as an act of cultural memory.
I mention this because it is one of Katherine R. Larson's most important points The song thing in early modern England: song has a life that is more elusive and vital than the written word. And his volatility, his offense – his literal invisibility – has led him to be excluded from studying early modern culture in a way that is comparable to the obliteration of women as writers and performers of songs and music at that time. It is these two major absences that The thing of the song sets off to remedy the situation.
Larson's central argument is that the unease of criticism when analyzing the ferocity and unpredictability of song-in-performance could distort the understanding of the song itself. At the same time, she argues that by studying such an imperfect, protean, and indomitable art form that is written and / or performed by early modern women, it is possible to re-explore both her creative life and some of her life and breathing Experience.
The title of the book comes from the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who wrote:
The question of the song … is air, hot or warm, still breathing and somehow alive; Like an animal … it not only has movement and shows passion, it even has a meaning like a spirit, so that it can be said that it is a kind of airy and rational animal.
Larson is consistently concerned with the idea that song as air occurs in the mouth and body of the singer as well as song as form – with all the metaphorical and other connotations that this idea has and had for women in terms of beauty, status and behavior ,
With a little courage, Larson himself embodies the various aspects of her reasoning in the recordings, in which she sings a dozen early modern songs that accompany the book online. These range from the setting of two psalms translated by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, to "Sweet Echo" written by John Milton and Henry Lawes for 15-year-old Alice Egerton Comus, (This is not an exercise to recommend to any early modern scholar: it helps that Larson is not only an English professor at the University of Toronto, but also a classically trained soprano.)
The transformative thing about these recordings is that they are not just illustrative. Larson repeatedly returns to these songs throughout the book to analyze them from within, as a singer performing them and as a woman whose voice and body briefly inhabit the songs. In this way, it enables a singing musician to understand how a song lives in the performance in order to sharpen and inform her critical and cultural skills.
Song may be the elusive artistic medium that is briefly animated by the singer's air and breath before being forgotten. But Larson's claim that song-in-performance is a kind of critical practice enables her to explore the physical experience of songs and the meanings that experience conjures up in a radical and exciting way.
The song thing in early modern England: lyrics in and from the air
Katherine R. Larson
Oxford 272pp £ 60
Mathew Lyons is the author of The favorite: Ralegh and his queen (Constable, 2012).