Four flavors of pre-modern emotion

Authored by: Michael Spitzer

The Routledge Handbook of Music Signification

Print publication date:  March  2020
Online publication date:  March  2020

Print ISBN: 9780815376453
eBook ISBN: 9781351237536
Adobe ISBN:


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We have no history of emotion in Western music, a remarkable lacuna, given the affective turn in the humanities (but see Plamper 2015). The problem is even more acute following Dixon’s (2003) thesis that the modern quasi-scientific concept of “emotion,” per se, was only invented in the nineteenth century, and that earlier conceptualizations of what we term “emotion” were less personalized, less fixed, and sometimes more abstract or theological, as in the intellectual “affections.” Although there are several studies of pre-modern emotion in music (for example, Leach [2011] on Machaut; McKinney [2010] on Willaert), we do not yet know what an overall historical framework might look like. The present essay argues that music from 800 to 1630, roughly from early chant to Monteverdi, unfolds four discrete paradigms of emotion: (1) “Augustinian Ascents,” where Saint Augustine’s theology of divine love is reflected in the surging contours of early chant; (2) “The Thomist Descent” where Thomas Aquinas’s emphasis on affective reciprocity—taking other persons seriously—is enacted in the dyadic core of early counterpoint, in which emotion is defined reciprocally between tenor and cantus in songs and motets; (3) “Humanism,” or the diffusion of Neo-Platonism and Galenic humoral physiology and the affective “ether” breathed by polyphony in Josquin and others; and (4) “The Swerve,” or subjective atomism that flows in the wake of the reception of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura and Petrarch’s sonnets. Even Machiavelli’s theory of “countervailing passions” has something to say about the cut-and-thrust of violent emotions in Monteverdi’s fourth book of Madrigals, with their animated, fragmentary textures.

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