Women and Music in Sixteenth-Century Ferrara. Laurie Stras. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. xxiv + 392 pp. $99.99
Katherine Butler on the way that myths of music's origins shifted with changing perceptions of the natural world in the Renaissance. This essay ably brings to the fore one of the underlying themes of the volume: how attitudes toward musical myths changed across the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We then turn from theory to practice, with a fourth section that contains chapters on Protestant choral song and echo effects in Italian opera. Part 5 looks at musical stories first through the lens of
... ability, with discussion of the "mad songs" in Shakespeare's plays, and then through the lens of gender, with an analysis of the emasculating effects of women's singing in Renaissance Italy. Part 6 returns to a more philosophical analysis with an essay on Thomas Weelkes and notions of the self, and an essay that uses Andrew Marvell's "A Dialogue between Thyrsis and Dorinda" to analyze the purpose of musical myths in the Renaissance. Having begun with early medieval music theory, the collection concludes with a set of essays on opera at the dawn of the Enlightenment. Erica Levenson closes the volume with a discussion of the relationship between myth and ballad opera in England and France. It will not be lost on the reader that we have journeyed from Eriugena's earnest, philosophical, and cosmological explorations of the significance of music via myth to the ribaldry and ridicule of the pagan gods in the ballad opera. The collection does not contain a closing chapter, perhaps because it would be difficult or even artificial to reach precise conclusions here. The editors' general remarks are kept to the rather brief introduction. "Music, myth and story," they conclude, "are revealed to be fluid and interrelated concepts, deeply embedded in medieval and early modern thought and practice" (13). There are times like this when the introduction feels frustratingly general and insubstantial. Nevertheless, the collection does not expressly aim to deliver a significant statement on the topic. In fact, it is better viewed as a treasure trove of information and an exploration of a dizzying variety of issues under the broad theme of myth in relation to music. The book will surely be an exciting resource for scholars of the classical tradition, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, early modern theater, art history, and early modern musical practice, among other fields. That it invites us to view the connections (however broad) between such disparate areas of study makes the volume a pleasure to read.