McIntire Department of Music
  • Speakers:
  • Emma Dillon (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Sarah McNamer (Georgetown)
  • Bruce Holsinger (University of Virginia)


The sense of sound: listening to the lyrics of Adam de la Halle

What is meant by the category of 'lyric'? When we use the term 'song', how do we conceive of the bond between music and language? And how did medieval writers understand those concepts? In thinking about medieval lyricism, my paper will explore the relationship between sense and sound in vernacular poetry and music of the thirteenth century, taking the corpus of Adam de la Halle as a case study. Well-known for his creative diversity, writing in a number of different genres, musical and non-musical, Adam seems to have been highly sensitive to the sonorous potential of words, whether or not they were cast in a singing voice.

My paper will examine three instances where the sound of language works as a dramatic narrative agent. The first, Adam's Jeu de la feuillée, is among the noisiest texts of the thirteenth century, and yet, with the exception of one refrain, is void of musical interpolation. Sound is conjured instead through explosive exclamations of its Artesian characters, its clamorous fairy-folk, and in the nonsensical expostulations of the local madman. Far from being merely humorous, the sound-effects brought about through language, are linked to profound themes of civic dissent and revelation. Those same themes permeate two of Adam's motets. Now cast in the vocality of singing, we shall witness how Adam uses musical textures to make words more or less audible, and in turn, how issues of audibility and obfuscation embody the textual messages of the two pieces.

Emma Dillon's primary field of research focuses on French music and manuscripts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Her work explores changing attitudes to the written texts of music during that period, and deals with issues of transmission and reception of music in the material form of the book, the different forms and functions of French notation, the visual or non-sounding dimensions of the Old French motet, and the relationship between musical and non-musical sound. She has articles and reviews in Fauvel Studies and the Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Plainsong and Medieval Music and the Journal of Musicology. Her book, Medieval Music-Making and the Roman de Fauvel, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2002. Emma Dillon is currently writing a book called The Sense of Sound: Music and Meaning in Thirteenth-Century France, which explores a variety of non-musical sound worlds, problems of their representation, and the ways they impinge on the reception of the thirteenth-century motet. She is also editing a source-book of texts and music from, and related to, the Roman de Fauvel. She is 2003 winner of the Jerome Roche Prize, awarded by the Royal Musical Association. In 2003-04 she was receipient of a Mellon Fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In Spring 2005 she was Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.


Feelings in Time: The History of the Middle English Passion Lyric Reconsidered

As a genre, the Middle English Passion lyric is ripe for historicist attention. This paper advances one way such historicization might proceed by situating the genre in a promising new framework: the history of emotion. It takes as its starting point a change in the genre's affective tenor over the longue durée, one it links to a change in the figure of Christ's lemman. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century lyrics present the role of lover or bride as an enabling performance position -- a mechanism assumed to be supremely efficacious in producing compassionate love toward Christ. But in lyrics of the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, such brides typically go to the bad: the favored role is now that of Christ's unkynde, resisting beloved -- one who ignores, disdains, or violently rejects his appeals for an eros-infused compassion. A dynamic of reproach and guilt thus dominates.

This talk proposes that there is a meaningful correlation between the recalcitrant brides in the late lyrics, historical structures of affect, and lay male readers. Complex elements of disaffection, in short, have crept into the affective tradition. That they have done so in the lyric, rather than the more extended forms of affective meditation such as Love's Mirror, has to do with the brevity and malleability of the lyric as form -- with the unique ability of the medieval anonymous lyric, I suggest, to register symptoms of cultural pressure, change, or distress. What a new look at the Passion lyric reveals, finally, is a fracturing of the affective tradition from within as older structures of feeling generated affective dissonance in a new category of practitioners. This, in turn, exposes a significant crack in the foundation of "traditional" religion in the century preceding the English Reformation: devotional intimacy had, itself, become a significant site of cultural vulnerability.

Sarah McNamer is Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University, where she teaches courses on medieval literature and performance. McNamer received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles and an M. Phil. from Oxford University. Her research focuses on devotional literature and the history of emotion, particularly in late medieval England. She is the author, most recently, of an article on "Feeling" (in Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Middle English) and the forthcoming book, The Invention of Medieval Compassion. Awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and a Junior Fellowship at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

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