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3 Questions With Richard Freedman

3 Questions

Musicologist Richard Freedman takes a broad view of early music in his new book Music in the  Renaissance. Part of W.W. Norton’s Western Music in  Context series, the book explores the role of music in Renaissance courts and churches, its shifting social  purposes and aesthetic ideals, and examines how new ideas and inventions (particularly printing) changed the way music was transmitted and appreciated. Freedman, the John C. Whitehead Professor of Humanities at Haverford, is a noted innovator in the use of digital technology in the study of early music, so the book offers an added dimension of instruction through a website that provides links to recordings of Renaissance music via iTunes, Amazon and the Naxos Music Library.

Can you tell us a little bit about how music in the Renaissance was connected to status and display?

Richard Freedman: What you have to remember is that most of the places we think of as [European] countries now were, in the 15th and 16th centuries, more of a collection of independent principalities joined by dynastic alliances and common cultural interests. Ruling princes were keen to have themselves seen as important persons, above all through the demonstrations of what Aristotle and his commentators called “magnificence,” which required spending appropriate to one’s rank. Music was an ideal medium for this display, precisely because it was expensive. You needed the best singers, and needed to equip them with good music copied onto lavish parchment choirbooks. Princes competed with one another to have the best, the biggest, most lavish musical households. Some (through their diplomatic contacts and connections with the church) engaged in all kinds of “corporate” raiding of musicians, like they do with professional sports teams now.

How did the invention of movable type change things for music and musicians?

RF: Before print, manuscripts would be copied in the place where the composers were active, and would contain just enough information for the singer to decode the piece. Lots of decisions (about how to ornament the piece or how to align words with the notes of the melody) were left to the discretion of the performer. One manuscript copy of a given piece would, in fact, be quite different from another in lots of important ways. Printing gave composers a way to control their texts in multiple copies and to distribute their music far and wide. And with this came a change in literacy. More and more people learned to read music, and more amateurs learned to play. Having these abilities became one of the marks of civility, and, increasingly, musical competence became a badge of prestige worn by Renaissance men, and women, too.

The Renaissance was an age of exploration and colonial expansion. Did music factor into those encounters with other cultures?

RF: One of the more surprising things was the extent to which European musical instruments were tools of diplomacy. When Europeans went abroad, to the Ottoman Empire or the Far East, part of the kit bag was technology: clocks, mechanical devices and musical instruments. Europeans saw these objects as signs of their own accomplishments. In many respects, their encounters with other cultures were self-centered and self-aggrandizing. They were convinced that any non-European civilization they found was inferior. Both Catholics and Protestants used music to teach Christianity as a part of their project of religious conversion. It was an agent of acculturation. When the Spanish came to the Aztec world, for example, they took the children of the nobility who had been killed and taught them to sing sacred music and to compose.

—Eils Lotozo

This interview appears in the the Winter 2013 issue of Haverford magazine.

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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