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The Secular Commedia

The Secular Commedia: Comic Mimesis in Late Eighteenth-Century Music

Wye Jamison Allanbrook
Mary Ann Smart
Richard Taruskin
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Secular Commedia
    Book Description:

    Wye Jamison Allanbrook'sThe Secular Commediais a stimulating and original rethinking of the music of the late eighteenth century. Hearing the symphonies and concertos of Haydn and Mozart with an ear tuned to operatic style, as their earliest listeners did, Allanbrook shows that this familiar music is built on a set of mimetic associations drawn from conventional modes of depicting character and emotion in opera buffa. Allanbrook mines a rich trove of writings by eighteenth-century philosophers and music theorists to show that vocal music was considered aesthetically superior to instrumental music and that listeners easily perceived the theatrical tropes that underpinned the style. Tracing Enlightenment notions of character and expression back to Greek and Latin writings about comedy and drama, she strips away preoccupations with symphonic form and teleology to reveal anew the kaleidoscopic variety and gestural vitality of the musical surface. In prose as graceful and nimble as the music she discusses, Allanbrook elucidates the idiom of this period for contemporary readers. With notes, musical examples, and a foreword by editors Mary Ann Smart and Richard Taruskin.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95887-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Music Examples
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    Mary Ann Smart and Richard Taruskin

    These sentences from the first chapter ofThe Secular Commediacapture something important about the spirit of the book and its author. The book argues compellingly, if never quite explicitly, for the centrality of the relationship between character and expression; and the author’s intuition about that essential link permeates her writing on every page. Her historical observations and musical interpretations—her professional expressions—are everywhere colored by her character: her warmth and generosity, and her special gift for community-fostering friendship. We believe that it was her sense of an affinity between musical style and the depiction of diverse and encyclopedic...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Comic Flux and Comic Precision
    (pp. 1-40)

    Le Neveu de Rameau,the disquieting dialogue-satire by Denis Diderot, contains a long passage in which the eponymous Nephew lectures his interlocutor, a Diderot-like figure, on the merits of Italian over French opera. Opera criticism is not the dialogue’s principal preoccupation, but rather the far more somber issue of cynicism’s clash with moral philosophy. Yet about two-thirds of the way through, the discussion veers off into a peculiar musical topicality: the usually cynical Nephew begins to argue ardently for one side in the well-known mid-eighteenth-century Parisian culture war known as theguerre des bouffons(the Italian, as it happens). The...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Comic Voice in the Late Mimetic Period
    (pp. 41-83)

    How, then, to make explicit in theory and practice the rich social and artistic transaction I have just described? To summarize: the characteristic rhythmic pattern of a gigue—a lilting dance characteristically associated with rustic revels and sung as a lovers’ duet at the end of a comic opera to celebrate the couple’s nuptial rites—is used later in the century without a text to impart the same sense of celebratory close to an instrumental concerto. This transference of significance from vocal to instrumental music via the mediation of a familiar musical genre is as palpable and ingratiating to modern...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Comic Surface
    (pp. 84-127)

    It is time to sing the praises of superficiality. “Superficial” and “deep” are heavily sedimented judgment words: we reflexively degrade the one while exalting the other. We speak of “deep thinkers,” “deeply held convictions,” but “merely superficial knowledge of the subject.” I would like to restore the superficial to a respectable neutrality, at least in the context of the repertoire under discussion here. The word is derived from the Latinsuperficies,or “surface,” a concept to which no particular pejorative significance need be attached. Without surfaces there would be no appearances, no phenomena—phainomenain the Greek, or “things that...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Comic Finitude and Comic Closure
    (pp. 128-176)

    In the first act ofLe nozze di Figaro,the Count, standing by impotent as Figaro deftly stages a public ceremony intended to force him into benevolence, finally bursts out querulously, “Cos’è questa commedia!”—literally, “What is this comedy!” I’ve sometimes had the uneasy feeling that my readers might confront me with the same question, perhaps even in the same querulous voice. So what is thiscommediayou’ve been parading in front of us? What does it amount to in the end? Fair enough. Here at the cadence I should try to tell you what I think it is, and...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 177-218)
    (pp. 219-230)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 231-234)