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"'Imitating the Words' in Music: A View from the Poetics Commentary Tradition," a talk by Russell O'Rourke, PhD Candidate, Columbia University, Music Department

Renaissance Wednesday


Italian madrigal composers are best known today for their innovative approach to setting poetic texts to music in such a way that the meaning of certain words or phrases is made audible through vivid analogy. Today called "word-painting" or "madrigalism," this text-setting technique was known to many in the late sixteenth century as "imitating the words" (imitazione delle parole). While "imitating the words" has long been taken for granted in scholarship as a self-evident adaptation of mimetic principles to music, this presentation reexamines the concept by turning to the commentary tradition around Aristotle's Poetics that flourished in the later decades of the sixteenth century. It was here, in the pages (and sometimes margins) of translations and paraphrases of Aristotle's teachings, that imitation (i.e., mimesis) was subject to its most creative interpretations during the period when the musical motto came into use.


Of particular import for music is the Aristotelian attitude toward audience members' affective and cognitive responses to works of art produced with imitation. Authors such as Alessandro Piccolomini (1575), Giorgio Bartoli (1573), and Francesco Buonamici (1597) outline what may rightly be called a logical paradigm for aesthetic experience, in which spectators access a work of imitation's promised pleasure by executing a syllogism, in the mind, to compare the artistic fiction before them to its real or imaginary object of representation. The spectator's syllogism in turn facilitates an instance of learning, thereby fulfilling the twin aims of pleasure (diletto) and benefit (utile) so prized in Cinquecento discourses on the arts, music included. This psychological model, I suggest, has rich implications for the practice of "imitating the words" in music of the same period. To tease some of them out, I'll conclude by demonstrating the Aristotelian framework in action in a few passages from a madrigal by Giaches de Wert (1535-96).


Russell O'Rourke is currently working on a dissertation about theories and practices of representation in late Renaissance Italian musical culture, with an emphasis on their relationship to the rediscovery of Aristotle's Poetics in the sixteenth century. 

The talk is free of charge and open to the public.

Refreshments to follow, provided by the Amherst Woman's Club.

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