Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities
2002—2003 Forum on The Book
Assistant Professor, Music
The Sense of Sound: Reception of Polyphony in Thirteenth-Century France
Thirteenth-century France was the site of unprecedented innovations in the realms of polyphonic composition, innovations that were at once facilitated and determined by the development of new, prescriptive forms of musical notation. Dr. Dillon will investigate how this new materiality in music-making fundamentally changed the ways medieval singers and listeners engaged with sound. Notated polyphony permitted greater forms of textural and textual complexity; as a result, new semantic problems – ethical and musical in nature – arose. Perhaps the most extreme tension between sound and sense was embodied by the motet. Its juxtaposition of different voices singing different texts, often in different languages, rendered texts meaningless even as they were animated in sound - the verbal sense lost in the complex web of polyphony. How did audiences engage with music that seeks to present more than the ear can hear? How did they negotiate the gap between sensual sound and textual meaning? What did this gap signify, particularly when the meaning at stake was sacred in naure? To wrestle with these issues, Dr. Dillon deploys some fifty manuscripts from northern France that date to ca. 1220-1300. They play witness to the extraordinary diversity of forms through which music was transmitted, ranging from simple rolls designed for easy use in performance; to the compilation of music among vernacular and Latin texts; to much more complex and elaborate compendia devoted solely to music, lavishly illuminated and scrupulously designed. By exploring the order, layout, and pictorial decoration of music and cross-referencing other forms of textual organization, we may see how book design could aid the unraveling of sonic complexities. Readers did not use books like modern scores. Rather, cues to other readerly modes established new styles of reading the motet, styles which mimicked and supplemented the complex acts of listening to polyphony, in the quiet, contemplative space of the book.