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Concerned with the Seicento, the style of Italian art and literature of the 17th century, Susan McClary (professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio) sums up the content of her new book as having traced various ways in which 17th-century composers expanded, compressed and otherwise manipulated the grammatical units and expressive conventions they had inherited from their 16th-century forbears.

Women’s music is cited as one of several genres regarded (by some) as unworthy of serious consideration. Indeed, the reader could be forgiven for regarding McClary’s book (and she herself admits to the possibility) as providing a vade mecum, a handbook or guide for consultation, bringing feminist theory and criticism, and gay music criticism, into musicology. The idea is hardly hot news at this late juncture.

In chapter five McClary examines the ‘sometimes shocking’ sacred monodies that make explicit use of sexual imagery to portray either jouissance or religious bliss. Today’s worldly-wise reader is then likely to enquire: shocking to whom? Surely, nothing here will upset the typical mature adult of the 21st century, surrounded (as we all are) by the explicit sexual imagery that confronts any contemporary viewer of terrestrial television or of the internet. A cynic could be forgiven for being reminded of the old adage ‘sex sells’. And, unfortunately for the reader seeking titillation and excitement, there is negligible overt stimulation to be found here.

Despite McClary’s assertion that ‘the single most important innovation in music of the seventeenth century … involves the simulation of desire,’ there is little such stimulus to be encountered. Either that, or cultural notions of desire have changed radically and quickly. Indeed, McClary herself suggests as much.

The 340 pages include generous musical examples, shown mostly as piano reductions or short score.

JOHN ROBERT BROWN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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