Listening to Early Modern Catholicism, The Jesuit Institute, Boston College (USA), 14-16 July 2014

By Tess Knighton

Tess Knighton and Jane Bernstein

Jane Bernstein and Tess Knighton

This was everything a conference should be: a smallish gathering of experts in different areas of Early Modern music history all of whom had thought and continue to think heard about the social and religious or devotional context for the performance of music, the messages conveyed and their reception and the sheer emotional impact of the music on the listener in specific places and timeframes. Particularly helpful were the two keynotes talks: historian John O’Malley’s summary of the state of research into Early Modern Catholicism presented, clearly and concisely, developments in the field and emphasized that recent research has leapt forward from the notion that the study of Catholicism in this period was not merely ‘the dull step-child of the Reformation’, but an organic and vital part of the social and cultural life of the period. Robert Kendrick gave a brilliant overview of parallel developments in music historiography related to church music in the early modern period, basing his talk on six open-ended and stimulating questions: 1) thinking of music and devotion from the bottom upwards; 2) the interaction of transmission, sacred musical labor and devotion; 3) the sacred in soundscapes; 4) the existence of a musical discipline of devotion; 5) how did musical transmission change during the period; and 6) the integration the Iberian world into the historical picture. Kendrick took on the last of these in his own paper, admirably weaving data from Spain, Portugal and the New World into his overview in a brilliant discourse that drew attention to the possibility of –and the potential for– looking at music and Catholicism in this period not only from an Italocentric viewpoint, but also from the perspective of the centrality of the Hapsburg world. There were also excellent papers from Klaus Pietschmann on differing perceptions of sacred music in the sixteenth century, Colleen Reardon on Siennese convents, Alexander Fisher on urban processional culture in post-Reformation Germany, Jane Bernstein on print culture, Noel O’Regan on Roman confraternities, Egberto Bermúdez on the American missions (particularly useful for its emphasis on the earlier part of the colonial period), Andrew dell’Antonio on soundworld of preaching and Todd Borgerding on music and spirituality in early modern Spain among many others. One paper that caught everyone’s attention was that given by the anthropologist Ignazio Macchiarella on multipart singing by south Italian confraternities. Although it is impossible to say whether the semi-improvised traditions he illustrated related in any direct way with sixteenth-century practice, both the strikingly effective singing and they way in which it was compellingly affective on the listener gave much food for thought. The full programme can be seen at

Thanks to T. Frank Kennedy, Michael Noone and especially Daniele Filippi for a really well organized and stimulating conference.

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