Thursday, July 28, 2022

Sarah Kay's "Medieval Song from Aristotle to Opera"

Sarah Kay is a Life Fellow of Girton College, University of Cambridge, and Professor Emerita at New York University. She is the author of Animal Skins and the Reading Self in Medieval Latin and French Bestiaries and Parrots and Nightingales.

Kay applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Medieval Song from Aristotle to Opera, and reported the following:
The title of my book is deliberately disorientating in the way it extends its subject matter – medieval song -- to periods well outside the Middle Ages. Page 99 may seem just to add to the confusion! Open the book at this page and you see two pictures of lions, both open-mouthed, as if roaring. Their captions describe them as “breathing the wind” and give their source as medieval astronomy manuscripts: these are no ordinary lions but images of the constellation Leo, which ancient Greek astronomers associated with the hot, July winds. As the surrounding chapter explains, this association is reinterpreted by medieval Christian writers who take Leo as an emblem of God and the winds as his breath and divine word. On the facing page 98 is an extract from another medieval manuscript that actually makes this connection.

These views of Leo contribute to my understanding of a troubadour song whose singer wants to be inspired – literally, to draw in his breath – from the exhalations of a lion. Working through various medieval notions of what a lion is, I argue that the voice in the troubadour song in question – Rigaut de Berbezilh’s “Atressi com lo leos” [Just like the lion] – has qualities of them all. This is a voice whose breath is enabled by the exhalations of an exotic wild beast, a celestial body, and the divine.

One of the most fun aspects of this book was working with a professional singer, Christopher Preston Thompson, on exploring how viable my ideas were; performances by him and his ensemble Concordian Dawn were recorded and are now on the book’s companion website. Christopher’s performance of “Atressi com lo leos” complements page 99 perfectly. You can hear in his voice both the feral and the remote, celestial or spiritual aspects of this song.

Study of this song forms part of a wider argument about the relationships between song, voice, breath, and the kinds of air on which they all depend. Aristotle’s theorization of these relationships was hugely influential throughout the Middle Ages, while the possibility that beasts can sing persists in opera, for example in the figure of the siren. And so, in an admittedly rather convoluted way, page 99 helps to unpack the paradox of my overall title and explore the complex temporality of medieval song.
Learn more about Medieval Song from Aristotle to Opera at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue