Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Bettina Varwig's "Music in the Flesh"

Bettina Varwig is professor of music history and fellow of Emmanuel College at the University of Cambridge. She is author of Histories of Heinrich Schütz and editor of Rethinking Bach.

Varwig applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Music in the Flesh: An Early Modern Musical Physiology, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Hier bey dieser kleinen Sehnen
Soll man mit Verwundrung sehn,
Wie viel Aest aus ihr sich dehnen,
Ja den gantzen Leib durchgehn,
Die nicht nur in Gaum und Munde,
Zähnen, Augen, Nas’ und Schlunde
Sich zertheilen; sondern auch
In der Brust und in dem Bauch.

Ja so gar bis in die Füsse
Sollen kleine Zweige gehn,
Wannenher ich leichtlich schliesse,
Wie die Wirckungen geschehn,
Welche die Music erreget,
Da der Ton das Ohr uns schläget,
Und im Nervchen, das er rührt,
Durch den gantzen Leib sich führt.

We should marvel at this little nerve strand, how many branches extend from it and go through the whole body, parting not only in the mouth and palate, teeth, eyes, nose, and throat, but also in the chest and stomach. Little branches are even said to extend into the feet. From this I easily deduce how the effects arise that music incites, when a sound hits our ear and passes through the whole body via the nerve strand that it touches.
This is a poem by the eighteenth-century German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes, about the workings of the human auditory nerve. The poem takes up the better part of page 99 – and it goes right to the heart of the matter. Page 99 Test result: positive!

My book aims to reimagine the musical experiences of early modern Europeans: how music affected them in body, soul and spirit. To this end, I set out to reconstruct the physiology of their musicking bodies. I argue that this physiology is grounded less in the Cartesian notion of the body as a solid, inert container of an immaterial mind, and more in the idea of human bodies as volatile, in flux, agential, and entangled with spirit and soul in inextricable ways. These early modern body-souls were susceptible to penetration from outside forces such as (musical) soundwaves. The process of hearing did not merely involve soundwaves entering the ear and being transported to the brain to be decoded there. Soundwaves could suffuse and affect the whole body, the limbs, the inner organs, the vital spirits and thereby the thoughts, feelings and actions of those they permeated.

Brockes’s poem offers a poeticized vision of this physiology of hearing. He explains why we feel compelled to tap our foot when we hear music, a phenomenon that is still being investigated in embodied cognition research today. The physiology sketched in his poem could serve to elucidate all sorts of other striking effects of music on these early modern bodies: from melting their ear wax to ravishing the heart and drawing the soul out of the body. To my early modern listeners, music could taste (sweet or vinegary); it could smell (ungodly song stank); and it could touch and transform all parts of a their body-soul. What might happen to us as listeners today if we tried hearing this music with our whole bodies like that?
Learn more about Music in the Flesh at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue