The cover of Paul Schleuse's Singing Games, with its image of Caravaggio's The Cardsharps, is a perfect evocation of the book's central conclusion: that homosocial music making was central to the self-fashioning of elite male identity in early modern Italy because of the game-like nature of participatory amateur song. Schleuse convincingly describes how the printed output of Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605) exemplifies both the sonic and the socially normative nature of such practice, which taught the appropriateness (and limits) of juxtaposition between literary sophistication and erotic braggadocio, helping to define the discursive power of the subcourtly and aspirationally courtly classes.
Like his contemporaries, Vecchi wrote on commission for public spectacles at the end of the sixteenth century and beginning of the seventeenth, involving professional singers and instrumentalists in an increasingly sophisticated and elaborate tradition designed to delight receptive upper-class listeners. Schleuse suggests that traces of some of those works survive in what he calls Vecchi's more “conventional” (p. 291) madrigal books, and in multi-composer collections published by Venetian printer Gardano and others. But he primarily addresses the songbooks that reflect scorings and organization that are less conventional, at least from the perspective of modern notions of sixteenth-century Italian madrigal publication. He suggests that “Vecchi was unusually concerned with the structure, meaning, and function of his music books … because he was not beholden to courtly patrons” (p. 291) and could (or at least chose to) focus on providing songs as a “form of social recreation coexistent and imbricate with the conversation and game playing central to the social life of the courtly and subcourtly classes” (p. 3). Schleuse's thorough and nuanced examination of these repertories and their functions provides an essential complement (and, in some cases, corrective) to established narratives of early modern music on the Italian peninsula.
The first chapter introduces Schleuse's notion of Vecchi's early experiments with the “hybridization” (p. 6) of the strophic villanesca genre with the through-composed madrigal. Schleuse here focuses on Vecchi's early books of four-voice canzonettas that “particularly address themselves to recreational use in polyphonic singing” (p. 12), describing in some detail their correspondence to a style identified by contemporary chronicler Vincenzo Giustiniani as reshaping amateur music making in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. In connecting to the pastoral-Arcadian frame that became a favorite fictive construct in the north Italian courts in this period, Schleuse suggests that “the lyric poetic style of the canzonetta serves as a model for the elevated tone of courtly conversation and (re)inscribes for singers the performative codes appropriate to a social milieu to which they may have had a peripheral or aspirational relationship” (p. 20).
Intertextuality is Schleuse's concern in Chapter 2, as he explores the cross-references between the works and texts in Vecchi's mid-career songbooks and the established part-song repertory, making the case that Vecchi wrote new canzonettas designed to refer not only to other composers’ settings but also to his own works published in earlier collections, creating “a virtual dialogue between pieces that was realizable as actual conversational dialogue among recreational singers” (p. 43). Given that Schleuse here focuses on the conversational goals and effects that Vecchi sought in these works, it is surprising that he does not draw for reinforcement of his point on the extensive contemporaneous literature on conversation as an essential elite sociable grace, such as Stefano Guazzo's La civil conversazione (1574, reprinted many times), which was touted as an essential manual for men with ambitions to move in elite circles. Schleuse observes that “holding multiple works up next to each other prompts the kind of game-like conversation that early modern sociability prized” (p. 44), and this is precisely the kind of sociability that the elite men to whom Vecchi and his publishers directed the songbooks would have read in Guazzo.
In the third chapter Schleuse posits a substantial shift in Vecchi's approach with the publication in 1590 of an “entirely new kind of music book,” the Selva di varia ricreatione, characterized by “a particular poetic program … based on the association of variety and pleasure” (p. 7). Schleuse suggests that Vecchi's “aesthetics of variety” (p. 98) consists in his having “mixed works of different genres and styles in a single book, recognizing that recreational singers would enjoy this variety” (p. 99). Schleuse observes that Vecchi's approach resonates with late sixteenth-century theories of poetic genre, especially with Guarini's concept of tragicomedy within pastoral frames. As he also points out, however, Vecchi is interested in juxtaposing contrasting moods rather than in creating the kind of hybrid proposed by Guarini. In the combination of expressively contrasting works—for example, high-style madrigals followed by comic-erotic capricci—Vecchi's variety may be closer to early traces of the concertato ideal that was about to go viral in the Italian soundscape.
In the Selva, as in other of Vecchi's collections, the self-referentiality of the text in the opening poem (which addresses the would-be singers, who then sing the words that refer to them) “constructs a complex subjectivity in which the singers, by reading Vecchi's words on the page and singing them aloud, become both the ‘you’ and the ‘I’ as they begin to sing, read, or browse through the book” (p. 95). As Schleuse explores this shifting collective subjectivity, he perhaps misses an opportunity to engage with Susan McClary's discussion of analogous issues in Modal Subjectivities, which draws different conclusions and might be fruitfully considered in conversation with this chapter by readers interested in questions of collective engagement with the performed subject-position in sixteenth-century madrigals.1 Schleuse follows his unpacking of the Selva with a similar excursus on Vecchi's Convito musicale of 1597, likewise a miscellany that provides fifty-one works in a less specifically differentiated compilation of madrigals and “lighter” forms and that is designed to be “browsed sequentially by singers choosing what to sing” (or perhaps even by silent readers, Schleuse suggests; p. 131) rather than performed as a coherent unit.
Published the same year as the Convito and probably the most widely known collection by Vecchi, thanks partly to its role in the persistent mythology of the “madrigal comedy” as a precursor to early opera, L'Amfiparnaso is a series of five-voice canzonettas ostensibly organized according to contemporaneous theatrical convention. In his fourth chapter Schleuse argues convincingly that the songbook was not designed to be performed for a listening audience as a music-dramatic spectacle, but rather sung, read, and considered as a complex multimedia text, with noteworthy images that complement its “more complex engagement with contemporary literary theories” (p. 175). This reevaluation of L'Amfiparnaso provides Schleuse with a useful way to unpack the long historiography of Vecchi's putative role in experimentation with staged drama (beginning with a cryptic 1607 inscription on his tombstone, and becoming cemented through eighteenth-century histories) and perhaps dismantle—one hopes once and for all—the notion that “madrigal comedy” had any genre-identification meaning in late sixteenth-century Italy.
Schleuse argues that unlike the Convito and the Selva, this collection could have been understood as a book to be sung sequentially in its entirety. He also points out that while the cohort of characters and overall narrative of L'Amfiparnaso are compatible with the spoken commedia dell'arte of the time, specific elements associated with the relatively new genre of the Guarinian pastoral tragicomedy (and not characteristic of the improvised commedia) contribute to a continuation of the “poetic and musical variety that characterizes Selva and Convito” (p. 133). Indeed—though Schleuse does not make this claim—Vecchi's dedication to the Este patrons who ruled his hometown of Modena may be a marker of his self-conscious connection with Guarini, who had served the Este as court poet for two decades before concluding Il pastor fido (1590), the work through which he defined the tragicommedia genre.
In the final two chapters Schleuse is more adventurous. Drawing on a variety of early modern Italian sources that illustrate both the appeal of and concern surrounding game playing as a locus for homosocial interaction and for the shaping as well as performance of elite male identity and decorum, in Chapter 5 he discusses traces of gameplay in musical works by Vecchi and his contemporaries, arguing that choosing and performing participatory genres with “contrasting musical or poetic style provided opportunities for the self-fashioning performance of identity essential to much early modern gaming” (p. 176). For example, he dwells on the fact that Striggio's “Gioco di primiera,” which ostensibly documents the conversation surrounding a card game that was considered perilous for its potential to involve members of untrustworthy lower classes in public spaces, allows its singers to inhabit collectively multiple personae that are more or less socially savvy and powerful, framing “the pleasure and danger of gambling” (p. 183) in a controlled script that models both good and bad behaviors, and defusing the tension around losing a game (and thereby forfeiting both money and social status) with a final affirmation of collective voice and social dancing.
The more socially sophisticated arena of games of wit and ingenuity is evoked in Vecchi's Le veglie di Siena of 1604. As Schleuse points out, the explicit reference to mixed-gender company and the use of academic pseudonyms (with names drawn directly from a contemporaneous book on Sienese high-class intellectual gameplay) aims to model subtle and socially sanctioned eroticism, in a highly controlled and carefully scripted participatory turn-taking framework that gestures toward spontaneity without risking any of its surprises. Schleuse argues that the variety of expressions and, in Vecchi's own language, “humors” that are presented in a finely balanced set of self-referential musical explorations in the context of conversation-play are Vecchi's “own contribution to a public conversation—one might even say his own turn in a game—about modern music” (and “second practice”) that had recently surfaced through the Monteverdi-Artusi controversy (p. 244). (Artusi's Dialogo on modern music was published in 1600, though Monteverdi coined the term “seconda prattica“ in his Fifth Book of Madrigals a year after Vecchi's Veglie.)
Schleuse's concluding chapter examines selections from Vecchi's songbooks that explicitly dwell on social hierarchy. This is where issues of sexuality, adumbrated elsewhere in the book, emerge most significantly in Schleuse's argument, as he highlights both passages that codify dominant norms by leading the reader-singer to embody heterosexual desire through male homosocial encouragement (an early modern equivalent of subtle “locker-room talk”) and passages that experiment with homoerotic suggestions that go beyond slap-on-the-back bromance. Schleuse examines Vecchi's aria/balletto “So ben mi c'ha bon tempo,” which was copied and excerpted widely by other musicians, as a mildly transgressive “anti-courtly” text, suggesting that since Vecchi was not directly associated with a court his song could offer to would-be upwardly mobile members of the merchant and aristocratic class a “critique of courtliness [that] could express an outsider's view of courtly technologies of exclusion that nevertheless, if mastered, could also offer a way in” (p. 251). In a discussion of songs that evoke drinking images and metaphors Schleuse also identifies clear messages about the importance of maintaining class-determined hierarchical control, and the transgressive appeal but also danger of engaging with members of subaltern social groups, metaphors of drunkenness blending with same-sex erotic suggestions. In the song “O giardiniero” in the Convito musicale, for example, a (presumably upper-class, urban) man asks a (presumably lower-class, rural) gardener to taste his wines, his growing pleasure eventually causing him to faint (“vengo meno,” a phrase widely employed for sexual innuendo in musico-poetic writing of the time). Schleuse convincingly argues for a reading in which the (young, nonworldly?) urban man willingly subjects himself to erotic seduction by the gardener, exemplifying his lack of experience in exerting class-appropriate self-control.
As Chapter 6 ends Schleuse documents Vecchi's continuing production of social music making in the last years of his career and life for his first secular appointment, as maestro della musica to the court of Cesare d'Este in Modena. Schleuse's choice to end with a brief excursus on the controversy surrounding Vecchi's final years and the restoration of his reputation as a “source of civic pride” (p. 294) is perhaps a little anticlimactic after his powerful analyses and conclusions about the social significance of his songs, and maybe even a missed opportunity to dwell on the significance of the accusation that led to the composer's professional downfall. As Schleuse mentions in passing, Vecchi was dismissed from both cathedral and court because “he had gone to sing to the nuns” (“andasse a cantare alle Monache”; p. 294). Perhaps Schleuse could have made more of the fact that Vecchi's first court appointment so late in life (presumably sought as a sinecure of sorts, certainly as a supplement to his primary duties at the cathedral), which included the duty of instructing the duke's (male?) children, likely put him in a position of greater responsibility for the social upbringing of young men through collective musical self-fashioning—and thus may have led to greater scrutiny and eventually his downfall through the association of his music making with improper contact with women religious, one of the recurring themes of elite male social-religious anxiety in early modern Italy, as a number of scholars have explored.2
Schleuse makes abundantly clear in this excellent monograph how “the discourses on class, behavior, and ‘naturalness’ in [Vecchi's songbooks] reflect the pressure of constant (self)-policing on which the culture of sprezzatura depends” (p. 8). It is fitting if paradoxical, then, that Vecchi's professional downfall should have come in the form of accusations (whether founded or not) of the neglect of such self-policing.