French-American Bridge for Medieval Musical Iconography

Medieval Musical Iconography Research and Indexing


by Valérie Nunes-Le Page

How is music, in all its dimensions, represented and understood according to various notions and views? Musiconis is a database for musical iconography. However, it is still a work in progress. For the FAB-Musiconis project, we had to index 200 images that included paintings, sculptures, books, and manuscripts pertaining to the Medieval Ages. In order to achieve this goal, we had to address the following main questions. First, what is a musical scene? what kind of sound can we find in the images? and how can we imagine to index such images? One of the main objectives of the Musiconis project is to define more precisely all the signs that the artists wanted to include in their works to deliver a message to the public. To do so requires background knowledge in medieval history, art history, and religion. One should also be familiar with ancient cultures, as the images contain Latin mythological and classical references.

During Sébastien Biay’s seminar at the Columbia Global Center on January 3, 2017, we learned that there are several types of sounds that are non-musical, natural sounds (birds) or shouts, calls, war sounds, and musical ones, with or without instruments. The instruments can be real or broken (implying parody). Furthermore, the instruments can be non-played and in such cases, they simply represent music. Regarding the sonic actions of the images, the musical functions must be described using a large array of categories and words, because there are many kinds of actions in the pictures. For instance, sometimes one could find only accompaniment of a performance or a scene. We can also see unreal scenes, like a man dancing with a lion or a strange flute inserted in his nose which can designate disorder.

The intention of the sound is important. It can be accompaniment to a performance or combat, entertainment, and glorification. The effects of the music can be agitation, seduction, disorder, soothing, or engendering a letter. Images frequently refer to music theory and the idea of musical perfection. Music is performed in the presence of God. We can interpret representations of David playing or with a tuning key as precision, or the notion of consonance, which often means harmony. The depictions of music on a book indicate measure, modality, and they are often linked with numbers and mathematical laws (Pythagoras). We used all these categories in the process of indexation.

The signs of sound can be a graphic representation of breath, or notations and texts included in the pictures. The classification of instruments involves two kinds of indexation terms: the Isidorean tri-partition, and organological categories (chordophones, aerophones, and percussions). It may seem very simple, but we had to employ these classifications only if there was a clear visual depiction.. Low and high instruments are two families with strong symbolic functions: softer or noisy instruments. The organ is in the same family as stringed instruments. The source of musical inspiration is frequently the Holy Ghost or Virgin Mary. The referential context of the sound can be classified as angelic context (music played by angels) or liturgical music (a cleric singing). The prophets are often the link between the Old and New testament. They represent perfect, celestial music. Rural or urban soundscapes, aristocratic music, and courtly music, connected with seduction in courtly manner (not erotic music) are other referential contexts.

The music of the Law (the Ten Commandments) is often represented by David at the beginning of the first psalm. King David signifies intellectual music in contradistinction to liturgical music. Carnal music, music of the flesh, can be depicted by the devil holding a rote or by mythological characters and scenes which submit the spirit to the flesh. Church music is not music performed in a church, but music which represents the church. For example, an organ can represent the church. Parodic music is a particular situation with instruments that have been “hijacked” (removed from their context) or animals with an instrument that they could never actually play.






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