Played to death: bringing music back to life

Written By Anastazja Grudnicka | @AGrudnicka

Every once in a while I come across a certain kind of evidence that stays on my mind long after I move on with my research. Sometimes it’s the source itself, other times it’s the circumstances in which a particular text, object, picture appears that makes it echo at the back of my mind. Last year, and only a few weeks into my research on the culture of the Habsburg court in sixteenth-century Vienna, I stumbled across a source like this.

It was a two-sentence message from an envoy to the Habsburg court reporting back to his English principals. On 27th April 1564 this anonymous informant noted that ‘the Emperor [Ferdinand I] is very ill of a quotidian ague and has committed all to Maximilian. He has all sort of musicians playing in and about in his chamber.’[1] Whilst the information about Ferdinand transferring his powers to Maximilian, his son and heir, is likely to be found in a note like this, the mention of musicians keeping the emperor company on his death-bed appears bizarre, to say the least. Why would a man witnessing what then appeared as the last days of the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire be so attentive to the musicians playing in the emperor’s chambers? Why would he then consider this as a piece of information so relevant that he included it in the note to his English superiors? And finally, why would a terminally ill man be accompanied in his sickness by a musical ensemble rather than enjoy some peace and quiet?

1 Hans Burgkmair

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Music: Shawm players, trombonists, and krumhorn players… From: The Triumph of Maximilian I (15th century), Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

There are no definite answers to these questions and we could engage in lengthy speculations. However, what this source tells us is that for some reason music mattered profoundly to those people centuries ago. Perhaps it was the belief in the medicinal quality of music, which was so prevalent at the Viennese court at the time, that prompted those musical performances in the chamber of the dying emperor. Perhaps it was a part of the court ritual or simply Ferdinand’s fancy? Or perhaps the anonymous observer inserted this odd comment in an attempt to mask his failure to gather more relevant intelligence from the Viennese court. One way or another, music mattered enough to both accompany Ferdinand in his illness and to be recorded by contemporaries. And that is also why it should matter to us in our endeavours to reconstruct and understand the past.

2 Philippe de Monte

Philippe de Monte, Orpheus at the court of Rudolf II

But how can historians recreate the actual experience of early modern music? The mass of surviving musical compositions and a body of musicological literature tracing the shape and size of musical ensembles provide enough material for historians to incorporate music into their research. Textual analysis of musical compositions is a primary means of engaging with this kind of evidence. Yet, in order to fully understand music in its early modern context one should above all else listen. The work of groups such as London-based Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment or the Renaissance Singers which specialise in early modern repertoire make this experience possible. For my research on Habsburg history, recordings of groups such as Vienna-based Cinquecento have proved extremely useful in recreating the fleeting nature of early modern performance. Although it forces historians to step away from the discipline’s traditional focus on textual evidence and adjust their methodological apparatus accordingly, the study of early modern music is feasible and certainly worth pursuing. The recent ‘opening’ of historical discipline to areas such as visual and material culture, evidences how much history can benefit from taking a cross-disciplinary turn. Music in its fullness, not considered merely from a standpoint of textual analysis, is yet to see its heyday, but we may not have to wait long. Recent interest of the historians of the early modern period in the processes of production, mediation, transmission, and reception of musical works evidences this emerging trend. The political and religious developments are explained through the prism of music as Andrew Weaver’s excellent Sacred Music as Public Image for the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III exemplifies.[2] The use of aural evidence also manifests wider debates within the historical discipline. For instance, the volume edited by Rudolf Rasch, The Circulation of Music in Europe, 1600-1900: A Collection of Essays and Case Studies, considers music in the context of the cross-Atlantic exchanges and reflects the global turn in the scholarship.[3] This diverse use of aural evidence reveals the relevance of music in the study of the early modern period.

3 Veronese

Veronese, Allegory of Music (from the court of Rudolf II Habsburg)


The sentence that stirred my imagination one shady November evening never made it to my dissertation chapter. Its value, however, lies in the fact that it enticed me to step out of my comfort zone. And it was this experience that made it all worthwhile. After all, ‘music is,’ as Plato concluded, ‘a moral law’ which ‘gives a soul the universe, wings to the mind, flight to imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything.’ And what else do historians study if not this very life with all its intricacies?


[1] My emphasis. Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series, Of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1564-5, preserved in the State Papers Department of Her Majesty Public Record Office, ed. by Jospeh Stevenson, London, Longman, 1870, p. 123

[2] Andrew Weaver, Sacred Music as Public Image for Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III. Representing the Counter-Reformation Monarch at the End of the Thirty Years’ War (Ashgate, 2012)

[3] Rudolf Rasch, (ed.), The Circulation of Music in Europe, 1600–1900: A Collection of Essays and Case Studies (Berlin: Berliner Wissenschafts Verlag, 2008).

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