Changing Attitudes Towards Classical Mythology and their Impact on Notions of the Powers of Music in Early Modern England

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Abstract

Early modern apologists for music drew extensively on classical mythology to exemplify its powerful effects and importance to society. Interpreting the truths thought to lie behind myths was far from straightforward, however. Following classical approaches, authors might interpret the mythical figures as either historical—turning the stories into benchmarks against which the efficacy of modern music was judged—or as merely allegorical, providing moral and philosophical justifications for music. Moreover, in the seventeenth century the authority and status of classical mythology began to change, with consequences for the fabled powers of music. Increasing attempts to provide rationalized interpretations for the astonishing mythical powers of music transformed them from wondrous marvels into everyday phenomena. Orpheus, who had been regarded as a musical founder of civilization, could now be likened to a common ballad seller or fiddler. Expectations regarding the powerful effects of music declined and both the ethical justifications for music and the long-held aim of moving the passions came into question. This allowed new ways of thinking about music to emerge, valuing it less for its utility and sensuality than for its intellectual pleasures—ideas that would come to underpin the development of notions of fine art and aesthetics in the eighteenth century.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)42-60
Number of pages19
JournalMusic and Letters
Volume97
Issue number1
Early online date28 Apr 2016
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

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