Sounding Passions and Therapeutic Performance in Thomas Weelkes’s Songs

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This article explores a group of Thomas Weelkes’s songs that see the usually light-hearted, playful and often suggestive fa-la-la refrain juxtaposed with melancholic lyrics, contextualising them within contemporary debates concerning the affective powers of vocal and instrumental music and the music’s therapeutic properties.
The contrasting passions in these texts provide inspiration for typically madrigalian musical expression; however, while the chromatic setting of the melancholic texts is in keeping with the madrigalian ethos of text expression, the nonsense syllable fa-la-las function differently. With no semantic text, the expression of these passages depends on the musical setting and the performative decisions taken by the performers, which might align or jar with prior expectations of fa-la-la refrains. Such passages are ambiguous and malleable, and the signification of the fa-la-las might even change from stanza to stanza.
Weelkes’s experimentation with how fa-la-la refrains might communicate a range of passions engages with contemporary debates about the extent to which music’s affective powers were reliant on, amplified by, or independent of text. Moreover, several of Weelkes’s songs enact a therapeutic purging of melancholy attributed to non-verbal or instrumental music. Weelkes’s interest in the sonic expression of the passions, exploring effects that are both onomatopoeic and utilise conventions of musical expression, underscores the role of these songs as not merely passionate representations but potential acts of musical therapy. Explanations of music’s healing powers in contemporary writing focus on music’s harmonic properties and ability to move the passions and spirits; the emphasis is on music’s sonic properties and texts is rarely mentioned. Weelkes’s songs both open up debates as to the appropriate style of music for the cure of melancholy and offer a rare insight into one musician’s understanding of how music’s healing powers might work in practice.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbercaad050
Pages (from-to)535–550
Number of pages16
JournalEarly Music
Issue number4
Early online date10 Dec 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2023

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