Musical expression, the musical communication of emotions, has been a hotly debated issue in music aesthetics for several centuries. Recently, following the impulses given by Edward T. Cone´s study "The Composer´s Voice" (1974), aspects of agency and narrativity in music have been explored by musicologists as well. "If music is a language, then who is speaking?", Cone asked. This study aims to bring together the issues of musical expression and musical agency under the theoretical/historical concept of musical subjectivity, based, in general, on Niklas Luhmann´s theory of social systems. Concepts like voice, persona, character and individual are developed and a new theory of musical expression is offered (Chapter One).
Musical subjectivity, I argue, is not a timeless concept. It is correlated to the rise of subjectivity and individualism in Western (or European) culture since the High and Late Middle Ages, a rise related to the profound alterations in the structure of Western society. More precisely, aspects of this correlation can be found in late-medieval ideas on personal devotional interiority, as evidenced by the prayers contained in Books of Hours, for instance, prayers often set by Franco-Flemish composers from the fifteenth century onwards. Chapter Two is concerned largely with ideas on the relationship between affect, interiority and liturgical chant during the Middle Ages, as developed by the Church Fathers and other medieval authors. Contrary to received opinions, the origin of musical expressiveness is not to be found in the so-called musical ethics of Greek antiquity, but in the writings of St Augustine and the relationship between heart and voice (cor et vox) in singing, echoed through the centuries by many religious authors. I also try to explore the effects of these ideas on chant theory, namely the use of grammatical and rhetorical concepts in the tradition of treatises on "Musica".
Chapter Three, the heart of this study, is concerned with the development of word-tone relations in the motet from the generation of Du Fay to the generation of Josquin. While the large-scale isorhythmic motet fell in disdain during the 1440s, a new kind of non-isorhythmic, small-scale motets (rather, a bundle of sub-genres) developed. The main reason for this development, I claim, is the development of a motet type I call "devotional motet", motivated by the new desire for polyphonic music in devotional context, such as the Salve services, based on foundations both by clerics and laymen. The relationship of the popular Marian antiphons, often paraphrased in these works, as well as other prayer texts, to late-medieval devotional currents is shown; legends, devotional writings, prayer books and other sorts of evidence form a web of musico-religious meaning in an age tormented by the quest for a merciful god. Composer like Du Fay, Gaspar van Weerbeke and Josquin Desprez are key figures in a development which culminates in the presentation of a rueful musical subject pleading for mercy in works like Josquin´s "Miserere mei, Deus".
Chapter Four, entitled "Further fragments of a history of musical subjectivity", tries to show the continuity and discontinuity of ideas and compositional techniques during Early Modern History, roughly speaking, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. A complete history would be beyond the scope of this study; so I focus on central ruptures like the rise of monody and its uneven relationship to polyphony as well as on the secularization of musico-religious ideas on expressivity into aesthetic discourse in the eighteenth century. A short outlook on the downfall of musical subjectivity in the twentieth century forms the epilogue.