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Staging HarmonyMusic and Religious Change in Late Medieval and Early Modern English Drama$
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Katherine Steele Brokaw

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781501703140

Published to Cornell Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7591/cornell/9781501703140.001.0001

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Sacred, Sensual, and Social Music

Sacred, Sensual, and Social Music

Wisdom and the Digby Mary Magdalene

(p.12) Chapter 1 Sacred, Sensual, and Social Music
Staging Harmony

Katherine Steele Brokaw

Cornell University Press

This chapter focuses on fifteenth-century East Anglia and the music of two plays, Wisdom and the Digby Mary Magdalene. Wisdom and Mary Magdalene stage and embody anxieties about the sensual nature of music that can be traced back to classical philosophy and early Christian theologians. These plays also engage with liturgical debates that stem from these anxieties, debates regarding the role of music in the church and in the life of a pious Christian. The chapter argues five major points about how staged music can contribute to religious discourse. Firstly, it uses Wisdom to show that music can be employed to depict the moral status of characters, and that liturgical music is often theatricalized in order to portray the innocence or salvation of these characters. Secondly, it explains how Wisdom and Mary Magdalene stage the bodily sensuality that music provokes by using song and dance to index sin and temptation. Thirdly, it looks at the parodic rite staged in Mary Magdalene, which is open to multiple doctrinal interpretations even as it unifies audience members in the feeling of Christian solidarity against a perverted Saracen-pagan faith. Fourthly, it argues that staged religious music often capitalizes on the affective power of liturgy and sacrament; Wisdom is used to show how music’s emotional force empowers it to suggest and urge compromise or at least toleration of theological diversity. The final section looks at the way staged music—in this case the “Te Deums” that conclude Mary Magdalene—can be a socializing force that unifies people in the shared experience of literal harmony, building the sensation of concord even in the absence of real consensus.

Keywords:   East Anglia, fifteenth-century plays, staged music, musical drama, plays, religious discourse

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