Medieval Studies

Lecture Leon Battista Alberti on the Art of Singing

Thu, October 8, 2015 | MRH M3.113

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Modeled on fables in the Aesopic tradition, the prologue of Book 8 of the Intercenales of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) is a vituperative attack concerning singing and the performance of poetry and music. Alberti presents a singing contest between a frog and cicada to determine which of them is superior in the art of music, thereby illustrating contemporary criticism of quality of voice and singing style that has never before been considered in a musicological context, nor compared with the inconclusive Florentine Certame Coronario of 1441. The complaints hurled between the contestants are measured against the same merits of recited poetry praised by Leonardo Bruni: vocalic melody, elegance, concinnity, and charm, as well as knowledge of a variety of poetic genres. This paper explores the apologue’s context, its importance for understanding performance criticism in early fifteenth-century Florence, and how Alberti is likely drawing on his own musical and poetical experiences.


Evan A. MacCarthy is assistant professor of music history in the West Virginia University School of Music. He received an B.A. in Classics and music from the College of the Holy Cross, and earned a Ph.D. in historical musicology from Harvard University. His research focuses on the history of fifteenth-century music and music theory, late medieval chant, German music in the Baroque era, as well as late nineteenth-century American music. He is writing a book on the study and teaching of music and music theory in fifteenth-century Italy, especially among humanistic scholars leading the revival of classical literature. The book explores how and why the surviving sources of Italian music theory were written, studied, and circulated, offering new new insight into the contemporary readers of these important texts. He is also producing an edition and first-ever translation of Ugolino of Orvieto’s Declaratio musice discipline (written c. 1435) for Brepols Press. He has also served on the music faculties of Harvard University (where he was the Harvard College Fellow in music from 2010 to 2012), College of the Holy Cross, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Boston University. In 2012-13, he was the Committee for the Rescue of Italian Art (CRIA) Fellow at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. He has also recently been awarded research grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council and WVU's Faculty Senate. He is active as a singer, recently serving as the bass section leader of the Holy Cross Schola Cantorum under the direction of James David Christie.


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