The ’essentially’ feminine: a mapping through artistic practice of the feminine territory offered by early modern music

Katarina A. Karlsson (ed.), 2018. The ’essentially’ feminine: a mapping through artistic practice of the feminine territory offered by early modern music. Gothenburg: Art Monitor. 127 pp. ISBN 978-91-23456-78-9 (print), ISBN 978-91-23456-78-9 (pdf)

The ’essentially’ feminine: a mapping through artistic practice of the feminine territory offered by early modern music, edited by Katarina A. Karlsson, is a refreshingly disturbing book. The reader might feel offended by Karlsson’s modern reading of ‘an old, innocent music genre’ (p. 39). Is nothing sacred anymore? Can we not be left alone in our quest for comfort in the worlds of the past, in the serene beauty of madrigals and lute songs, in the romanticism of courtly love? Must everything be tainted with #metoo?

Karlsson’s answer is that ‘if nothing of past times and culture could be read with the help of new theories, we would be forced to stay away from not only analyses of sexual violence, but also of colonization, slavery, the holocaust, and so on’ (p. 33). This kind of approach might meet with resistance in research of Early Music performance, which has often been characterised as an example of antiquarian history focused on the deciphering of ancient texts and the endless collecting of historical facts (see e.g. Butt, 2002, pp. 47–48, on musicians’ relationship to history). Recently, the bringing of music of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into dialogue with the present has begun, however, to gain foothold in the study and practice of Early Music.

Even though Karlsson states that the book is a documentation of an artistic research project, this categorisation is a challenge. Is it a research report? Or an account of the different aspects of an artistic project? Or a description of the contexts that have been studied in connection with producing the performance? Or maybe a pamphlet addressing the on-going #metoo discussion?

The book consists of an introduction and five chapters, each of which discusses different aspects of the repertoire and its performance. Apart from one chapter, written by professor Christopher R. Wilson (‘The topic of "love" in early modern English lute songs or ayres’), Katarina Karlsson has written or co-written the whole book. Her co-writers are psychologist Ulf Axberg, who has a long experience of counselling men with a history of domestic violence, and director Gunilla Gårdfeldt Carlsson, who has contributed to the description of the working process of the staged performance. Even though the introduction and the five chapters clearly constitute a whole, I feel that the individual chapters would also work as independent texts.

The corpus of music studied consists of 755 lute songs published between the years 1597 and 1622 in London, of which a total of 390 are love songs with male personae. As many as 182 include one or more of the following rules for those personae:

  1. do not take ‘no’ for an answer;
  2. create a matrix of love and hate, where fear, friendliness, or indifference are impossible options;
  3. alternate pleading with accusation;
  4. threaten to take your own life and blame her for it;
  5. threaten to use, or actually use, violence.

The introduction presents the material and describes Karlsson’s approach based on artistic research, complemented by a survey and two qualitative interviews. The artistic research consisted of practical work, such as (i) recording the songs with professional musicians, students and participants of workshops, (ii) rehearsing and performing the songs with professional musicians and directors, (iii) commissioning two composers to re-compose two songs, and (iv) rehearsing the two re-composed songs and performing them for an audience, integrated in the full-length performance Love has a hundred evil names in October 2017.

The concept of love is the subject of Chapter 1. What is love, and what is the history of the concept of love? How are men and women, or male and female gestures, depicted in the lute songs of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries? How was the ‘enjoyable sexual violence’ (p. 27), introduced by Ovid to the English Renaissance literature, understood? What did ‘no’ mean, and was it even possible for a woman to avoid the ‘comic rape’ (p. 28) by resisting both before and after the deed? And where did the border go between legitimate disciplining and correcting of the wife, on the one hand, and unacceptable violence, on the other? The presence of these themes in the song texts is demonstrated, and a preliminary connection is made to the #metoo movement and studies on sexual violence.

In chapter 2, Karlsson and psychologist Ulf Axberg go deeper into questions of sexual abuse and violence in the past and nowadays. Both present-day studies on today’s perpetrators and victims of sexual violence, and the texts of some of the bolder lute songs, are referred to in connection with the five rules presented above. Karlsson and Axberg also present a survey based on the above-mentioned rules to 20 female respondents who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence. They were asked which of the five rules they recognised from their own abusive relationship. ‘Almost all of the respondents agreed and acknowledged the themes one, two, and three, and a vast majority, but not all of the women also apprehended the themes four and five’ (p. 43).

Present-day studies on sexual violence, the texts of the Elizabethan lute songs, as well as the results of the survey raise questions that are relevant in the contexts of Elizabethan England as well as of the Nordic countries of our time. This discussion is supported by a case, a song by Robert Jones called Sweet Kate. What are the dividing lines between rape and harmless flirting? Who decides what is harmless? Should the victim continue to be blamed for the violation of the boundaries? What is the response of men to accusations of reprehensible behaviour? Karlsson and Axberg maintain that the man may be responsible but not to blame in every context. Drawing on Jeff Hearn (1998), they argue that violence – both in our time and in the lute songs – might take place because of loss of control, as a reaction to the woman’s improper behaviour, which forces the man to resort to violence.

In Chapter 3, Karlsson together with director Gunilla Gårdfeldt Carlsson describe the production of the performance. Starting with the background of the project in Karlsson’s doctoral project, she moves on to the work done with the music (selecting the songs, commissions from contemporary composers, arranging a popular song into a madrigal, translating some of the songs into Swedish, choosing some Italian madrigals that served as a relief from the violent theme). The final script was produced in collaboration with the performers. Cross-dressing was used in order to deepen, strengthen, and problematise the interpretation. Karlsson had also hoped to use actual quotes from perpetrators but in the end decided to use quotes from the messages sent to her by a stalker, shared in the performance among the cast.

Chapter 4 focuses on the theme of ‘love’ in early modern English lute songs that, according to Christopher R. Wilson, embrace subjects from physical bawdiness to ‘ethereal romanticising, from pastoral simpletons to sophisticated courtly situations’ (p. 85). He also introduces some of the most important and prolific composers –  John Dowland, Robert Jones, Thomas Campion, and Philip Rosseter – and their careers, as well as the main themes of love, mortality, and melancholy. The aspect of sexual abuse and violence is not as present here as in the previous chapters.

The last chapter is a depiction of a historical person from 400 years ago, Frances Howard, who was an English noblewoman. Through her life story, the themes presented in the previous chapters are connected to the experience of an individual. Her life story illustrates themes such as women as witches, sex as something to be ashamed of, love as an irresistible force of nature that makes people unhappy, the demand of virginity, the properties valued in a woman – obedience, passivity and quietness – and the sadistic tone of some commentators of Frances’s fate.

Appendix 1 lists the number of songs published by each composer between 1597 and 1622. The composer, the overall number of songs, and the number of love songs are specified. The list is divided into three categories: songs, masque songs, and theatre songs. Appendix 2 contains an analysis of the vocabulary of five lute songs, and appendix 3 the description of the principles of transcription.

The process of producing a book manuscript is often painstaking, and seemingly endless. There is, unavoidably, always room for some improvement here and there. This is true when it comes to the present book on the level of proof-reading but also concerning some details. Karlsson’s interpretation (p. 30) of the semiquavers in ‘So quick, so hot, so mad’ can be questioned based on the rules of text setting during the latter half of the sixteenth century by such authorities as Nicola Vicentino (1555, see Harrán, 1973, p. 622) and Gioseffo Zarlino (1558, see Lewis, 1985, p. 260). In this case, this might entail that even though the next syllable is notated under the crotchet, the semiquavers would still be sung on the syllable ‘so’. Further support for this might be found in the description of anticipatione della syllaba (Bernhard, ca 1650), or cercar della nota (Caccini, 1601).

Another detail concerns Karlssons description of the transcription (p. 123). She has modernised the contemporary spelling ‘chiefeft’ into ‘chiefest’, and ‘fheele’ into ‘she’ll’, which is certainly correct. The f:s in Karlsson’s contemporary spelling might, however, be mistakes: the letters that Karlsson has corrected are not f:s but something that we do not have anymore, the long s [ ſ ].

The book as a whole is an intriguing description of the process of producing a performance and of all the research involved with text, context, meanings, music, staging, lighting, and costumes. As a musician and an Early Music performer, I would say that this is potentially true of any production. There is no end to the potential of research as a mode of enriching and deepening the performance.

For a long time, Early Music might have been thought of as some kind of escape from the disturbing reality of our time, or as a Rankean search for ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’. It might still be, for Early Music audiences at large. This book, however, demonstrates that Early Music has the potential to critically address questions that are relevant for us in our time.

Päivi Järviö



Bernhard, C., c. 1650. Von der Singe-Kunst oder Manier (trans. Sion M. Honea). Available through <> [accessed 11.9.2019].

Caccini, G., 1601. Le nuove musiche. Firenze: Appresso Marescotti. Available through <> [accessed 11.9.2019].

Harrán, D., 1973. Vicentino and his rules of text underlay. The Musical Quarterly, 59(4), ss. 620–632.

Hearn, J., 1998. The violences of men. London: Sage Publications.

Lewis, M.S., 1985. Zarlino’s theories of text underlay as illustrated in his motet book of 1549. Notes, 42(2), ss. 239­–267.