“To the Tune of…”: Contrafacta and the (Re)creation of Meaning through Song in 16th-Century Europe
Joseph Gauvreau is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. His research focuses on sixteenth-century music and poetry in France, England, and Italy. He is also a singer, violinist, and violist, and is dedicated to integrating musical performance into his research.
This dissertation is a comparative study of contrafactum writing in sixteenth-century England, France, and Italy. Writing contrafacta is the process of creating new texts to replace – partially or completely – the original lyrics of a song. This was a widespread phenomenon in early modern Europe, a practice employed within every genre of vocal music and intersecting with many of the technological, cultural, and aesthetic currents of the sixteenth century. This project aims to show how the transformative process of contrafactum writing is inherently destabilizing of static artistic and cultural categories, capable of redirecting songs to new audiences and of questioning the fixity of authorship and authorial intent. Equally, the project sheds light on the crucial role contrafacta can play in the creation or affirmation of new forms, genres, and communities. Madrigals setting lyrics by Petrarch or Tasso can be “English’d”—curated and domesticated into proper models to direct the development of Elizabethan literature. Amorous and ribald chansons by Marot or Ronsard can be republished with “moral” lyrics, purifying them and helping to define both a new poetic language and a space of spiritual refuge for persecuted Calvinists. Ultimately, this dissertation seeks to reorient our understanding of Renaissance music and poetry, showing how the songs of this period were not only composed and consumed, but also continually refashioned as they circulated through societies and across borders.