Studying Poetry through Music: The Tasso in Music Project

Authors: Ricciardi, Emiliano / Sapp, Craig

Date: Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 11:15am to 12:45pm

Location: Main Campus, L 1.202 <campus:note>


The Tasso in Music Project ( is a complete digital edition of the early modern musical settings of the poetry of Torquato Tasso (1544–95), the most prominent poet of late sixteenth-century Italy. Comprising about 800 musical settings and representing the work of over 200 composers, this repertoire is significant not only for musical reasons—for instance, with many parallel settings of the same poems, the corpus lends itself especially well to comparative analysis—but also, and most importantly in this presentation, for literary reasons, since the musical settings can shed light on the dissemination of Tasso’s work and can offer insight into the form and meaning of his poems.

Accordingly, besides providing newly made critical editions of the musical settings in a variety of electronic formats (Humdrum, MEI, MusicXML), the project features a substantial literary component whose function is to help us to better understand the tradition of the poetic texts and music/text relations. More specifically, the project includes TEI transcriptions of the poetic texts as they appear in musical settings and in contemporaneous literary sources, both manuscript and printed, as well as tools for the dynamic visualization of literary variants across sources. This textual component provides indispensable data for the study of the transmission of Tasso’s poetry, which is notoriously intricate as many of his poems survive in multiple versions with substantial variants. These data are of interest for musicologists, who can use them to trace the sources used by composers, to assess filiation between settings of the same poem, and to study possible manipulations of literary texts by composers. The data are equally interesting for literary philologists, who can use them to broaden their perspective on the tradition of Tasso’s texts, having access for first time to variants that are recorded only in musical sources, some of which may be ascribable to Tasso himself by virtue of his proximity to several major composers of the time.

Likewise, building on the possibilities afforded by digital encoding, the Tasso in Music Project offers several online tools to study the interaction of poetry and music, both within single pieces and across the repertoire. The data for both music and poetry are also available for further offline and additional analyses. Currently available online analysis tools address the melismatic treatment of words and the use of textual repetition in the music–the latter is particularly useful to quickly identify keywords in a poem. In the presentation, we will also present new tools that will allow users to analyze the relationship between poetic prosody and musical durations/meter as well as between poetic and musical syntax (for instance, the correspondence, or lack thereof, between ends of poetic lines and cadences), showing how musical settings can function as parsings of a poem’s metric and syntactic structure.

Through these tools, the Tasso in Music Project restores the centrality of poetry in early modern vocal music, addressing an interdisciplinary audience encompassing not only performers and scholars of music (historians, theorists, music encoders), but also scholars of literature (Italianists, linguists, textual encoders).

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