Enthusiasm and its discontents: Religion, prophecy, and madness in the music for Sophonisba and The Island Princess

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Enthusiasm, a state in which the soul is supposedly freed from the body and the human vessel is filled with the divine, troubled the religious mainstream in 17th-century England. During the English Civil War, radical Protestant sects used enthusiastic prophecy to justify rebellion against monarchical tyranny. Such practices drew fire from members of the Church of England who vilified the prophets' "religious enthusiasm" by associating it with madness and melancholy. This strategy pathologized enthusiasm, transforming it into a mental disorder. Anti-enthusiastic discourses shaped musical and dramatic practices on the Restoration stage, as witnessed in two songs for enthusiastic prophets, Cumana in Nathaniel Lee's Sophonisba (music by Henry Purcell for a 1690s revival) and the elderly Brahmin priest in Peter Motteux's revision of The Island Princess (music by Richard Leveridge, 1699). Purcell's song for Cumana, "Beneath a Poplar's Shadow," incorporates the standard conventions of musical madness and is even called a "mad song" in Orpheus Britannicus, Book Two (1702). Similarly, the Brahmin priest channels the speech of the false pagan gods in Leveridge's "Enthusiastick Song" - a piece that parallels contemporary political discourses about the "madness" of religious nonconformity and fanaticism. A close reading of the music, dramatic texts, and contemporary political, religious, and medical discourses demonstrates how musical representations of enthusiasm were affected by the critical rhetoric of religious orthodoxy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)307-330
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Musicology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music


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