Book Review:

Ombra: Supernatural Music in the Eighteenth Century, by Clive McClelland

Reviewed by Stephanie Pietros

College of Mount St. Vincent

Review of Clive McClelland's Ombra: Supernatural Music in the Eighteenth Century, Lexington Books, 2012. 353 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-0739169735). Paperback (ISBN: 978-0739188170). Kindle (ASIN: B008UTMROK).

Clive McClelland’s Ombra: Supernatural Music in the Eighteenth Century comprehensively and exhaustively surveys a musical style known as ombra, which developed over the course of the eighteenth century in opera and was used to signal the appearance of a supernatural character or herald a supernatural event. Seeking primarily to explain the influences upon Mozart, McClelland is at pains to distinguish the ombra style, so-called, only starting in the early 20th century, from other potentially related ones, such as Sturm und Drang or fantasia. In making such distinctions, McClelland’s book appears at times to grasp at such small differences that one wonder what the implications of such minutiae could be. As the study progresses, however, it becomes clear that while reading the study in its entirety might be unnecessary for the non-musicologist, the thorough work is indeed an important one and worth the attention of musicologists and scholars in related fields alike.

For musicologists, the implications of the work are abundantly clear. As McClelland catalogues the various musical features of the ombra style in chapters on tonality, harmony and line, tempo and rhythm, and texture, dynamics, and instrumentation, the overarching value of the study unfolds as the ability to understand Mozart’s oeuvre, particularly his operas, and the composer’s use and transformation of, by his time, standard musical language in depicting and referencing the supernatural. Although the final chapter of the study briefly surveys references to the ombra style following Mozart, the great classical composer, McClelland implies, allowed the style to achieve its most sophisticated and complex expressions.

While Ombra primarily considers opera, chapters on sacred and instrumental music supply another compelling implication for the musicologist. References to the ombra style are prominent in the Dies irae movements of requiem masses and in the slow openings to symphonies. Although divorced from the dramatic context of operas, ombra references in other musical forms forces scholars to ask new questions of these works. If, as McClelland argues, audiences would have been conditioned to recognize ombra characteristics as references to the supernatural, then what are the implications of hearing such music in a religious context? In an instrumental piece that lacks programmatic framework? By suggesting such a large network of intertextuality (intermusicality?), McClelland’s study suggests additional avenues of inquiry for musicologists.

For scholars of the eighteenth century who study the supernatural in some form, such a study is likely too technical and wading through chapters of example after example of each musical characteristic of the study might prove unnecessarily tedious. Certainly, the taxonomy of ombra characteristics listed in an appendix is detail enough for those whose interests in the study are more topical than disciplinary. While such scholars would perhaps not wish to invest the time in reading the entire study in detail, it has relevant implications for those who study the supernatural in other art forms. For one, the study reminds such scholars of the manner in which artists in various media develop and utilize elements of discourse, whether musical, literary, or otherwise, as a rhetorical tool to condition readers or audiences to respond in certain ways and produce desired effects. And, in turn, the transposition of these discourses into new realms (as in the use of music that originated as a way to signal the supernatural in a theatrical context into instrumental music without a clear connection to the supernatural) asks hermeneutic questions of the work of art that engages such rhetoric outside of its original context.

Beyond such a theoretical consideration, for the scholar of the eighteenth century, McClelland’s careful contextualization of ombra style in light of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, most notably that of Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime and the beautiful, should prove illuminating. Although Burke does not write about music per se, McClelland finds that many of the features Burke identifies as manifestations of the sublime may be associated with features of the ombra style, and thus he claims that “ombra can be regarded as a musical manifestation of the sublime as defined by Burke in relation to painting and poetry” (13). An appendix catalogues these correspondences. That Burke’s ideas should have such wide-reaching implications is not only relevant to those scholars studying the sublime but also functions as a salutary reminder that however necessary disciplinary study might be for mastering the particularities of a field, such boundaries are only ever of our own making. While most of us cannot be scholarly jacks of all trades lest we sacrifice mastery at one, we must remember the limits of disciplinary inquiry and pursue interdisciplinary study whenever possible.