THE primary modern association of myth is with falsehood. A myth is a story or belief that is untrue, or is used in phrases such as the ‘man behind the myth’, referring to an exaggerated or idealised persona that blurs the reality. These associations of myth, however, arose in the nineteenth century. Indeed, in the medieval and early modern periods, the word ‘myth’ was not yet in use; however, ‘mythology’ was defined in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English dictionaries as ‘the declaration or exposition of fables’, while mythologising was ‘an expounding or moralising upon a tale’. The expectation was not that such myths were false, but rather that they held deep meanings that needed to be teased out and interpreted.
In this collection, the phrase ‘myth and story’ is intended to encapsulate the vast array of stories that were told about music: from the biblical episodes that were regarded as infallible truth, through the myths about the gods and heroes of the ancient world that were believed to communicate the wisdom of the ancient times, through legendary tales of historical personages, to newly created, literary stories. The roles these stories played in medieval and Renaissance music culture differed. Biblical and mythical tales were seen as encapsulating ancient or divine wisdom and were mined for episodes that could be interpreted in support of particular positions in musical arguments. By contrast, newly created stories held no authority, but were nevertheless a site for exploring contemporary conceptions and anxieties surrounding music and musical practices. While the relative authority granted to scriptural, mythical, historical and literary stories differed, all of these story-types played a role in constructing the period's musical culture. How authors interpreted and wove together these traditional stories or created their own reveals much about changing attitudes across the period.
The figure who dominates our understanding of the role of myth in the musical culture of this period is Orpheus. His relationship with opera, poetry and the powers of music has been the subject of numerous books tracing his influence from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to modern times. To a lesser extent, the psalmist King David has dominated the biblical stories of music, while for stories relating to female musicians either the dangerous Sirens or the Christian musical patron Saint Cecilia have been the dominant focus.