Perceptions of the Singing Voice in Early Encounters between Latins, Mongols, and Persians, c.1250-c.1350

The dramatic rise of the Mongol world empire in the early thirteenth century brought about unprecedented musical contacts between peoples from the opposite ends of Afro-Eurasia. Firsthand accounts of singing voices reveal some of the enormous distances that separate these peoples culturally.

At first the concept of the barbarian Other plays a significant role in shaping Eurasian perceptions of the singing voice. Although it manifests itself differently in the various epistemologies of Eurasia’s peoples, the trans-Eurasian concept of the barbarian voice brings my research into dialogue with Gary Tomlinson’s discussion of sung otherness and the place of the “raised voice” in the global history of music.

Despite the prevalence of a discourse of alienation that dehumanised and demonised the unfamiliar singing voice, closer and more regular contacts between Latin Europe and Mongol Asia began to erode these prejudices over the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By the early fourteenth century, a Franciscan monk visiting Beijing could express his pleasure at hearing the court singers of the Great Khan. At the same time, missionaries in Central and Far Asia chanted their liturgies from Latin Europe, and even translated and sang the Christian liturgy and sacred texts in the languages spoken in those lands where they spent many years, if not the remainder, of their lives. A surviving witness of this little-known venture, which I shall discuss here today, demonstrates some of the successes and limitations of early efforts at transcultural musical understanding. I shall conclude by considering whether this all-too-brief episode in the global music history marks the beginnings of the western globalisation of music or stands alone as a unique monument to the middle ages.