The Murky Meaning of “Renaissance”

With ambivalent surprise, it seems we’ve stumbled into the Renaissance.

All students of music and history would do well to read pages 380-385 of the current volume, where Taruskin directly addresses the blog’s topic du jour, the periodization of music history. All of the historical period terms are problematic in their own way, but it turns out that “Renaissance” is uniquely challenged.

The “chunking” of history is complicated but necessary: while it simplifies a superbly complex chronological and geographical canvas, it also helps organize and consolidate knowledge. As Taruskin says, without breaking apart movements and evaluating the relative weight of different trends, history would merely be “the daily dribble of existence multiplied by weeks and years and centuries.” (380) For instance, it makes great practical sense to teach Beethoven and Schubert in the same semester-long history survey, but as Prof. Locke observed, these two masters could never tell the whole story of their time and place. The word “Romantic,” however, does carry some descriptive power when discussing these repertories. As a product of a similar time and cultural milieu, with all its accompanying philosophies and aesthetic paradigms, this might be a case where the employment of a broad term like “Romantic” would really help the student grasp a few of the fundamental issues of 19th century German musical thought (though certainly not all). In fact it’s impossible to imagine understanding this time at all without acknowledging the 500-pound gorilla in the room, Beethoven. (I’m trying to come up with the most unambiguous correlation between style terms and composers/repertories, and I’m having a hard time – even this example is deeply problematic. So goes this tangled topic!)

The start and stop dates of the various eras are another matter of heated debate. Some periods are easier to map than others: it is generally agreed that the Baroque era begins in 1600, as this was the year that saw the first operas, the infamous Monteverdi/Artusi quarrel (well, around 1600), and the fledgling consolidation of what would become tonality. (Coincidentally, Taruskin ends Volume I at 1600.) But the term Renaissance is even more difficult than most for a slew of tangled reasons. In fact, the word has come to mean something very different in music than in the world of general historiography. And this is only the beginning of “the Renaissance problem.”

When non-music historians talk about this era, the word “Renaissance” (rebirth) centers on three main characteristics: secularism, humanism, and the resurgence of interest in classical art and philosophy. Of course, these features entered into the cultural landscape of Europe at different times in different places and in different media. Let’s map these elements onto music to see what “Renaissance” might mean, and when it might first have started.

Secularism: The sacred and the secular have always coexisted in Western music. In fact, the blurriness of this distinction might be enough to call the whole flawed classificatory scheme a false dichotomy. Sacred melodies entered the popular repertory, secular tunes made their way into the church, and all the while musicians have set their poetry in a way that could be quite ambiguous (The Lady = Mary, etc.). Sacred music in the Middle Ages was generally privileged over the secular in terms of what was actually notated, but as we have seen, both sacred and secular traditions were primarily oral at this time. When would we say that the fulcrum tips in favor of the secular? You could make a convincing argument that music “tipped” with the troubadours in the 12th century; you could also argue that music didn’t reach a secular tipping point until the 19th century. The range of possible answers to the question of secularity in music is so broad as to render the rubric pretty much useless.

Humanism: When did music shift from (Leo Spitzer’s words) the poetic to the empirical “I”? Precisely when did the subjective voice take a role of primacy in Western music making? You could argue (as I would) that making music is ipso facto a humanist act: even if you’re singing praise to God in a 13th century cathedral, you’re still doing so with a human voice and a human soul. Human expression is at the heart of music, even when the specific subject matter is deeply theological and transcendent of mere humanity. Again, the characteristic itself, when transposed onto music, makes little sense. (I don’t see how it makes much sense in the visual arts and literature either: Giotto painted religious themes, but he did so in a way that was more “of this world” than his predecessors. And who exactly defines when a visual portrayal is more “of this world” than what came before?)

Rebirth of Antiquity: In the visual arts, philosophy, literature, and architecture, this was easy. Aristotle’s writings were available to the literati of the 15th century; the Parthenon stood in 1400 just as it does now. But music is a different beast, since it wasn’t notated at all until the end of the first millennium. Not surprisingly, then, many writers felt that music, unlike the arts listed above, had no past. Without a past, there was nothing to revive! Musicians eventually started to emulate ancient models (or at least attempted to recreate the effect of ancient music), but this belated interest corresponds – quite paradoxically – to the birth of the Baroque sensibility (again, we’re back to 1600), not the Renaissance!

Added together, secularism, humanism, and the revival of antiquity – the definition of “Renaissance” – have highly ambivalent meanings when applied to music. (If they indeed have any meaning at all.) There’s a lot more to unpack with this historiographical category, and I seem to have bitten off more than I can chew. These five pages open up so many ideas for discussion (there’s a dissertation on every page!) and, disorganized as this post it, I wanted to just toss some of these morsels out there for readers to pick at. What does the Renaissance mean for music? How do we “chunk” this era? (Does it matter?)


Non avrà ma’ pietà

We can’t go the whole week without hearing some music from the trecento’s most famous composer (at least to history), Francesco Landini. This is a polyphonic ballata, “Non avrà ma’ pietà.” Landini, a blind musician known for his organ playing as well as his music, has occupied an important place in music history partly because so much of his music was recorded and has survived.

She will never have mercy, this lady of mine,
if you do not see to it, Love,
that she is certain of my great ardor.

If she knew how much pain I bear—
for honesty’s sake concealed in my mind—

only for her beauty, other than which
nothing gives comfort to a grieving soul,

perhaps by her would be extinguished in me
the flames which seem to arouse in
me from day to day more pain.

She will never have mercy, this lady of mine,
if you do not see to it, Love,
that she is certain of my great ardor.

Ars Subtilior and the Problem of “Chunking”

That kind of showy overcomplexity is just the sort of excess – an excess of fantasy, perhaps, or maybe just an excess of one-upsmanship – that earned the ars subtilior its reputation as a “mannered” or “decadent” style. (I, 342)

At the tail end of the ars nova era, a new breed of composers – none of whom are known today outside of the academy – began taking the rhythmic and chromatic innovations of Machaut and his cohort to dazzling levels of technical complexity. This was “the subtle art.” Arguably, the technical feats that came out of this movement were unrivaled in sheer difficulty until the 20th century.

Why did the ars nova lead to, in Taruskin’s words, a “technical arms race” in the form of the ars subtilior? A couple of threads from the last month or so of reading come together to provide a few hypotheses. For one, composers in this new style were fiercely competitive, with many of them claiming to be the true heir to Machaut. Polymeter, hyperchromaticism and the like enabled these elite composers to playfully duel for supremacy. The harder the nut to crack, the more “subtle” the music was perceived to be. And, as Mark recently pointed out, many of these pieces were actually conceived as musical riddles. They were game pieces, elaborately conceived to flummox all but the most supple of musical minds. With ars subtilior we see perhaps the most ferocious manifestation yet of the old “trobar clus,” the closed style intended only for the cognoscenti. This was subtle music (in the sense of “ornate and obtuse”) for subtle ears only.

It’s also perhaps the first musical movement to become so flamboyantly complex as to alienate people and provoke a historiographical backlash. For many years, music historians referred to ars subtilior as “the mannered style,” a term that denotes excess, self-indulgence, and decadence. (Interestingly, the word also came to describe the style of Gesualdo at the radical tail-end of the Italian madrigal, circa 1600.) While the standard terminology since the 1960s has changed to “the subtle art,” modern scholars (Taruskin writes) still find it “annoying as well as fascinating.”

Why is that? It seems that historians’ rebuke of “mannered” and “decadent” music is out of character, since every technical innovation up to this point has been greeted with approval. That the ars subtilior, one of the most complex Western styles of the millennium, would be met with disapprobation seems odd for a discipline that is often quick to heap praise on anything that smacks of innovation. Music historians, to my knowledge, have not labeled Perotin and Machaut as “decadent.” Why the ars subtilior?

This is a tough problem. It’s true that a certain level of scorn has accompanied many vanguard, destabilizing movements in music history. For the hidebound music historiographer, however, an even bigger problem comes with musical movements that seem to defy their era. As we’ve been discussing (with Ralph Locke’s help), the “chunking” of music history into periods can have the effect of closing off the diversity of musical activities in a given era and reducing the time to a few monolithic style features and composers. What, then, to make of a style that defies many taxonomical notions of its period? As mentioned, the term “mannerist” is still used to describe Gesualdo, Rore, and the madrigal composers who wrote their highly experimental music (some would call it “bonkers”) towards the end of the Renaissance. For many years, historians didn’t quite know what to make of these fringe guys – they certainly didn’t conform to ars perfecta notions of the Renaissance, but they weren’t fully Baroque either. In an effort to contain and defang subversive styles, historians have long employed derogatory terms like “decadent” to explain away inconvenient exceptions to the periods of music history.

I think that part of the fraught historical reception of the ars subtilior and Gesualdo comes down to the fact that these “mannered” styles can strike the modern ear as Modern. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that sets in when listening to Fumeaux fume – it defies expectations of what “Medieval music” should sound like. Similarly, Stravinsky famously reeled at listening to Gesualdo, finding in his music the soul of a fellow modern composer. That Solage in the 14th century could write music in the same subtle manner as Milton Babbitt in the 20th is a cup of cold water in the face of many deeply ingrained historical prejudices. “Mannered” movements like these are so fascinating because they vividly help us to see through the myth of linear creative evolution; they help explode the separation between the musical (and historical) Us and Them. They can be quite subtle indeed.

Riddle Me This, or, Solage and His Smoke

Before we leave last week’s reading too far behind, we have to listen to this:

This tricky piece comes out of the lavish tradition of artifice funded by the aristocracy of the duchy of Berry (modern-day southern France). Its composer is a man known to us only as Solage, and his rondeau Fumeaux fume represents the lengths to which a composer’s wry ingenuity could reach. To read the text aloud in the original language (which I assume is still Occitan down there; correction anyone?) is to get a sense of its artifice. The words fold back in on themselves, like the billowing smoke they represent. It is the type of playful prodding of language and meaning that reached such extremes during this period.

Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

Qu’antre fummet so pensee:
Fumeaux fume par fumee.

quar fumer molt li agree
tant qu’il ait son entencion.
Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

[A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.

Is, between puffs his thought:
A smoker smokes through smoke.

For smoking suits him very well
As long as he keeps his intention.
A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.]

Week 7 in Review

We both began and ended last week’s reading in Ch. 9, “Machaut and His Progeny.” This is notable not only because it is the largest chapter so far by page count (61), but also because it is the first chapter with a composer’s name in the title, indicating that we are reaching a time (14th c.) where the documents can allow more of a focus on the composer. Whether or not this is good historiographical practice, however, is an issue that is sure to come up again in the reading and our discussion here.

The week of posting began with some recordings of Machaut’s secular chansons, then continued by discussing the real and sometimes negative effect that the grouping of historical eras can have on our view of music history. This particular thread was taken up later in the week by Prof. Ralph Locke, who shared with us his experience of dealing with this issue in the classroom. Zach continued our historiographical theme by tackling the “musical prophecy.” He asked the question: if the Messa de Notre Dame is an anomaly in Machaut’s output, why does it assume such a prominent place in his contribution to history? You can read his answer here.

Other notes from this week’s reading:

The Luxuriant Style: The four-voice rondeaux of Machaut (e.g., Rose, liz, printemps) were written within a structural hierarchy: It can be performed in four-, three-, two-, or one-voice versions, with the cantus (the next-to-top voice) being that final principal voice.

Instrumentalists: Though instrumental repertoires were still largely oral in tradition at this time, the Faenza Codex gives us a glimpse of the arrangement and virtuosic embellishment of vocal genres that was possible.

Machaut’s Messa de Nostre Dame:

  • Background: The Mass Ordinary as a polyphonic genre had a crucial development at the papal court of Avignon, as represented by the numerous such settings of individual or paired Ordinary items in the Apt and Ivrea manuscripts. Votive Masses (for special occasions outside of the church calendar) lead to the grouping together of Ordinary settings in manuscripts.
  • Variety: Machaut’s mass is “no less a composite than the other Ordinaries of the time” (I, p. 317). Its items (Taruskin steers us away from calling them “movements”) vary both modally and texturally.
  • Unity: Machaut connects the items by their motet-style basis on isorhythmic tenors. The compositional style represents a synthesis and summary of motet, cantilena, and homorhythmic styles.

Subtilitas: The “subtle art” of Machaut and his successors emphasizes intricate relationships of text and music (hocket, onomatopoeia) and high displays of intellectual prowess (the essence of clus). It is an art engendered in the context of aristocracy, and in turn was meant for aristocratic ears.

In its heyday, this “high” approach touched all genres, even the socially “low”-class  virelai. The result was an opportunity for aristocratic listeners to make a jaunt into the more “naturalistic” flavor of peasant life, albeit from a safe distance.

Ralph Locke on “Invisible Barriers”

The following comes to us from Prof. Ralph Locke (Eastman) in response to Mark’s post “Invisible Barriers”:

The question of how to “chunk” music history into periods is one that I raise with my undergrads (music majors) when we move from late Beethoven to Schubert, Berlioz, and other composers born a good generation later than Beethoven. I warn them, among other things, that there is no coherent system of “Romantic harmony” (for example)–intensely chromatic, third relations, enharmonic modulations, etc.–that will be found in all or even most music of the early/mid nineteenth century: there were many different streams of musical style existing simultaneously, and parlor songs or four-hand piano quadrilles (for example) might be as plain-vanilla in harmonic language as something from the ”early Classic” era (e.g., the Stamitz and Sammartini in their anthology–pieces I quite like despite or maybe because of their relatively limited harmonic vocabulary, harmonic progressions, etc.). I also have them sing a French political song with me from the 1820s (unaccompanied, based on a folk tune, and protesting censorship of political songs at the time!). The more we consider non-masterpiece music (including “functional music,” as Dahlhaus conveniently labeled it), I suspect, the less meaningful these simple “period” labels become.

Musical Prophecies

“The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”  – Jorge Luis Borges, in “Kafka and his Precursors”

The same is true of musical genres and techniques. For example, Schoenberg colors how we perceive not only the music that came after him, but what came before. We talk about Beethoven’s late string quartets, Liszt’s late orchestral works, Wagner’s late operas, and the Richard Strauss of Elektra as molotov cocktails thrown into the guts of standard tonality. (There’s something about the “late phase” here too that will have to be unpacked at another time.) All of these were precursors to the utter collapse of tonality that came with Schoenberg and the second Viennese school. They were prophetic of the chaos that was to come. However, without the ultimate collapse of tonality as embodied by Schoenberg, these earlier works would be read much differently today. In other words, prophecies are valued only when they come true.

The idea of being “validated by history” is a fascinating one. We’ve dealt a little with the evolutionary model of historiography (the “organic fallacy”) on this blog, but the concept of musical prophesy, while related, has a fundamentally different feature. Yes, we read late Beethoven as a precursor to the breakdown of tonality. However, the late quartets often resist being seen as simply an evolutionary step towards this eventual break. Instead, many historians have pointed to these works as a quasi-mystical revelation of the future. The conventional wisdom has mad, brilliant Beethoven, deaf as a rock, pounding out his existential fury in a way that is far too modern for his age. His genius allowed him to musically prognosticate. (In literature, the same is often said of Kafka, who wrote about paranoia, political fear, totalitarianism, and state brutality long before these historical monsters descended on his native Czechoslovakia.)

Let’s rewind over 400 years now. Machaut was well known is his day as a poet and a composer of secular songs. However, ask any Music History 101 student about Machaut’s major achievement, and he is bound to answer the Messe de Nostre Dame. By all measures, Machaut’s setting of the Ordinary of the Mass was an oddity in his composerly output. It can hardly be called the most representative piece of his creative life, yet it is remembered today over all the motets, virelai, and ballades that he wrote. Why?

The Mass is an amazing piece of music that would surely be remembered even if it were the only Mass Ordinary ever penned. However, we should also take into account that it was the first of its kind: Machaut was the first single author to attempt a full setting of the mass. Moreover, the genre of the Mass Ordinary became, over the next two centuries, the primary genre in Europe. From the perspective of the modern historian, this little fact makes Machaut’s oddity very interesting indeed. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his work would be seen historically as a musical prophesy.

I’ve lately made a habit of closing with Taruskin, and I’ll continue that pattern now: “What might otherwise seem a liturgical anomaly in an otherwise basically secular career has instead loomed disproportionately large both within Machaut’s output and in music historiography itself, because the ‘cyclic Mass Ordinary’ (that is, a setting of the mostly nonconsecutive items of the Ordinary liturgy as a musical unit) became the dominant musical genre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and Machaut seems willy-nilly its prophetic harbinger.”   (I, 307)

Invisible Barriers

One does not have to crack open Taruskin’s OHWM to infer that he does not ascribe to the traditional categorization of eras of musical history. One doesn’t even have to take the volumes off the shelf (or shelves, depending on how big your bookcase is). Just a glance at their spines shows that he has organized his five volumes according to chronology (“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth century,” “…in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” “…in the Nineteenth Century,” etc.) rather than era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic). I have been waiting, therefore, for the issue to come up in the text, and sure enough it did in last week’s reading.

Before coming to the conclusion of his discussion of the motet, Taruskin makes it a point to draw a stylistic connection between Machaut and Du Fay. The reason that he has to “make it a point,” rather than simply drawing the connection, is that between these two composers lies the traditional barrier between two stylistic eras: Medieval and Renaissance. These are made-up barriers, and yet they can have a profound and formative influence on how we think and act. Here’s Taruskin:

“…major historiographical divisions like that can act as barriers, sealing off from one another figures and works that happen to fall on opposite sides of that fancied line, no matter how significant their similarities. Not only that, but…an appearance of stylistic backwardness or anachronism—inevitable when sweeping categories like “Medieval” and “Renaissance” are too literally believed in—can easily blind us to the value of supreme artistic achievements such as Du Fay’s isorhythmic motets. They are not vestigial survivals or evidence of regressive tendencies, but a zenith.” [I, 281]

The power of socially constructed barriers can be startling. A couple years ago, a designer friend of mine, David Overholt did a project at NYU that explored this very phenomenon, called “Tape in Space.” David went around New York City, placing duct tape in various configurations in public spaces: across a step, in an X on a bench, or stretching waist-high from a wall to a lamppost across a busy sidewalk. David outlines the concept behind his project as follows:

“My tendencies to consider alternative solutions and push/pull ideas to the limits of their rational beginnings had me quickly consider the options in life that we come in contact with that are not walls, but in fact act as walls simply by social understanding or conditioning. Thoughts of cracks in the sidewalk, a speaker blaring music (a wall of sound), or light in a darkened room can instantly bring up a group of the same set of emotions that are evoked when coming face to face with a wall. Isolation, distance, separation, security, etc. are often derived out of ideas, objects, or senses that are, in definition, not considered walls.”

In other words, we see walls where there are none. And we act accordingly. As part of the project, David created this video. It shows how a thin piece of tape can become an infinitely vertical wall capable of literally stopping people in their tracks. It also shows how different people deal with the same situation, some even penetrating the perceived barrier. (This video is also an interesting commentary on perceived authority, something that David achieves with just a hard hat and orange vest.) I recommend watching the entire five minutes of the video, but if you have limited time, begin at about 3 minutes.

Tape in Space from David Steele Overholt [I couldn’t get the video to embed, so please click the link.]

We do the same thing by erecting barriers in music history, only our barriers are even more scant than a piece of tape: they are completely invisible.

A Machaut Playlist

Already in Chapter 9 we have gone through a good deal of music by Guillaume de Machaut. Since there is no recorded anthology to go along with the OHWM, I thought I would collect some renditions of these musical examples, so that we can get the sound in our ears.  Disclaimer: I pulled these off of youtube, and can’t vouch for their quality. Someone more up to speed on the current performance practice of secular 13th-c. songs might choose better examples. I did choose performances that seemed to be professionally recorded, which is why, for instance, I chose the present recording of “De toutes flours,” rather than this one. There are some strange interpretations out there…

“Douce dame jolie”, a monophonic virelai.

“Rose, liz, printemps”, a four-voice Rondeau.

“De toutes flours”, a four-voice ballade.

Week 6 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 7 kicks off with some good news. It’s official – Mark passed his doctoral comp exams! A hearty congratulations!

We started the week off with a video clip of an amazing “real life” motet (and the frustration of losing the Week 5 review..). From there, Mark returned from the dead to discuss the psychological implications of the switch from orality to literacy, as well as share a little koan about the motet. The week continued with posts on humor in the motet and the ever-important role of politics in the creation of new music. We closed with Du Fay’s crazily complex numerological motet and a Machaut sneak peak. The week also saw another exciting development: Alex Ross, the amazing music critic for The New Yorker, added the Challenge to the reading list on his new blog, Unquiet Thoughts.

The Week in Reading: Chapter 8 – Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova

  • A New Art of Music? (247): New music treatises began appearing around 1322 that radically altered the course of literate music making. These theoretical manuals launched an even more sophisticated notational technology for rhythms.
  • Music from Mathematics (248): A breakthrough occurred when musicians began adapting the theory of exponential powers for use in notating rhythms. Thus, every rhythmic value could be subdivided as follows: 3 minim = semibreve; 3 semibreves = breve; 3 breves = long; 3 longs = longa triplex. Furthermore, this method of subdivision allowed for the same breakdown of “imperfect” (2) values.
  • Putting it into Practice (250): Further discussion of the implications of the above.
  • Representing It (252): Time signatures (or mensural signs) were created to specify the four rhythmic modes (corresponding to 9/8, 3/4, 6/8, and 2/4).
  • Establishing the Prototype: The Roman de Fauvel (255): The story of Fauvel, a political satire featuring a corrupt deerlike creature, provided the first documented consolidation of a few ars nova features, including: 1) Latin text; 2) Lyrics relating to public morality; 3) Delayed tenor entrance for dramatic effect.
  • Taking a Closer Look (260): More discussion of this new rhythmic system
  • More Elaborate Patterning (261): The deep architecture of many ars nova motets reflects an inherent tension between triple and duple subdivisions. There was no way of mixing these two levels at one time, so composers used “rubrics” (or “canons”), including performance notes and color changes, to show a shift in metrical value.
  • Isorhythm (266): This combinatorial technique drew from the concepts of “color” and “talea”: recurring rows of notes and rhythms overlap to produce independent but overlapping periodicities. These large structural patterns reflected the rhythm of the cosmos.
  • Music about Music (267): With formal practices codified, musicians were able to subvert the rules in a playful and ironic way. There’s a lot of wit in these self-referential motets about the art of motet composition!
  • Machaut: The Occult and the Sensuous (270): This is our first glimpse of the immense creative vision of Guillaume de Machaut, particularly in reference to his gnomic treatment of rhythm as a reflection of hidden, occult truths. Of course, these structural densities were belied by sensuous surface textures.
  • Musica Ficta (273): Literally “false music.” Machaut was able to utilize a level of chromaticism heretofore inaccessible to notated music by exploiting the natural tendencies of pitches to magnetize towards other pitches. Musica ficta is a system of implied accidentals according to context. Its reach was to extend well into the 17th century.
  • Cadences (276): Major style feature – the “double leading-tone cadence.” Approaching the tonic and fifth by half-step was enabled by musica ficta.
  • Ciconia: The Motet as Political Show (277): See this post.
  • Du Fay: The Motet as Mystical Summa (281): The symbolic value of numbers played a major role in the structure and meaning of many motets. Du Fay’s mind-blowing Nuper rosarum flores juggles at least 4 levels of numerological meaning.
  • A Final Word From Dante (286): Dante wrote about the power and beauty of the motet, actually using it as a metaphor a world government of perfect justice. The chapter closes with Taruskin’s answer to the riddle of polytextuality: motets were intended to awe people, not to be understood.

We read about 10 pages into Ch.9, but for the sake of organization I’ll leave that for next week’s summary. Look out for more Machaut, including his famous mass, a return to sacred music, ars subtilior and more in Week 7!