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?)


  1. Zach—Thanks for summarizing these issues. When it comes to the musical Renaissance, the issue is usually trying to pinpoint exactly when it began. Was it during the Council of Constance? Was it later in the 15th c. with Tinctoris?

    Taruskin seems to be nipping the whole issue right in the bud. There was no “Renaissance” at all! I think it’s a valid issue to raise, but I’m not quite sure what I think about it yet…

  2. Thanks for the sensible reflections on the problem of periodization, beginning and ending dates, etc.

    Meanwhile, regarding OHWM more generally: on another blog, Phil Gentry’s 2’23”, there’s an intriguing post about some updatings/refinements (not always simple corrections of typos) in the paperback edition. [posting of Oct. 28: “Revisions to _OHWM_”]

  3. I was wondering the same thing as Phil—what are the changes from hardback to paperback? There are obviously going to be some, considering it went from 6 vols. to 5.

    1. Of course, the 6th volume in hardback is simply a compiled list of references. They spread them all out between the volumes in paperback.

      1. Right, but it’s also more than that, since they decided that each volume could be sold separately. From a publisher’s perspective, that necessitates some other changes, such as the introduction to each volume. Instead of one long introduction (as was the case I think with the hardback set), Taruskin wrote a new introduction for the paperback, which is dated 2008. The structure is as follows: in each volume, this introduction (“The History of What?”) is reproduced. Then there is a very short (1-2 pages) “preface” pertaining to the given volume (each also dated 2008). There is no preface to vol. I.

        I would love to hear the results if someone ever took the time to compare the original intro to what ended up in the paperback version…

  4. There is room for much discussion on the topic of Renaissance or not, however I think that you give up on your point a little too easily. Maybe now that you’ve had some time to mull it over you could return to the idea. Reading your argument for the existence of humanism, I was wondering what your thoughts were about the other arts, and then you gave it to me: “I don’t see how it makes much sense in the visual arts and literature either”. Somehow this post screams that to me, and, while I agree with the question, it’s almost a cop out to end the post like this. I think that the transition to the vernacular may have some weight here.

    I hope that you will continue your pursuit of more “creamy”and less “chunky” Best of luck, and I’m glad that there are ambitious scholars like the two of you!

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