A Musical Trinity? (Reply to “What is the Musical ‘Middle’?”)

[This post is a reply to Zach’s earlier post, which you can find here.]

What if we historicize the metaphor a bit? History has shaped us to think of high(brow) and low(brow) in terms of social class. We live in a moment in time where the French Revolution of 1789 happened, and marxism, capitalism, and suburbia exist. None of these did by the fifteenth century of course. And therefore the self-consciousness of class did not exist so intensely as it does for us today.

My historical imagination suggests to me that the metaphor may have hung on a more cosmic scale for composers of the fifteenth century. My thoughts stretch all the way back to Boethius’s cosmology of music. If we reconcile his tripartite construction with our present one, then “high” is musica mundana, the harmony of the cosmos, and “low” would be musica instrumentalis, the audible music blown, struck, or vibrated by earthly bodies. So far, it seems we may be on to something. The 14th century motet, as Taruskin argued, disembodied the listener and created a mysterious discordia concors that reflected heavenly things. By these lights, it seems (super)natural that this style would cross over to the genre that “looks up” most directly: the fifteenth-century cyclic mass. Thus we have the beginning of a theory of high (I’m giving up on including the quotes on these terms from here on out) musical style that jibes with existing theories of the time.

On the other hand, Taruskin’s example of low music comes from Loyset Compère’s Ave Maria…virgo serena, in which the tenor shirks its responsibility to hold august musical material, and “is confined to a monotone recitation of the prayer that the sequence quotes, as if mimicking the mumbling of a distracted communicant going through the rosary” (I, 524) Incidentally, Taruskin offers a reading that counts this as flippancy on Compère’s part, “funny, but still pious” (ibid.). An alternate reading might suggest that Compère used the cachet of the tenor line to stress the importance that prayers be intoned. Both readings emphasize humanity, and therefore what might be called a low style, “pitched at the level of its hearers, rather than…way, way over their heads” (I, 526). In other words, it is music that reflects musica instrumentalis over musica mundana.

But hold on one Tinctorian minute. Hadn’t a millennium passed since Boethius flourished, and even if he held sway on centuries’-worth of music theory, hadn’t he long since lost his currency by the fifteenth century? Well yes, and that is why these connections can be only suggestions. But that doesn’t take away the value of using them as a heuristic tool to think through alternate understandings of the high-middle-low continuum. For Boethian cosmology was in the DNA of music theory and philosophy in the fifteenth century; marxism was not.

I still haven’t answered the original question “where is the middle?” But I have offered a rationale for its existence that doesn’t take our modern duality and stuff in a third option. It is a reminder that even though our culture defaults to duality, as Zach pointed out, it was not always that way. By all accounts, thinkers within the Roman Catholic cultures up to this historical moment were more likely to map a tripartite structure onto the world, thus giving it the reflection of the Holy Trinity. After all, according to music theorists, triple division was the only one open to musicians until the Ars Nova of the 13th century.

To complete our cosmological reconciliation, we must square the middle style with Boethius’s musica humana, or the “harmony of the human constitution” (I, 70). So what is the musical middle then? Taruskin has it pegged. The middle style of this period concerns itself with the mediator between man and God: the great Intercessor Mary. For Roman Catholics of this time, she stands as the connector between heaven and earth, between God and man, between musica mundana and musica instrumentalis, between high and low.

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