Week 11 in Review

The week in blogging: Continuing with music of the 15th century, this week saw the emergence of a new category: the musical middle. What did it mean back then, and what does it mean today? (In Tinctoris’s estimation it had to do with the mediating role of Mary between the divine and the human; today, it has a lot to do with social class.) We also briefly explored the first commercial music publication, a collection of instrumental arrangements known as the “Glogauer Liederbuch.”

The week in reading: CHAPTER 13 – Middle and Low

Hailing Mary (501): As the mass displaced the motet as the high genre, the practice of paraphrasing old chant as new cantus firmi proliferated. Motets – specifically ones praising Mary – took on the role of the musical “middle” between the high style of the mass and the low style of chanson and dance music.

Personal prayer (506): Since Marian music was allowed to be more human than its lofty counterpart the mass, composers added personal expression to their motets. For instance, the elderly Du Fay troped his Marian text with a exhortation for mercy in the afterlife. Musically, these troped sections take on a quality of intense pathos.

The English keep things high (512): At the Eton School and elsewhere, masses remained thoroughly “official, collective, impersonal.” The experience of the divine in this tradition was meant to overwhelm.

The Milanese go lower still (518) and Fun in Church? (522): The motet lost even more of its old highness in Milan, where “Ducal motets” stayed away from pure Biblical texts and removed the chant-derived tenor altogether. Milanese composers also worked some playful, virtuosic vocal gestures into their motets, proving that you could be devout and have some fun at the same time.

Love songs (526): A new genre sprung up in literate sources during this period called the bergerette, which incorporates elements of the “fixed forms” (similar to a virelai but with a self-contained single strophe.) Although it’s nothing new, chanson infiltrated secular music in this period, particularly the wildly popular “J’ay Pris Amours,” which made an appearance in a motet by Josquin.

Instrumental music becomes literate at last (534), Music becomes a business (542), “Songs” without words (542): Some of the first notated instrumental pieces are arrangements of popular chanson such as the above. They were often structured as duets or trios for an unspecified instrumentation, and Henricus Isaac was a masterful practitioner of this budding format. The “Glogauer Liederbuch” was the first partbook available for sale, representing some of the first “funtionless” music. In 1501, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci came to understand the commercial value of printed music and began releasing the first publications to utilize the movable type (well, movable note) printing press. This shift also began a paradigmatic shift from “music as activity” to “music as thing.” The publication of “functionless” instrumental music also engendered a new form of composition: the text-less song. Composers were unsure about how to title these tunes, so they often named them after people (“Martini’s little piece”) or the key (“Song in D”).

We’ll be back in full force early next week for a recap of the chapter on Josquin. (Hopefully there’ll be time between food binges to get a post or two in over the long weekend.) Have a great Thanksgiving!

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