“Quam pulchra es” (Dunstable)

Composer John Dunstable (c. 1390 – 1453) was instrumental in exporting and popularizing the English sound, and listening to this lush setting of the Song of Songs, it’s easy to see why la contenance angloise (“that English something-or-other”) really took off among continental composers. “Quam pulchra es” is remarkable for its extreme control of dissonance – Dunstable allows only nine dissonant notes in the whole piece, and these are treated with textbook exactitude. However, despite the prohibition of spicy notes, the piece never succumbs to blandness. Its sonorous, rich textures – once again rife with major thirds – are striking, especially when compared to earlier music that was both more harmonically austere and looser with its treatment of dissonance. But let us not forget the text: this Song of Song setting is essentially an erotic poem, and Dunstable’s sensuous musical language is up to the task. Here’s the translated (from Latin) text:

Male: How beautiful thou art, and how graceful, my dearest in delights. / Your stature I would compare to a palm tree, and your breasts to clusters of grapes. / Your head is like Mount Carmel, your neck just like a tower of ivory.

Female: Come my love, let us go into the field, and see whether the flowers have yielded fruit, and whether the apples of Tyre are in bloom. / There will I give my breasts to you.

The Anxiety of Influence

Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.

First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.

Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.

A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.

In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):

Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)

That English Sound

One of England’s greatest contributions to the burgeoning transnational musical language at this time was the liberation of the major 3rd as a consonant interval. Grant it, the major 3rd wasn’t afforded full rights as a member of the consonant club – cadences and finals still consisted of perfect 5ths only – but it functioned prominently in the “English Descant” texture. Indeed, if a music history 101 student is given a listening example from the 13th century and it’s chocked full of MA 3rds, it’s a safe bet that it’s English (or English inspired).

This snippet (recorded in Finale) is the first 13 measures of the English conductus/motet “Beata viscera,” from the Worchester fragments. (This source is regrettably one of our only documents preserving the English descant style due to the wholesale purging of all “popish ditties” over the course of the Anglican reformation.) Listen for all the parallel 3rds and 6ths. It’s a texture quite unlike anything we’ve encountered so far. Note too the way these sweet harmonies give way to steely, open 5ths at points of cadence. It would be a while yet before the 3rd would earn this privilege.

Coronation of the Virgin

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Coronation of the Virgin, Fra Angelico, c. 1435

Our new header image is a detail of a detail. This sumptuous scene is tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, c. 1435. The lower image is of the entire scene, with the Virgin Mary being crowned in the high center. Angels herald the moment with playing of trumpets, lutes, and harps. At the lower center of this heavenly scene (note that they all sit or stand upon clouds), a lone angel plays obeisantly on a portative organ.

The upper image is a detail of the group of angels over the shoulder of the Virgin, and the header image is a horizontal slice of the same.

“Sumer is icumen in”

This remarkable 4-part round is one of the best known English compositions in the world. “Summer has come” was notated over 700 years before the British Invasion, but it carries the same revolutionary power as the Fab Four. This was the first round (extant notated round, at least) written for so many voices. Furthermore, its harmonic structure differs considerably from what we’ve encountered so far, with sonorous major triads ringing out on practically every beat. (Evidence suggests that this practice was a left-over from the Viking invasions.) Could this playful song be, in fact, “the first masterpiece in music”?

The text, first in the original Wessex dialect of Middle English then in modern English:

[Sumer is icumen in – lhude sing, cuccu! Groweth sed and bloweth med and springeth the wude nu. Sing cuccu! Awe bleteth after lomb, lhouth after calve cu; bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth – murie sing, cuccu! Cuccu, cuccu – wel sings thu, cuccu! Ne swik thu naver nu.]

[Summer has come! Loudly sing cuckoo! Seed is growing, the flowers are blowing in the field, the woods are newly green. The ewe bleats after her lamb, the cow lows after her calf. The bull starts, the buck runs into the brush. Merrily sing cuckoo! That’s it, keep it up!]

Week 8 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 8 saw both a musical example and an analysis of that smokiest of styles, the ars subtilior; Mark scratched the surface of the Trecento with a Landini clip; and I engaged in a self-indulgently free-form mediation on periodization and the Renaissance. We ended the week by taking stock of just how far we’ve come with the Challenge (and just how far we still have to go!).

The Week in Reading:

CHAPTER 10 – “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

  • Vulgar Eloquence, Madrigal Culture, and A New Discant Style (351-359): In the 14th century, Italian composers engaged most heavily in the madrigale form, which consists of a few tercets (terzetti) capped off by a ritornello, or “send off.” The characteristic texture for this form consists of 2-part discant with cadences through occursus, or unison (a la French music a couple centuries earlier). Madrigals were set to vernacular poetry. Major source: the Squarcialupi Codex.
  • The “Wild Bird” Songs (359): A lively madrigal tradition that featured rustic texts and technically challenging parts made to imitate the flight and songs of birds. Watch out Olivier Messiaen!
  • Ballata Culture (364): Besides motets and madrigals, the Italians were big fans of the ballata genre, a popular dance form. Boccaccio even included one in the Decameron.
  • Landini (366): As Mark’s introductory post mentioned, Francesco Landini (1325-97) was well-respected blind organist whose music comes down to us is relatively large quantities. Because of this serendipitous twist of history, Landini has become the primary composer of the Trecento in music historiography. Among other things, he is remembered for his “Landini cadence,” which approaches the tonic through a 7-6 falling leading tone. Some of his music was adapted for keyboard instruments in the Faenza Codex.
  • Late Century Fusion (374): One hugely significant element of the Trecento was its element of internationalization and fusion. There are madrigals that satirize French style, hint at motet then pull back before the Italian identity becomes too obscured , play with French techniques (putting the talea in the cantus instead of the traditional tenor, for instance), etc. All of this points to a healthy musical cross-fertilization going on at this time that would ultimately lead to a greater internationalization of musical style.
  • An Important Side Issue: Periodization (380-385): Taruskin’s mini-essay on the concept of periodization, a recent obsession on the blog, is well worth the time.

This doesn’t take us right up to page 400, but we switch gears here to English music and the beginnings of Ch.11 might be better served in next week’s summary. On the menu this week: English music (and it’s nothing like their food, thank goodness!).

Update from the Trenches

The end of this week’s reading corresponded nicely with a division in the OHWM. Taruskin has finished with the trecento, and shifted off the continent to begin a discussion about English music, and in the meantime he has made it clear that we are not at the natural break between the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Even so, it seems like an appropriate time to take stock in how far we have come in the Taruskin Challenge:

  • We’re just about exactly half way through Volume I.
  • We’re about 1/10 through the entire set.
  • 60 posts
  • 3852 site views
  • And finally, Volume I has been able to lay open on its own for a number of weeks now—no small feat, and having free hands allows us to get that all-important mid-reading electrolyte (who’m I kidding, caffeine) boost.

Not bad in just 8 weeks!