Week 13 in Review – Perfection Gained and Lost

Continuing with Mark’s review of the the ars perfecta of Chapter 15, I want to begin with the question: What made the music of this group of composers “perfect”? Mark mentioned the codified harmonic elements of the style – the 3rd, for the first time, was admitted to the full consonance club. But another important element of stylistic perfection had to do with transitions. Ars perfecta composers were concerned with maintaining “a leisurely flow of melody,” and at this none excelled as greatly as Adrian Willaert, whose stylistic smoothness – almost to the point of lacking any idiosyncrasy whatsoever – made him a highly influential character. (599) He became the go-to teacher of his day, the head of a sixteenth century dynasty of “perfection.”

In the ricercar genre, whose genesis was guided by the Willaert pupil Jacques Buus, we find the first instrumental manifestation of the ars perfecta spirit. (606) Ricercars are improvisatory, often highly imitative instrumental pieces. Buus applied techniques originally designed for text, such as imitation, to a purely instrumental form, and in so doing created an academic art. The connotations of the ricercar with study and experimentation continued all the way to Bach’s day.

But “perfection” wasn’t the only game in town. The music of John Taverner shows us that the English, as earlier, had different ideas from the mainstream of continental composition. His masses consist of a glorious “sensory overload”: florid melisma, rich harmonies, high treble parts, low bass parts. (614) Exact declamation of the text gave way to “jubilance.” Similarly, the ricercar was fashioned into a vehicle for spiritual trance, or raptus. (616)  Didactic guides from the time are an important source for understanding what these soul transporting ricercars might have sounded like.

At around this same time, Diego Ortiz published a book of dance music (1553), complete with notated rendition of all the day’s most popular dances, including the passamezzo antico/moderno, the romanesca, the folia, and the ruggiero. These dance forms would go on to provide harmonic underpinning for a huge amount of music in the following few hundred years. The ground bass technique is “the first indisputably harmony-driven force in the history of Western music-making.” (627)


The problem with perfection is that it’s completely ahistorical – you have to freeze time in order to maintain it. For this reason, ars perfecta always had a Utopian quality to it: it was doomed from the start. (629) The last two great composers to keep the faith were Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and William Byrd. Palestrina is the first native Italian to make such a protracted appearance in the book, and his contributions are closely tied to the will of the church. Indeed, his work bore the official stamp of approval from the Pope, and his creative forces in the service of the church were prolific, with 104 masses to his credit. (Imagine setting the exact same text 104 times!) Palestrina drew heavily from the polyphonic inventions of the Franco-Flemish masters, barely concealing his adoration and emulation. Thirty of his masses are of the paraphrase type (based on a chant that is absorbed into the imitative texture), but a full fifty-three are parody masses, in which earlier materials are reworked into new textures. His music is rich in symbolism. (For a great discussion of the types of musical symbolism, see 643).

At the Council of Trent in 1562, church officials turned on ars perfecta, preferring instead a style of music with clear text declamation. The question of text is one that has haunted us repeatedly throughout this journey, and will continue to do so: Should the music serve the words or vice versa? It seems every generation has a different answer. With the inauguration of the Counter-Reformation, however, we can be assured that the pendulum swung decisively in the favor of the words. Palestrina submitted his Missa Papae Marcelli to church officials as a possible artistic response to the new decree that text be more intelligible, and a myth was born. Works were tested before a panel of officials, true, but the fate of music was not hanging in the lurch (at least not in the manner that subsequent rumors implied when Palestrina became “the savior of music”). (650)

Phew – now that we’re all caught up, look for more posts this week on the end of perfection and the nascent commercial music scene.


1 Comment

  1. John Renner says:

    Hmm, interresting! I started with listening to the Music of Nicholas Gombert (O flos campi, etc) and wanted to find out more about ars perfecta. I never thought of that the struggle between the catholic church and the reformation would reflect in the Masses. Very interesting. Thank you! (Perhaps my comment is a ittle bit late from a (post-) modern perspective, but not from a perspective of the matter.)

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