Week 14 in Review

The perfection of a musical style is tantamount to its destruction. For once a style has crystallized, it ceases to be a part of the dynamic flow of musical development, which is always in flux. Thus it was with the style for which Palestrina was the emblem and liegelord. In the generations immediately following Palestrina, church composers had to be proficient in two styles: the stile antico of Palestrina and the stile moderno, a concerted style which Taruskin will discuss in future chapters.

In a section titled “Cryogenics” (perhaps the first such use of this metaphor in a musicological setting), Taruskin outlines how the Palestrina style was preserved by a string of treatise writers stringing from Johann Joseph Fux (Gradus ad Parnassum, 1725) to Knud Jeppesen (Kontrapunkt [Counterpoint, 1939]), which forms the basis of the modern study of counterpoint. Palestrina went from being the 17th century “papal staple” (667, RT just couldn’t resist on that one) to the 20th-century music student’s gauntlet to be run.

To England!

Though William Byrd is held up as the English equivalent to Palestrina with regard to mastery of the ars perfecta, the personal religious and political implications of that mastery couldn’t have been more different. In the course of the 16th century, the Anglican Church was born, a new English liturgy was fostered, then suppressed, then fostered again. Catholics were persecuted under Henry VII and Edward VI, then restored under “Bloody” Mary, then tolerated under Elizabeth I only to be later persecuted again during her reign.

It was in this ever shifting climate that Byrd, a confessing Roman Catholic, had to navigate keep both his professional career and his head. These personal and religious circumstances are important if we are to understand Byrd’s music, for it is the first of which in history that supports a hermeneutic approach, which in this case lead Taruskin to interpret Byrd’s music (Mass in Four Parts, Mass in Five Parts) as personal expressions of his faith in a hostile environment (see I, 681-686). This is in stark contrast to Palestrina’s settings of the mass Ordinary, which are “perfunctory,” based on sentiments that are “official” and a “given” (all words that Taruskin used to describe the comparison). To vastly over generalize/dramatize, Palestrina toes the company line while Byrd risks hide and head to be true to his beliefs.

A Coroner’s Report, or The End of Perfection

The C.O.D. of the ars perfecta has three components (all to be further autopsied in the final three chapters of this volume): 1) the commercial market’s demand for secular music; 2) religious unrest and reformation; and 3) “radical humanism”.

Ch. 17, Commercial and Literary Music

Though the first generation of music printing (Petrucci) remained collectibles for the wealthy, Pierre Attaignant revolutionized it by inventing more practical (read: inexpensive) printing methods and driving the price of part books down. As a result, music making “increasingly became a vital social grace on par with dancing” (694).

  • The frottola: This secular genre appeared in part books as an all-sung piece, as well as in a solo-voice-with-accompaniment form. Taruskin surmises the latter as the original and most prevalent one, vastly reducing the revolutionary aspect of the “monodic revolution” of the 17th century (698-699). The explosion of popularity of the frottola in print probably indicates that it had been (in oral tradition) the representative quattrocento Italian genre (696). The main proponents of the genre in print were Marchetto Cara and Tromboncino. Though Josquin’s “El Grillo” is the best known product of the genre today, it is unrepresentative.

In next week’s review: the German Tenorlied, the “Parisian” Chanson, Lasso, madrigalisms, the archicembalo, and more!


2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review of a thoroughly engrossing chunk of reading!

    You touch on it a little bit here, and I noticed this as well: Taruskin most definitely brings his personal historical (and aesthetic) judgment into the discussion of Palestrina and Byrd. It’s fairly clear that RT finds Byrd to be the more interesting of the two, and the adjectives from the text that you list above are all too telling. One of the blurbs on the back of the book calls the OHWM “highly personal (and often delightfully prickly)” and this treatment of Palestrina/Byrd certainly exemplifies that quality. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to criticizing historiographical method, but I haven’t noticed this level of prickliness yet in regard to the relative strengths/weaknesses of famous composers and works. Of course, this probably just reflects my own relative lack of experience in music of this era. Scholars of 9th – 16th century music probably have plenty of bones to pick with this first volume.

    Have you noticed much of this “highly personal and prickly” quality yet? Do you feel his writing and analyses ever get too opinionated? (These questions go out to the whole reading public.)

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s