Palestrina vs. Byrd

Zach said this in the comments to the Week 14 in Review post:

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.)

I was just preparing a post on these very questions, so I thought I would bring them to the fore of the blog. I’ll offer my thoughts below, and eagerly await other responses from Zach and our other many readers.


Taruskin doesn’t say it outright, but one gets the feeling that Byrd’s personal turmoil, and his personal stake in the setting of the mass gets valued higher than the perfunctory settings of Palestrina. After all, Palestrina was setting a “comforting ritual formula, not a risky personal declaration.” (684) Taruskin is just about to state the caveat that his hermeneutic approach is an exercise in “historical imagination” (ibid.), and yet his dialectical opposition of these two styles (personal vs. official) is given as an unquestioned (“official”? “given”?) premise. It is succinctly captured in the following passage, which is worth quoting at some length:

“Byrd’s is the earliest music—certainly the earliest Mass Ordinary music—to have called forth such [hermeneutic] interpretations from modern critics, because his Masses and his alone seem to offer true interpretive readings of their texts. These are the kinds of reading’s ‘official’ settings like Palestrina’s do not encourage, precisely because they are official. That is, precisely because they are official they take meaning as something vested and given rather than something that arises out of a human situation” (683-684.).

That Taruskin and some of his readers might blow past this pronouncement without batting an eye doesn’t speak to its resonance with truth, but rather its resonance with an American culture that values an individual’s free choice and eschews the imposition of authority, especially if it is “official.”

What we have in this case is Taruskin putting on his critic hat, and implying a value judgment in his direct comparison of the Credo sections of The Missa Papae Marcelli and Mass in Five Parts. The problem is that it stands in contrast to the tenor of the text: so far he has relentlessly harangued the “modern critics” (cited in the passage above) he now invokes as corroboration of Byrd’s value over Palestrina. And there is no overt indication in the text that Taruskin is giving opinion here or that he has switched hats. Even if we give Taruskin the benefit of the doubt and graft his pervasive skeptical view onto this passage, the damage has already been done. Readers (especially readers who have a tendency to boil nuanced arguments down to simpler formations—in other words, humans who are breathing) will come away with the strong impression that Palestrina was a cookie-cutter and Byrd was an artiste.


  1. GW says:

    The whole “official” argument falls apart when one considers the situation in England as a conflict for legitimacy between two competing religious regimes, each of which viewed itself as “official”. Byrd was no less official, just more partisan.

    One other considerations that one may make in reading Taruskin is whether there is a bias towards the research interests of his Berkeley musicology colleagues, in this case Philip Brett. In no small part, the History is a argument for their achievements (and a partisan stance against other views — watch out for his attacks on Adorno and Dahlhaus). This becomes especially clear in the last volume which might be characterized as “the late 20th century, as viewed from Morrison Hall”, with much of the argument following from the relationship between Berkeley musicologists and composers and the repertoire considered heavily biased towards that which reached the Bay area, which makes for an interesting skew on a History in which reception plays such an important role. (Other problems with reception history and susequent influence can be found in Taruskin’s over-emphasis on the 5th Brandenburg (a work which was either unknown to or ignored by the immediately following generations), his dismal treatment of Lully and Berlioz, or the near absence of Sibelius.

  2. Zach Wallmark says:

    This is an excellent point — the OHWM definitely features the work of Berkeley musicologists. (Kerman has loomed especially large in the last 100 pages.) Whether this is a point of explicit bias or simply a reflection of the ideas and perspectives with which he is most familiar (this is perhaps unavoidable) is a matter of great interest – please continue to chime in on this issue as you notice particular arguments, omissions, emphases, etc. that are reflective of école Berkeley.

  3. Mark Samples says:

    Thanks for your comments GW and Zach. I was waiting a couple days to add any comments to see if anyone else chimed in, but I’ll go ahead now.

    GW, you’re right to point out these leanings, and Zach, you’re right that an author is bound to include topics and perspectives with which he or she is most familiar. The difference between the human limitation and flat out bias I suppose is whether or not the author is familiar with other viewpoints and simply quashes them. I’m not well versed enough with the Byrd-Palestrina discourse to know exactly which is winning out here.

    Do you (all) think this is a significant drawback emanating from a single-author textbook? Another criticism of the publication (this one by Susan McClary in her review) was that the 20th-c volumes are sorely lacking in coverage of music produced and influenced by African-Americans. If Taruskin doesn’t have all that much experience on this topic (assuming as much—I can’t really say), would it not have been worth it to bring on someone who does to fill that important-but-currently-missing component of the history?

    Of course once you bring on multiple authors, you lose the strength and continuity of the long-term, brilliantly threaded arguments that Taruskin so skillfully weaves throughout the text.

    How is one to balance the two?

  4. Palestrina is a fine composer! Thanks for the post.

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