The End of Vol. I in Review

With holiday festivities and winter breaks, Mark and I have fallen a few weeks behind in our regular reviews. Rather than attempt a thoroughgoing, comprehensive overview at this belated point, I’m just going to hit on a few salient characters, developments, ideas, and repertories that appear in the waning pages of the volume. After getting through the last little trickle of material, Mark and I will do some ruminating on the first leg of the journey (accompanied by a much-needed week’s vacation from the text) before we plunge ahead with Volume II.

Commercial and Literary Music (700 – 751)

  • Pop Music around Europe: Every major national group in Europe during the 16th century started to develop their own idiosyncratic popular song forms for commercial dissemination. As Mark mentioned in his last review, the frottola was the preferred genre in early-mid century Italy. Likewise, the Germans had the tenorlied; the French had the “Parisian” chanson. Clement Janequin, a priest and chanson composer, was to music what Rabelais was the literature – a champion of the lewd, ribald elements of life. Many of his most famous pieces utilize a witty form of musical mimesis whereby the musical textures imitate real events (we’ve seen his before!), such as the guns, screams, and bugles of warfare (La guerre). The great superstar of the 16th century, however, was the great musical polyglot Orlando di Lasso, who produced over the course of his career a startling 2,000+ extant works in every conceivable genre. Not only was he prolific; he was also incredibly popular, appearing in more anthologies than anyone else of the era. For a diminutive sampling, check out the chanson “Susanne un jour”; the Italian “low style” piece “Matona mia cara,” which features the botched Italian of a German soldier as he attempts to serenade a local gal (listen also for the delightful vocables “da da dum, ditty ditty dum..”); and finally, “Prophetiae Sibyllarum,” a setting of a mystical text that is chocked full of disorienting chromaticisms that would later be taken up by the madrigal composers and pushed to the absolute limit.
  • The Madrigal: This repertory has grown especially close to my heart in the last term, as I just took a fabulous seminar on the subject with Susan McClary. I’m hoping to write more on this fascinating genre in the next week, but for the present purpose, I wanted to provide a very short Greatest Hits list of some amazing madrigals: Arcadelt’s “Il bianco e dolce cigno” (with its concluding tidal waves on “a thousand deaths” – we can guess what sort of “death” Arcadelt was talking about); Monteverdi’s “Ah dolente partita” (complete with a stirring musical representation of the painful act of parting from a lover in 0:10); also from Monteverdi, “Cruda Amarilli,” the madrigal that launched the infamous battle with Artusi that led to the theorization of the seconda prattica (the casus belli: an unprepared entrance on a MA9, at the time a dissonant interval [see 0:40]); Rore’s amazing “Dalle belle contrade d’oriente” (dig the Star Wars-style text on this clip!); and Luca Marenzio’s “Solo e pensoso”, a hyperchromatic piece that pushes modal stability to the breaking point (the Marenzio chapter in McClary’s book is entitled “A Coney Island of the Madrigal”). The polyphonic madrigal was an Italian creation, but the form quickly spread northwards, finding especially fertile soil in England.

Reformations and Counter Reformations (753-796)

  • Protestant music: It goes without saying that all the western cultures so far engaged in our historical narrative have been Catholic. When breakaway groups started to splinter off from the “one true church,” they needed a new sort of music to differentiate themselves. Where the ars perfecta was rarified, professional, and technically complex, early Protestant music aimed to connect with the common Volk through a communitarian ideal of composition and performance. Harmonies were kept fairly plain and the text was declaimed homorhythmically. Music in early Protestant churches served a utilitarian function, and the “art of concealment” so near and dear to the Netherlanders fell off for a time (though don’t tell Bach). But that’s not to say that nobody was having any fun. Listen to Jacobus Gallus’s “Mirabile mysterium,” where chromaticism is used to represent mysterious ascension. This is a seriously weird, sublimely cool piece. German music of the Reformation also saw the birth of new form of literate representation, Augenmusik (or “eye music”), wherein visual elements on the notated page enhance the descriptive power of the music. For instance, on the word “Crucifix,” a slew of sharps (#) enter the texture; in German, the word for “sharp” is Kreuz, or “cross.”
  • The Catholics strike back: In an effort to staunch the bleeding in the wake of the Reformation, Catholic leaders launched a minor revolution of their own. Instrumentalists began playing a major role in church music, and the “concerted” style was the first to combine vocal writing with instrumental parts. Andrea Gabrieli and his nephew Giovanni were two early adopters of this approach. (See the younger’s magisterial “In Ecclesiis”.) This style led to a flowering of virtuosic writing for both voice and instruments (especially the cornetto, a oboe-like instrument with a cup mouthpiece like a trumpet) and a new level of theatricality. That’s how the Counter Reformation sought to get butts in the seats: wow the people with dramatic music. It was also during this time that mystical eroticism was embraced by the church, a stunning example of which can be seen in Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, which depicts the mystic saint being pierced by the arrow of an angel.

With the Counter Reformation, a new aesthetic based on episodic motion and violent contrast definitively unseated the old ars perfecta values of smoothness and connectivity. This new style and syntax made the jump into purely instrumental music: ironically, “what would remain for centuries the elite genre of ‘absolute’ secular instrumental music was born in a church.” (796)

Pressure of Radical Humanism (797-834)

  • The birth of opera: With the Greek revival in full swing, theorists and composers of the late 16th century sought out techniques that would bring their creative efforts into greater accord with the masters of antiquity. It was generally concluded that the Greeks did not practice a contrapuntal music, but preferred strong melodies and clear text declamation. Further, the Greeks used music for the purposes of dramatic representation (or so these theorists believed). These ideas coalesced in the many Academies springing up in Italy, charged with the fostering of philosophical debate, theory, and the arts. It just so happened that these Academies were sponsored by the wealthy patrician families of the day, and at special family events like weddings, music was needed for entertainment (and for competitive pageantry). Theorists like Vincenzo Galilei (Galileo’s father), therefore, were given the perfect test tube in which to try out their new ideas. The first few “operas” cannot be called proper operas in the modern sense, but it’s clear that something altogether different from the polyphonic madrigal style was at work here. The so-called “monodic revolution” was bloodless; indeed, partygoers present for the debut of these “revolutionary” works barely seemed to notice. But an aesthetic sea change was underway, and the next volume will probably spend a good deal of time discussing its ramifications. For a representative example of the new monodic style, see Caccini’s superbly beautiful “Amarilli mia bella.”

With our final reading review out of the way, expect more posts in the coming week. For follow Challengers: take next week off and rest up for the next volume. We hit January 11th. Congratulations to all who have been following along in the text and in the blog. One down, four to go!

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