Week 12 Review

The combination of a holiday weekend and pesky colds (for both Zach and me—ah, the joys of air travel!) led to our not writing a Week 12 review. I’ll be taking care of that here, and Zach will catch us up with the Week 13 review presently.

Notes from the Reading

Ch. 14, Josquin and the Humanists

This chapter is the second, after Machaut’s, to include a composer’s name in the title. Taruskin takes a corrective approach to the discussion of Josquin, and is concerned with sorting out what is myth and what fact about our understanding of this most famous composer.

  • The Josquin legend (a poet born, not made; the antisocial, moody genius, etc.) was created by the post-Josquin generation, and therefore tells us more about the makers of the legend than the composer himself.
  • As is his stated custom, Taruskin returns to the texts to ask What was Josquin really like? and considers his motet Ave Maria … virgo serena as exemplary. This piece casts Josquin as a “musical rhetorician par excellence” in the music’s declamatory, syntactical, and semantic relation to the text. Points of imitation articulate structure; performing forces (duets, accumulation of voices) and stretto techniques dramatize the unfolding of the text; the drive to the cadence emphasizes the overall rhetorical arc.
  • This masterpiece was monumentalized by the mid-sixteenth-century generation of theorists—Glareanus—and composers (Sennfl). Sennfl literally monumentalized the motet by setting it as his own, enlarged motet.

Taruskin finishes the chapter by recounting the more recent turbulent events in Josquin scholarship, positioning them (as he is apt to do) in such a dramatic fashion that the reader is likely to feel a stirring desire to dust off the whip and fedora, and join Indiana Jones in a search to find the true identity of Josquin (and maybe a sapphire skull—a lesser cousin of the crystal—that holds the secret to eternal breath-control). It is this powerful narrative that sparked this recent post that generated quite a discussion.

Ch. 15, A Perfected Art

Giuseppe Zarlino, an important 16th c. music theorist, was the first to codify in theory what composers had been practicing ever since the “British Invasion” of the early 15th c.: count the third as a fully fledged consonance. He laid out a complete set of rules for triadic counterpoint, the sum of which was encompassed by the term ars perfecta.

It is here that Josquin’s influence can really be felt. He precipitated a sea change in contrapuntal structure. No longer are we dealing with Du Fay’s structural hierarchy of voices. Rather, Josquin’s points of imitation, equalization of voices, and more long-breathed structures are the new launch pad, all techniques taken up by Nicolas Gombert, Clemens non Papa, and especially Adriano Willaert.

More on the perfected art, and the beginning of its end, will follow in Zach’s review for week 13. Now back to reading!


A long time ago in a land far, far away…

When Mozart wrote music, he never made a mistake – it was as if he was taking dictation from God. Sensing his pending death, he composed a Requiem Mass for himself. Such are the lives of the great composers.

Legends like these are nothing new to music. (Recall the first notated repertory, plainchant, and the dove whispering in Gregory’s ear.) With Josquin and Palestrina, we can see the same mythologizing forces at work: after Josquin’s death, he was turned into a larger-than-life Genius, an emissary of God expressing perfection through sound; Palestrina was turned into the literal savior of music when his Missa Papae Marcelli wowed counter-reformation church officials. Were it not for Palestrina, the Pope would have tossed the whole messy affair of music into the wastebasket of history.

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has written a number of playful articles and books examining western music from the perspective of an outsider (an “ethnomusicologist from Mars” in one memorable piece).* While we may like to think of ourselves as a purely rational, scientific culture, our tendency to mythologize our great musicians is profound. Ask the average student in the average music department about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven and you’re bound to get a colorful potpourri of fact and fiction. (Ask the average person on the street and you’re bound to get a blank stare.) Beethoven is the great mad genius of music, with an Einsteinian explosion of hair, deaf as a doornail, pounding out tormented, brilliant music on the piano. How many times have we seen this representation in movies, TV, and cartoons? Mozart, likewise, is less a historical figure than he is a Force. With every generation, myths are kept alive and reinforced through Mother Culture; the movie Amadeus, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of cultural work to keep the Mozart myth flourishing. According to Nettl, the way our culture transforms the great dead composers is really no different from the origin myths of the Blackfoot Indians, in whose mythology the beaver is the bringer of music. When in comes to the great musicians of the past, Taruskin’s often-quoted Italian proverb holds: “Not true, perhaps, but well invented.”

It’s a curious case. Perhaps our propensity to elevate (dare I say deify) great artists after their death is a reason why living composers are such a rarity on concert programs. Music and musicians must be transmogrified into myth before they can be counted in the pantheon of the truly great and eternal. You can’t very well mythologize a living person – too much warm blood is anathema to legend. Therefore, the dead receive more attention than the living. Remember: six months ago, Michael Jackson was a washed-up kook; today, he’s the tortured genius of pop.

The discipline of musicology might not be as death-fixated, but we have our myths as well. Who hasn’t gasped in shock at the story of the legendary Susan McClary standing in front of an AMS crowd, likening Beethoven’s 9th to rape? (The original comment was quite a bit more ambiguous, and it appeared  in the Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, hardly the hornet’s nest of an AMS conference.) Who hasn’t heard about Richard Taruskin’s legendary graduate courses, where he assigns between 500-800 pages of reading (in a handful of different languages) per week? Who doesn’t know about the two reckless grad students attempting to read all of the OHWM and – foolishness of foolishness – blog about it!

* Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Champagne/Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1995).

The Wedding at Cana

Our magnificent new header image, from The Wedding at Cana, was painted by Italian mannerist Paolo Veronese in 1563. It is a tour de force of Renaissance humanism – note the realistic depiction of party-goers in the middle of conversation, the lazy dogs in the foreground, and young men playing tag behind the feast. There is a sense of phenomenal motion in this scene, of the unsuppressed vitality of a gala party. However, all of this bustling life is framed by the perfect, static symmetry of the middle-ground guard rail and the background columns. All of the major lines are in perfect right angles. The full upper half of the painting is pure, classical restraint, motionless and stable. In the immediate foreground, we see a group of musicians. Rumor has it that Veronese painted himself into the picture as the fellow in white bowing the viola da gamba. (Clearly an anachronism – such instruments weren’t around in Biblical times.) But lest we forget, allow the eyes to trace themselves along the straight unperturbed path of the lines. In the exact horizontal center of the painting, framed by gay revelers and a blue sky, sits the most important guest of all – Jesus. In a sea of activity, only he is holding still. Were it not for the faint halo around his head, we might not notice him at all. And thus we see a quintessential feature of the Renaissance Zeitgeist: divinity folded in, almost hidden, amongst a mass of humanity.

“Ave Maria virgo serena”

Listening to this motet by Josquin, “Ave Maria virgo serena,” it’s easy to see how contemporaries thought that this stunning, sumptuous style was the ars perfecta (“perfected art”). This YouTube clip does the experience little justice, but close your eyes and picture yourself in the resonant, womb-like chamber of a cathedral with multi-colored rays of light streaming in through the stained glass. Then, rising forth from the silence, a single voice, followed by another in perfect imitation, then another, then another. The experience, both then and now, is numinous.

“Ave Maria” (and the parody Masses it inspired) has so far received more attention than any other single piece of music in the OHWM (see 565-584), and this is understandable, as the piece is an exemplary case-study of the new expressive sensibilities for which Josquin is now (as then) famous. The piece works simply, elegantly on so many different levels, from the declamatory (the way syllables and notes fit together) to the syntactical (interrelationships of the parts to the whole) to the semantic (how musical gestures express the meaning of the text). It is thoroughly saturated with imitation, a primary structural device in ars perfecta polyphony. But furthermore – and perhaps most significantly – all the parts in “Ave Maria” are functionally equal. There are no more “structural pairs” setting a hierarchy: each voice is an essential player in the unfolding texture. As Taruskin points out, this level of independence of each part represents a shift in compositional practice away from writing each part separately to conceiving of a piece as a whole and representing it in the form of a score, where all parts are illuminated at once.

For me, the eureka moment comes at 1:12-1:38. There is something so painfully human about this striving gesture, so starkly, emotionally real. Just as you begin to miraculously discern the Virgin’s face in the clouds, you realize that the face is really your own.

Musicologists in the Making?

I mentioned in a comment not too long ago that an apt subtitle for Taruskin’s Oxford History of Western Music would be  And How it Got that Way. Taruskin consistently presents not only the history at hand, but also the story behind how the history was constructed. Elijah Wald recently put it succinctly: “Any history is a reflection of at least two periods—when the events happened and when one is writing—and also of the writer’s personal experience.”* And Taruskin’s is no exception. Take for instance his attention to the volatile changes in Josquin scholarship since the inception of modern musicology (the Josquin legend, biography, the minefield of style dating; Vol. I, 547-584). This is something we expect to get extended space in the pages of The Journal of the American Musicological Society, not a general history of music. That he insists on these types of inclusions—and they are frequent—reflects Taruskin’s concern with outing unconscious philosophical blunders and a self-consciousness about the shifty nature of our historical understanding. Further, it reflects the presence of these issues in the larger community of today’s musicologists.

But I don’t want to get into the philosophy of it right now. Instead, I have been thinking about what byproducts this practice of including the “story behind the history” might have on student readers of the OHWM. There are many possibilities, but I would like to ask the readership’s opinion about a specific one: Do you think that this inclusion will create more interest in the discipline of musicology among student readers?

I’m imagining the typical undergraduate music major, who sees learning about ancient music from a bunch of dead composers as barely more fun than the swine flu—or maybe not even that, given the number of absences in class this term. Would it be more intriguing to students if music history was less of a set number of dates and facts, and more of a living, breathing animal that may bite your hand at any moment?

What if, on an undergraduate music history exam, the student had a short answer question on how Lowinsky and Noblitt affected our understanding of the historical importance of “Ave maria…virgo serena”? What if the student had more of a conscious understanding that history is being better understood every day, and that they could be a part of it?

Taruskin’s is not the first history to include the story behind the history, though I might argue that it is the first to do so on such a pervasive, ground level, and on such a grand scale. And I am eager to hear feedback on the effects this might have on potential readers. Will this have any effect on interest in musicology as a discipline?

I need your opinion. Are you a teacher who has included “the story behind the history” in your lectures? Have you noticed any effects on interest in musicology? Are you a student who would appreciate this type of information? Do you think this idea is totally bogus? Click on that comments button and let us know.

* Elijah Wald, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 7).