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.


Clus or Clar?

Like Zach, I was intrigued by the genre of the tenso, which is fascinating not just as a social practice, but also for the content of the songs. These mock-debate songs addressed, among other things, whether a poet should adopt as his style of choice trobar clus or trobar clar. The former is a “closed” style, dense in construction and esoteric. The latter represents the opposite: a “clear” style that is by its nature simple, direct in communication, and exoteric. For instance, in one of these mock debates between Guiraut de Bornelh (the author of the verses and pro clar) and a colleague (dit.) Linhaure (pro clus), the arguments go something like this (in my own paraphrase):

Linhaure: There is prestige in artifice. If everything is accessible, then there would be no way to determine what is valuable and what is base. Don’t blame me; if someone doesn’t understand my poetry, it’s not my fault! “Provided that I produce what is best at all times, I care not if it be not so widespread […].” (I, 116)

Guiraut: But a song that reaches more people is loved by more people. And don’t equate simplicity with laziness; I labor more in crafting elegant simplicity than obfuscation, light than darkness. “Why compose if you do not want all to understand? Songs bring no other advantage.” (ibid.)

As Taruskin acknowledges, this conflict is an eternal one.* It touches all eras of music history, not the least of which is the 20th century, the history of which contains plenty of analogous battles: academic music vs. popular music, American art vs. Soviet socialist realism. On the trobar clus side, I think first of Schoenberg: “Because if it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art.” (qtd. in Style and Idea) On the trobar clar side, I think of Shostakovich, who had to write music that was accessible to the soviet worker (or at least perceived as such) in order to keep his head.

A question to the collective wisdom: in your own research/experience, what are some other places where this debate has materialized?

* Of course the debate, in its polarization, is vastly oversimplified, and many composers (trouvères included) wrote in both styles.

The Tropin’ Monkey: A Debate

Troping Vinyl: Grandmaster Flash

The Argument: Medieval chant troping constituted the first documented instance of altering, recontextualizing, and fragmenting musical materials for new purposes. Fast forward a millennium, and we find that hip-hop musicians applied a similar principle (sampling) in the creation of new beats. The sampling process involves “cutting” segments from old records and “pasting” them into entirely new contexts, often alongside samples from other records. The result of such a process, like troping, warps the musical narrative’s sense of time, as material from different eras and genres are mashed together into a unified whole. Thus we have “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” where he samples from Chic, Queen, salsa music, television from the 1940’s, etc. As Mark (MC Samples) points out in his The Telling Trope post, adding commentary to and framing preexisting text and chant allowed monks to reinterpret the liturgy and, in effect, personalize it. Similarly, in hip-hop, sounds from old records (a beat from one song, a horn hit from another, James Brown’s grunt from yet another) are used to form a link with the past – what Chip Gates calls “signifyin'” – while also allowing for some dramatic editorialization over the source material (ie. rapping). Sampling JB is a gesture of homage, it’s a way to confirm his stature, but it’s also a way to confirm one’s own stature as a producer or an MC. Like monks confirming the validity and truth of Biblical passages through their tropes, sampling serves as a framework that, by pulling sonic materials out of the original environment, allows the troper/sampler to both show respect for tradition and break tradition by doing something new and personal with old material.

Many valuable critical perspectives have come out of the nascent body of scholarly literature on hip-hop. A smorgasbord of theories and approaches have been brought to bear on the topic of sampling, including postmodern theory, Marxist theory, Kristeva’s idea of intertextuality, Bateson’s concept of “play,” Gates’s “signifyin’ monkey,” ethnomusicological comparisons to African musical practices, etc. Since sampling resembles the practice of troping to a remarkable degree, issues and perspectives from hip-hop theory should be brought into the musicological discussion of this repertory.  Furthermore, what better way to engage a 9am undergraduate music history survey class than to introduce the topic of tropes with video of Grandmaster Flash?             — DJ Tropesphere

The Counterargument: Comparing Medieval troping with hip-hop sampling is all too tempting. On the surface, both techniques share much in common. Furthermore, certain generic parallels can be drawn between the two practices: tropes framed old material, commenting on it and confirming its content; sampling, generally speaking, can do the same. Both are steeping in a paradigm of musicking that is agglutinative, intertextual, and – for lack of a better word – “cut and paste.”

But beyond these passing similarities, the argument falters. Monks did not trope in order to engage in any sort of postmodern play or cultural rebellion whatsoever. They did so for practical reasons – to lengthen the liturgical day. Additionally, their reasons were not musical per se: they were informed by spiritual, theological probing. To compare the authority of the Bible with the authoritative groove of James Brown is fallacious and wildly off base. Moreover, this form of music scholarship – finding examples of a creative process and cutting it wholesale out of its original context to apply to another music – damages the specificity of each repertory/composer/era/technique by collapsing important differences for the sake of convenience (or the sake of waking up a class of sleepy undergrads). Mark (Dr. Samples) meditates eloquently on this idea in a recent post.

In conclusion, jumping between eras, languages, cultures, spiritual contexts, and musical use functions in the pursuit of The Same can be fun and rewarding – indeed, it’s easy to make novel and interesting scholarly connections between completely different practices when historiographical exactitude is disregarded. Unfortunately, such scholarship does little to shed light on the actual truth of past (or present) musical practices. It can only obfuscate the truth to draw false parallels between traditions when the commonalities are far outnumbered by the differences.    — Dr. Wallmark