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.
Our new header image is a detail of a detail. This sumptuous scene is tempera and gold on panel, by Fra Angelico, c. 1435. The lower image is of the entire scene, with the Virgin Mary being crowned in the high center. Angels herald the moment with playing of trumpets, lutes, and harps. At the lower center of this heavenly scene (note that they all sit or stand upon clouds), a lone angel plays obeisantly on a portative organ.
The upper image is a detail of the group of angels over the shoulder of the Virgin, and the header image is a horizontal slice of the same.
Our new header image is a detail from the bottom margin of a page from the Romance of Alexander, a Flemish manuscript from the middle third of the 14th century. It sets the scene of a marriage feast (the topic of the story at this point), in which music and dance plays a central part. On the left is a man playing a bowed stringed instrument (viol?) on his shoulder, while several attendants dance in a line, while holding hands. The men at the front and back of the line seem to be lifting their legs in a dance step. The middle vignette shows a man in the midst of striking two drums, which are being held by a youth—at his own risk, it would seem. At the right, a man plays a portative organ, while six ladies and one man dance in a circle. It’s hard to tell, but perhaps one of the women is in the middle of the circle.
These images are beautifully depicted and intricately detailed, and yet they still leave us with many questions. For instance, why is it no longer fashionable for men to wear mismatched leotards, when it is obviously so stylish?
Persistence, [like Oswald’s]*, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism – in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them. (I, 143)
* [Oswald von Wolkenstein was a minnesinger who was born in 1376, years after the monophonic craft of the trouvéres faded away.]
This is a topic that I feel we’ll be returning to often. A historian who focuses solely on technical innovation and teleological progression could easily consider someone like Oswald to be atavistic and somewhat tragicomic. They just don’t seem to get it. Henry Ford is inventing the Model T and poor old Oswald is just coming out of the garage announcing that he’s discovered the wheel. Poor Oswald! (“Hello? Anyone in there? Think, Oswald, think!,” I hear Biff Tannen saying.) In the little comparative taxonomy set up in the previous post, if chant is the amphibian that wiggles onto shore, then Oswald is the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that mind-bogglingly survived into the present (in very small numbers) with a primitive anatomy.
Oswald isn’t alone in this historical assessment. One of the major complications inherent in the concept of the “eras” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.) is that it codifies certain style characteristics as typical of a specific time, irrespective of the particular cultural milieu. If a composer is writing music that seems to outdo the style associated with his era, he’s considered progressive, vanguard, and innovative (and thus valuable and important). Music history is scattered with such innovating Geniuses who are ahead of their time: for instance, Gesualdo, Moussorgsky, and Ives. However, on the flip side, some composers in the standard canon wrote music that harkens back to earlier eras (a rococo classicist living in the Sturm und Drang era, for example). Since these unfortunate individuals aren’t current and up-to-date with their musical style, they are subjected to the historical judgment of conservatism. Thus, Sergei Rachmaninoff is an anachronism, writing grand, romantic symphonies and piano concertos well into the jaded, spiky 20th century. Mendelssohn is another who is sometimes labeled this way. And poor, misunderstood Oswald also falls into this category.
No good ethnomusicologist would make this judgment, steeped as the discipline is in the cultural embeddedness of all musical phenomenon. It may seem silly that we have to remind ourselves of this, but stylistic developments were not spontaneously adapted throughout Europe as soon as they came about. Nor should they have been. Indeed, innovative systems of music making were born from cultures, and were thus useful and meaningful in some way to the culture that produced them. Outside of that specific culture, however, the same technique could be irrelevant and unnecessary. Music is used, and if one culture has a use for a technique while the principality down the road (complete with a different language, system of social organization, economy, etc.) does not, then we can’t expect the second culture to adapt the new development wholesale simply because it’s technically innovative. This flawed historical perspective, Taruskin argues, is the anachronism, not the cultural practice so judged.
The fact of the matter is that feudalism, the social system that gave rise to the troubadour/trouvére/minnesang styles, persisted in the German lands long after it faded away in the French kingdoms. Oswald was not a holdover from an earlier era, therefore: he was responding to his culture, which just happened to keep up with feudal conditions after France began the shift towards urbanization. He was plenty relevant to his time (indeed, he was quite popular). As Taruskin puts it: “When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto – by the very fact – relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how.” (I, 143)
History is not a straight line. Indeed, it’s the twists and turns and bifurcations that make history so interesting and so complex. We would all do well to remember that.
Ear training teachers everywhere, take heart. For it was one of your own, Guido of Arezzo, an ear training teacher from the turn of the first millennium (A.D.) who produced what Taruskin calls “perhaps the greatest [breakthrough] in the history of the literate tradition of music in the West” (I, 101): the musical staff with “key” lines, which we now know as clefs. Not to mention that other little device, solmization syllables.
How did these breakthroughs come about? Guido was just trying to be a better teacher. I wonder what breakthroughs we can come up with by aiming for the same goal.
This is the full version of the image we are using for this blog’s Medieval Music header.