Week 20 in Review

The Week in Reading: The history of opera is riddled with heated reforms and counter-reforms, which only attested to the level of cultural power it held during this period. Indeed, opera often became the site for proxy wars between competing political ideologies, commercial strategies, and aesthetic philosophies, and fierce querelles – often over considerations that may strike us as absurd – dot the history of the genre. The political utility of operas gives Taruskin an opportunity to address the tricky issue of how we today should discuss (and perform) music that is so deeply associated with unfavorable political philosophies and regimes. We have the tendency, with such a yawning gap of time between us and them, to dismiss the political content of high art; after all, many people today are still steeped with the romantic notion of the autonomy of the artwork, and something as quotidian as politics has no place in the exalted realm of Art. Taruskin warns that we should ignore politics only at our own peril; dismissing concerns of “political correctness” can have the effect of marginalizing as irrelevant and out-of-touch a style that is already at grave risk of being perceived this way.

After these final thoughts on France, we traverse the Channel up to Britain, which hasn’t made an appearance in these pages since half way through Vol. I. A few unique styles flourished in Jacobean England, most notably consort music, perhaps the earliest form of instrumental chamber music to gain such wide popularity. Catering to upper-class amateur musicians, consort music tended to be conservative (even to the point of using cantus firmus technique). During “the distracted times” (the English Civil War of 1642-48), music production took a drumming; Puritans like Oliver Cromwell didn’t take too well to music. But during the Restoration, Charles II returned from his exile in France, bringing with him all the musical goodies he had learned during his years abroad. This infusion of continental music was decisive, and the great Henry Purcell came on the scene as England’s musical polyglot par excellence. The chapter ends with an extended discussion of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which, surprisingly, was barely performed in its day. Rather, it was first published in 1841 and received its great modern revival in 1895 as a nationalistic testament to England’s hollowed musical past. Again, we can’t talk about music without talking politics.

CHAPTER 4: Class and Classicism – Opera Seria and its Makers:

Naples at this time was a contradictory place: on one hand, it was ruled by the Spanish and had severe problems with poverty; on the other, all the teeming masses of the poor led to lots of orphanages and foundling houses for homeless boys. Why is a negative countered with another negative, you ask? Because such institutions (known as “conservatorio,” or conservatories) paid for themselves by putting the kids to work as choirboys. Thus, training of musicians became a major business in Naples and led to real flowering of musical culture. Yes, from exploitation came art (not the first nor the last time this will happen, either). The Neapolitan composer Alessandro Scarlatti wrote 114 operas, helping to standardize the operatic form and lay the groundwork for opera seria. Among his many contributions: the “da capo aria,” which featuring a repeat structure that took a time burden off the over-stretched composer; Neapolitan 6ths chords (you remember this harmonic device from Freshman theory!); and “binary” dance movements that exemplified “closed” tonal motion and would come to be profoundly influential in the burgeoning development of tonality.

And this takes us (belatedly) up to last week, which Mark will be reviewing shortly. Thanks for hanging in there while Mark and I went through two spectacularly busy weeks – it feels good to be caught up!


Week 19 in Review

The Week in Reading: We began last week in Germany, where a variety of new genres were popping up to provide music for Lutheran services. The chorale concerto (52) was a mixed instrumental-vocal form practiced most vigorously by Scheidt, Praetorius, and Schein. A sad example of the role that terrible historical events can play on culture is to be found in the story of Heinrich Schütz, whose enormous talent was nurtured in Italy and who was perhaps Germany’s first truly cosmopolitan composer. Under the tutelage of Giovanni Gabrieli, Schütz incorporated Italianate harmonies and madrigal-inspired expression into his sacred music in the so-called “luxuriant style.” (59) It was Germany’s take on the seconda prattica, complete even with chromatic dissonances (“ugliness” for the sake of text expression) and erotic texts. But this was not to last. The Thirty Year’s War obliterated the communities of Germany, sent all of Schütz’s musicians to the front lines, and sapped up all the budget for the arts. During the disastrous war, he was forced to drastically scale back his musical ambitions. In one particularly poignant moment, he paired back the continuo to just one lonely bass line: indeed, there were so few musicians in his church to play his music that he was forced to work with the barest of textures.

In Italy around this time, composers like Carissimi were writing grand oratorios and cantatas (the monodic outgrowth of the madrigal). He was joined in cantata production by the composer/singer Barbara Strozzi, who presents us with the first woman composer of the volume and an opening for Taruskin to discuss the thorny problem of the representation of women in the western music tradition (78-83). It’s true that there are comparatively few of them, which can of course be explained today by the misogynistic cultures that women found themselves in during the period of “common practice” music. This presents the historian with a critical dilemma: do we elevate the work of those few women composers perhaps beyond their historical significance in the name of setting the record straight and atoning for past historical erasure, or do we acknowledge important women when we deem them musically important and then provide a massive caveat explaining why there are so few women in the history we write? It’s a really tough question that continues to perplex many musicologists.

Ch. 3: Courts Resplendent, Overthrown, Restored

To France! Nowhere was musical production (at least the literate variety) welded to state power as intensely as it was in France, where the Italian-born Jean-Baptiste Lully enjoyed a close personal relationship with the “Sun King” Louis XIV and essentially held a state monopoly on all opera composition for his whole life. Opera had always been a tough sell in the Gallic lands: the French just weren’t having the idea of mixing drama and music a la the Italians. This changed when Lully (along with others) developed a specifically French form of musical spectacle for the courts, the tragédie en musique (88). It’s hard to mistake Italian opera for Lully: instead of the dramatic melodies so famous in Italian opera, the French variety is reminiscent of perpetual recitative, with lots of “talky” bits and few extravagant vocal displays. The French cherished their ballet, and many operas prominently featured dancing. Further, Lully brought the content of opera back down to earth – most of his works are thinly veiled representations of the exact same court that would have been watching them. In the French opera, therefore, mythology was transformed into politics.

Week 18 in Review

This Week in Blogging:

The beginning of a new volume was heralded by Monteverdian fanfare, and a new feature on the blog. The must-reads page has already stirred good discussion, and has had its first update. (For future reference, you can always access that page via the tab at the very top of our website.) Be sure to continue checking it in the future for new materials. Also, Zach wrote a short but insightful essay on the cost of musical extravagance.

This Week in Reading:

Preface* (II, xxi-xxiii):

This volume is organized around several watershed events:

  • The establishment of opera;
  • The pervasive basso continuo texture, and its implication for harmonic musical thinking;
  • Increasing dominance of instrumental over vocal music, and
  • The composer’s social role changing from “service personnel to autonomous agent,” of which Monteverdi and Beethoven are especially emblematic.

“Chapter 1, Opera from Monteverdi to Monteverdi”

Opera, now thought of as a quintessential 17th c. genre, had two distinct periods of emergence (i.e., court opera and public opera), and likewise two distinct aesthetic streams. Claudio Monteverdi, the quintessential 17th century composer, provides a perfect frame to approach both streams, as this chapter’s delightful title hints (it’s a quote of opera scholar Nino Pirrotta).

  • From Mantua to Venice (II, 2). Monteverdi’s fame was established during his time as maestro di cappella at the Mantuan court. There he wrote several books of madrigals, became embroiled in one of the most famous musical polemics in history (the quarrel with Artusi that birthed the label seconda prattica for expanded harmonic liberties in service of text expression), and began using basso continuo and the concerted style in his publications. Monteverdi became Maestro di cappella of St. Mark’s in Venice in 1613, and spent the rest of his career there.
  • Poetics and Esthesics (II, 12). An introduction of the poietic fallacy (see this post), and the importance of esthesics, which takes into account the audience’s viewpoint and expectations (not to be confused with the closely spelled esthetics).
  • Opera and its Politics (II, 13). Court opera carried political cachet in at least three ways: 1) the grandeur of the production reflected the power of its princely benefactors; 2) the story lines were thinly veiled allegories meant to honor these same benefactors; and 3) “severe limits were set on the virtuosity of the vocal soloists lest, by indecorously representing their own power, they upstaged the personages portrayed, or worse, the personages allegorically magnified” (II, 15), and thus the noble’s authority was retained.
  • Sex Objects, Sexed and Unsexed (II, 16). Over the course of the 17th c., castrati moved from the church choir to the opera stage, where they became super stars. The stage was the site of all sorts of “carnavalistic” happenings: cross-dressing, gender ambiguity, and authority turned topsy-turvy.
  • The Quintessential Princely Spectacle (II, 18) Taruskin exegetes a scene in act II of Monteverdi’s  first opera (he called it a favola in musica, a musical tale), l’Orfeo (1607).
  • The Carnival Show (II, 26). Taruskin’s reading of Monteverdi’s late opera L’incoronazione di Poppea casts it as a carnivalistic celebration of virtue over vice, lust over romance. In other words, geared specifically to the Venetian public audience for which it was performed.
  • These two opposing streams which are now called opera—the princely spectacle and public opera—define the rest of the history of the genre.

“Chapter 2, Fat Times and Lean”

  • For the first time, composers could build careers primarily around instrumental music. Girolamo Frescobaldi, who did just that, was the leading organist of his day. The organ works that were written down represent only the top portion of what was still a pervasively improvisatory practice. As with any improvisatory practice, certain conventions and genres were used, such as the corrente, balletto, ciaconna, and passacagli.
  • The toccata was a keyboard genre that in the hands of Frescobaldi could become quite extravagant, with incendiary flourishes and rash chromaticism. Some toccatas were played in liturgical settings.
  • Jan Sweelinck was a Dutch organist and composer who wrote “old-fashioned vocal music and extremely up-to-date keyboard compositions,” and is “in retrospect…the last of the legendary ‘Netherlanders’ of the polyphonic Golden Age” (II, 45).

Stay tuned for next week’s review, which will finish out this chapter and then pop over to France to survey their operatic goings on in the second half of the 17th century.

*In the paperback edition of the OHWM, each volume is meant to stand on its own. Therefore, an Introduction addresses the overall project, and is reproduced verbatim in each volume, and a short preface outlines the thrust of each individual volume.

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!

Week 14 in Review

The perfection of a musical style is tantamount to its destruction. For once a style has crystallized, it ceases to be a part of the dynamic flow of musical development, which is always in flux. Thus it was with the style for which Palestrina was the emblem and liegelord. In the generations immediately following Palestrina, church composers had to be proficient in two styles: the stile antico of Palestrina and the stile moderno, a concerted style which Taruskin will discuss in future chapters.

In a section titled “Cryogenics” (perhaps the first such use of this metaphor in a musicological setting), Taruskin outlines how the Palestrina style was preserved by a string of treatise writers stringing from Johann Joseph Fux (Gradus ad Parnassum, 1725) to Knud Jeppesen (Kontrapunkt [Counterpoint, 1939]), which forms the basis of the modern study of counterpoint. Palestrina went from being the 17th century “papal staple” (667, RT just couldn’t resist on that one) to the 20th-century music student’s gauntlet to be run.

To England!

Though William Byrd is held up as the English equivalent to Palestrina with regard to mastery of the ars perfecta, the personal religious and political implications of that mastery couldn’t have been more different. In the course of the 16th century, the Anglican Church was born, a new English liturgy was fostered, then suppressed, then fostered again. Catholics were persecuted under Henry VII and Edward VI, then restored under “Bloody” Mary, then tolerated under Elizabeth I only to be later persecuted again during her reign.

It was in this ever shifting climate that Byrd, a confessing Roman Catholic, had to navigate keep both his professional career and his head. These personal and religious circumstances are important if we are to understand Byrd’s music, for it is the first of which in history that supports a hermeneutic approach, which in this case lead Taruskin to interpret Byrd’s music (Mass in Four Parts, Mass in Five Parts) as personal expressions of his faith in a hostile environment (see I, 681-686). This is in stark contrast to Palestrina’s settings of the mass Ordinary, which are “perfunctory,” based on sentiments that are “official” and a “given” (all words that Taruskin used to describe the comparison). To vastly over generalize/dramatize, Palestrina toes the company line while Byrd risks hide and head to be true to his beliefs.

A Coroner’s Report, or The End of Perfection

The C.O.D. of the ars perfecta has three components (all to be further autopsied in the final three chapters of this volume): 1) the commercial market’s demand for secular music; 2) religious unrest and reformation; and 3) “radical humanism”.

Ch. 17, Commercial and Literary Music

Though the first generation of music printing (Petrucci) remained collectibles for the wealthy, Pierre Attaignant revolutionized it by inventing more practical (read: inexpensive) printing methods and driving the price of part books down. As a result, music making “increasingly became a vital social grace on par with dancing” (694).

  • The frottola: This secular genre appeared in part books as an all-sung piece, as well as in a solo-voice-with-accompaniment form. Taruskin surmises the latter as the original and most prevalent one, vastly reducing the revolutionary aspect of the “monodic revolution” of the 17th century (698-699). The explosion of popularity of the frottola in print probably indicates that it had been (in oral tradition) the representative quattrocento Italian genre (696). The main proponents of the genre in print were Marchetto Cara and Tromboncino. Though Josquin’s “El Grillo” is the best known product of the genre today, it is unrepresentative.

In next week’s review: the German Tenorlied, the “Parisian” Chanson, Lasso, madrigalisms, the archicembalo, and more!

Week 13 in Review – Perfection Gained and Lost

Continuing with Mark’s review of the the ars perfecta of Chapter 15, I want to begin with the question: What made the music of this group of composers “perfect”? Mark mentioned the codified harmonic elements of the style – the 3rd, for the first time, was admitted to the full consonance club. But another important element of stylistic perfection had to do with transitions. Ars perfecta composers were concerned with maintaining “a leisurely flow of melody,” and at this none excelled as greatly as Adrian Willaert, whose stylistic smoothness – almost to the point of lacking any idiosyncrasy whatsoever – made him a highly influential character. (599) He became the go-to teacher of his day, the head of a sixteenth century dynasty of “perfection.”

In the ricercar genre, whose genesis was guided by the Willaert pupil Jacques Buus, we find the first instrumental manifestation of the ars perfecta spirit. (606) Ricercars are improvisatory, often highly imitative instrumental pieces. Buus applied techniques originally designed for text, such as imitation, to a purely instrumental form, and in so doing created an academic art. The connotations of the ricercar with study and experimentation continued all the way to Bach’s day.

But “perfection” wasn’t the only game in town. The music of John Taverner shows us that the English, as earlier, had different ideas from the mainstream of continental composition. His masses consist of a glorious “sensory overload”: florid melisma, rich harmonies, high treble parts, low bass parts. (614) Exact declamation of the text gave way to “jubilance.” Similarly, the ricercar was fashioned into a vehicle for spiritual trance, or raptus. (616)  Didactic guides from the time are an important source for understanding what these soul transporting ricercars might have sounded like.

At around this same time, Diego Ortiz published a book of dance music (1553), complete with notated rendition of all the day’s most popular dances, including the passamezzo antico/moderno, the romanesca, the folia, and the ruggiero. These dance forms would go on to provide harmonic underpinning for a huge amount of music in the following few hundred years. The ground bass technique is “the first indisputably harmony-driven force in the history of Western music-making.” (627)


The problem with perfection is that it’s completely ahistorical – you have to freeze time in order to maintain it. For this reason, ars perfecta always had a Utopian quality to it: it was doomed from the start. (629) The last two great composers to keep the faith were Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and William Byrd. Palestrina is the first native Italian to make such a protracted appearance in the book, and his contributions are closely tied to the will of the church. Indeed, his work bore the official stamp of approval from the Pope, and his creative forces in the service of the church were prolific, with 104 masses to his credit. (Imagine setting the exact same text 104 times!) Palestrina drew heavily from the polyphonic inventions of the Franco-Flemish masters, barely concealing his adoration and emulation. Thirty of his masses are of the paraphrase type (based on a chant that is absorbed into the imitative texture), but a full fifty-three are parody masses, in which earlier materials are reworked into new textures. His music is rich in symbolism. (For a great discussion of the types of musical symbolism, see 643).

At the Council of Trent in 1562, church officials turned on ars perfecta, preferring instead a style of music with clear text declamation. The question of text is one that has haunted us repeatedly throughout this journey, and will continue to do so: Should the music serve the words or vice versa? It seems every generation has a different answer. With the inauguration of the Counter-Reformation, however, we can be assured that the pendulum swung decisively in the favor of the words. Palestrina submitted his Missa Papae Marcelli to church officials as a possible artistic response to the new decree that text be more intelligible, and a myth was born. Works were tested before a panel of officials, true, but the fate of music was not hanging in the lurch (at least not in the manner that subsequent rumors implied when Palestrina became “the savior of music”). (650)

Phew – now that we’re all caught up, look for more posts this week on the end of perfection and the nascent commercial music scene.

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!

Week 11 in Review

The week in blogging: Continuing with music of the 15th century, this week saw the emergence of a new category: the musical middle. What did it mean back then, and what does it mean today? (In Tinctoris’s estimation it had to do with the mediating role of Mary between the divine and the human; today, it has a lot to do with social class.) We also briefly explored the first commercial music publication, a collection of instrumental arrangements known as the “Glogauer Liederbuch.”

The week in reading: CHAPTER 13 – Middle and Low

Hailing Mary (501): As the mass displaced the motet as the high genre, the practice of paraphrasing old chant as new cantus firmi proliferated. Motets – specifically ones praising Mary – took on the role of the musical “middle” between the high style of the mass and the low style of chanson and dance music.

Personal prayer (506): Since Marian music was allowed to be more human than its lofty counterpart the mass, composers added personal expression to their motets. For instance, the elderly Du Fay troped his Marian text with a exhortation for mercy in the afterlife. Musically, these troped sections take on a quality of intense pathos.

The English keep things high (512): At the Eton School and elsewhere, masses remained thoroughly “official, collective, impersonal.” The experience of the divine in this tradition was meant to overwhelm.

The Milanese go lower still (518) and Fun in Church? (522): The motet lost even more of its old highness in Milan, where “Ducal motets” stayed away from pure Biblical texts and removed the chant-derived tenor altogether. Milanese composers also worked some playful, virtuosic vocal gestures into their motets, proving that you could be devout and have some fun at the same time.

Love songs (526): A new genre sprung up in literate sources during this period called the bergerette, which incorporates elements of the “fixed forms” (similar to a virelai but with a self-contained single strophe.) Although it’s nothing new, chanson infiltrated secular music in this period, particularly the wildly popular “J’ay Pris Amours,” which made an appearance in a motet by Josquin.

Instrumental music becomes literate at last (534), Music becomes a business (542), “Songs” without words (542): Some of the first notated instrumental pieces are arrangements of popular chanson such as the above. They were often structured as duets or trios for an unspecified instrumentation, and Henricus Isaac was a masterful practitioner of this budding format. The “Glogauer Liederbuch” was the first partbook available for sale, representing some of the first “funtionless” music. In 1501, the Venetian printer Ottaviano Petrucci came to understand the commercial value of printed music and began releasing the first publications to utilize the movable type (well, movable note) printing press. This shift also began a paradigmatic shift from “music as activity” to “music as thing.” The publication of “functionless” instrumental music also engendered a new form of composition: the text-less song. Composers were unsure about how to title these tunes, so they often named them after people (“Martini’s little piece”) or the key (“Song in D”).

We’ll be back in full force early next week for a recap of the chapter on Josquin. (Hopefully there’ll be time between food binges to get a post or two in over the long weekend.) Have a great Thanksgiving!

Week 10 in Review

This week in blogging:

As musicologists congregated in Philly for the AMS convention, we faithfully continued working our way through the pages of the OHWM. As consolation for not being able to attend the meeting, we were able to listen to four versions of the famous Missa L’Homme Armé settings by the headlining composers of the 15th c. And in a pedagogically inspired moment, Zach cataloged and exemplified the various fallacies Taruskin has introduced, so that we can be sure to keep our thinking straight.

Other Reading Notes:

The reading summary is a little different this week: it is a gathering of quotes from the text that summarize the main points. There were many more choice passages I could have included, but this will have to stand as a brief flash of what was a very rich chapter.

Internationalism: “Even after impregnation by the English, the basic technique of music remained French; but once the northerners began invading the south, it became impossible to tell by style where a piece of written continental music had been composed. Europe, musically, seemed one.” (I, 453)

Ockeghem, by the end of his life, was “surely the most socially exalted musician in Europe,” (I, 455) and Busnoys is “perhaps the earliest major composer from whom autograph manuscripts survive”. (I, 456) These two composers threw encomia (or were they gauntlets?) to one another, each praising the other through song.

The cyclic mass was “the emblem of the century’s musical attainments, for it was a genre of unprecedented altitude.” (I, 459) This genre, a unified setting of the mass ordinary based on a cantus firmus, was originally written for special mass days (royal weddings and coronations), and its raison d’être offers a functional shift: “the use of a symbolic or emblematic tenor uniting its various sections renders the Ordinary ‘proper’ to an occasion. The common cantus firmus acts like a trope, a symbolic commentary on the service.” (I, 461) Over the course of the 15th century, “the rigidly conceived, highly structured style of the isorhythmic motet—the ‘high style’ or stylus gravis of the fourteenth century—passed from the motet into the domain of the cyclic Mass, which was potentially a kind of isorhythmic motet writ large, with five or so discrete sections replacing the multiple color-talea cursus of old.” (I, 461)

The anonymous (Dunstable?) Missa Caput represented a new four-part texture that soon became standard. Coupled with the standardization of vocal ranges [which developed over the next few generations] it represented the beginnings of four-part harmony. Tonal harmony was yet to come, however. “Over the two centuries between 1450 and 1650…, a gradual conceptual change took place in the wake of a new perceptual reality [what RT calls the ‘practiced habits of “hearing”‘]. Roughly speaking, it was the change from ‘modal’ to ‘tonal’ thinking.” (I, 471)

Emulations of the Missa Caput by successive composers (such as Ockeghem) bespeak a common 15th century practice; one that warrants an extended RT description. On the difference between an imitation and emulation: “An imitation is simply a reproduction, a copy, a match—or, as often remarked, a compliment. An emulation is both an homage and an attempt to surpass. The dynasties of composers and of compositions that so distinguished the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were dynasties of emulation. Works of ‘high’ style became models for other works that aspired to the highness in a spirit at once of submission to a tradition and mastery of it, and in a spirit at once of honoring and vying with one’s elders. A composition regarded as especially masterly will come to possess auctoritas—authority. It sets a standard of excellence, but at the same time it becomes the thing to beat. A true emulation will honor the model by conforming to it, but it will also distinguish itself from the model in some conspicuously clever way.” ( I, 474-475)

The supreme emblem of the day was in setting the Missa L’homme armé. “Practically every composer mentioned by Tinctoris, including Tinctoris himself, wrote at least one Missa L’Homme Armé, as did their pupils and their pupils’ pupils. The principle of emulation, thus applied on such a massive scale, produced the very summit of fifteenth-century musical art and artifice.” (I, 484)

Week 9 in Review—Some Island Music

Last week we crossed the channel to listen in on the music of the British Isles.

This Week in Blogging: The week began with a change of header art that brought us into the 15th century. Throughout the week, we tried to get the English sound in our ears by posting an audio clip of Beata viscera, and Zach found a recording of Dunstable’s seminal, euphonious Quam pulchra es. And in the only mini-essay of the week, Zach guided us through the bog-ridden terrain of trying to determine cultural and musical influence in history.

  • Viking Harmony (392): Where did the English preference for thirds come from? From Scandanavian lands perhaps. Based on a lone musical example from Sweden, the hymn Nobilis, humilis, which shares the tendency for harmonization in thirds; and on the political presence of Nordic peoples on the British Isles from 875, Taruskin posits a possible connection between the two cultures.
  • England and the Continent: Though the English were much touted as having a “new,” “sweet” style all their own according to chroniclers of the early 14th century, they were by no means isolated from the continent or its trends: the Normans invaded in 1066; England and France were engaged in a (more than) Hundred Years War, after which Northern French lands were occupied by the English; and intellectuals from England studied in French universities (witness our old friend Anonymous IV).
  • Nationalism? (403) and “English Descant” (406): The English style of descant is considered by some historians to be more homogeneous than other nations during the same time, and therefore “may suggest the beginnings of something comparable to what we now call nationalism” (405), though nationalism at this point was not connected to ethnicity but to the crown. The quintessential style can be found in the opening measures of Beata viscera (a conductus/motet): an 8/5 “chord”*, proceeding to a string of 6/3 “chords” moving in parallel motion, and cadencing on (or passing through) 8/5. This musical profile is also traditionally what music historians consider to be the definition of “contonance angloise,” (as RT puts it, “that English something-or-other”).
  • Old Hall and Roy Henry (409): The Old Hall Manuscript is a treasure for its collection of polyphonic mass movements, many with attributions of composers. It also contains the attribution of two pieces by “Roy Henry,” or King Henry, which could have been Henry IV or Henry V.
  • John Dunstable and the “New” Music: John Dunstable, an English composer, became, in his day and in successive generations, the fountainhead of the English style to continental composers.
  • Faburden, the English procedure of improvising harmony over a pre-existing monophonic melody (à la English descant), had a continental counterpart in fauxbourdon. The latter was often used by such composers as Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois, who used it as a compositional technique rather than an extemporizing procedure.

*Numbers represent intervals above the lowest note of the texture, from top to bottom. For example, “8/5” denotes an octave and a fifth above the lowest note. “Chord” is in quotes to denote that I am using a modern term.