Archive for November, 2009

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!

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[This post is a reply to Zach’s earlier post, which you can find here.]

What if we historicize the metaphor a bit? History has shaped us to think of high(brow) and low(brow) in terms of social class. We live in a moment in time where the French Revolution of 1789 happened, and marxism, capitalism, and suburbia exist. None of these did by the fifteenth century of course. And therefore the self-consciousness of class did not exist so intensely as it does for us today.

My historical imagination suggests to me that the metaphor may have hung on a more cosmic scale for composers of the fifteenth century. My thoughts stretch all the way back to Boethius’s cosmology of music. If we reconcile his tripartite construction with our present one, then “high” is musica mundana, the harmony of the cosmos, and “low” would be musica instrumentalis, the audible music blown, struck, or vibrated by earthly bodies. So far, it seems we may be on to something. The 14th century motet, as Taruskin argued, disembodied the listener and created a mysterious discordia concors that reflected heavenly things. By these lights, it seems (super)natural that this style would cross over to the genre that “looks up” most directly: the fifteenth-century cyclic mass. Thus we have the beginning of a theory of high (I’m giving up on including the quotes on these terms from here on out) musical style that jibes with existing theories of the time.

On the other hand, Taruskin’s example of low music comes from Loyset Compère’s Ave Maria…virgo serena, in which the tenor shirks its responsibility to hold august musical material, and “is confined to a monotone recitation of the prayer that the sequence quotes, as if mimicking the mumbling of a distracted communicant going through the rosary” (I, 524) Incidentally, Taruskin offers a reading that counts this as flippancy on Compère’s part, “funny, but still pious” (ibid.). An alternate reading might suggest that Compère used the cachet of the tenor line to stress the importance that prayers be intoned. Both readings emphasize humanity, and therefore what might be called a low style, “pitched at the level of its hearers, rather than…way, way over their heads” (I, 526). In other words, it is music that reflects musica instrumentalis over musica mundana.

But hold on one Tinctorian minute. Hadn’t a millennium passed since Boethius flourished, and even if he held sway on centuries’-worth of music theory, hadn’t he long since lost his currency by the fifteenth century? Well yes, and that is why these connections can be only suggestions. But that doesn’t take away the value of using them as a heuristic tool to think through alternate understandings of the high-middle-low continuum. For Boethian cosmology was in the DNA of music theory and philosophy in the fifteenth century; marxism was not.

I still haven’t answered the original question “where is the middle?” But I have offered a rationale for its existence that doesn’t take our modern duality and stuff in a third option. It is a reminder that even though our culture defaults to duality, as Zach pointed out, it was not always that way. By all accounts, thinkers within the Roman Catholic cultures up to this historical moment were more likely to map a tripartite structure onto the world, thus giving it the reflection of the Holy Trinity. After all, according to music theorists, triple division was the only one open to musicians until the Ars Nova of the 13th century.

To complete our cosmological reconciliation, we must square the middle style with Boethius’s musica humana, or the “harmony of the human constitution” (I, 70). So what is the musical middle then? Taruskin has it pegged. The middle style of this period concerns itself with the mediator between man and God: the great Intercessor Mary. For Roman Catholics of this time, she stands as the connector between heaven and earth, between God and man, between musica mundana and musica instrumentalis, between high and low.

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“Glogauer Liederbuch”

Lady Gaga and Lil’ Wayne owe a little something to this German partbook from the 1470s. The Glogauer Liederbuch is a collection of 3-part instrumental arrangements of popular chanson that, rather than serve a liturgical, ceremonial, or political function, is full of tunes to be played for fun by anyone who can afford to purchase the partbooks. It might just be the first documented intersection of music and the market.

It’s also significant because its music is “functionless” and “autonomous.” Many of the tunes are based on popular melodies, including three settings of “J’ay pris amours,” the greatest hit of the late 15th century, but some arrangements take on an abstract quality that strays far from the original. For example, one arrangement (A) might take the tenor line from “J’ay pris amours” as a starting place, with new material around it. Another (B) would then take the newly created melody from (A) and compose fresh material around it. It’s easy to see that quickly in this process the original tune would be obscured, and what’s left is essentially a new, instrumental (no text to tell you what’s going on) pattern of sound with no link to practical function. “Functional” and “autonomous” are problematic terms, as RT’s scare quotes imply, but this does represent a major difference from earlier practices. It’s mind-blowing to ponder that the first marketable, commercially viable music publication consisted not only of pop songs but of abstract art-for-art’s-sake. Once Petrucci realized the commercial potential of printed music by employing the new technology of movable type printing in 1501, the market would come to play an ever-increasing role in our musical culture.

The only clip I could find of this significant publication is an arrangement by the American composer Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938). It would not have sounded like this back then, obviously, but it gives you a sense of the playfulness and abstraction at which this model of music-making excelled. (Fans of Wuorinen will also find this delightful.)

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Tinctoris defined the stylus mediocris, or “middle style,” as music that aimed for the heavens in its expressive intent but did so in a way that was more grounded, humble, and human than the lofty, “high” masses discussed last week. In the 15th century, the middle ground went most notably to the motet genre (remember, motets a century earlier were the “highest” style).

Music, as with many things in our culture, is often understood in terms of dichotomous pairs. Thus, we have major/minor, sacred/secular, vocal/instrumental, etc. We also have the distinction between “high art” and “low art,” and as Taruskin reminds us, this divide is centuries old in the west. Over the course of the OHWM readings so far, Taruskin has taken great care to problematize this strict binary between “high” and “low” music: indeed, sacred music always borrowed from the secular oral practices of the street, and vice versa. However, this is the first time that a middle road has been formulated, and it really wreaks havoc on the old binary of high/low to which anyone from our culture is deeply (if subconsciously) accustomed. It seems to present us with a promising (Utopian?) way out of the pair of opposites so fundamental to western thinking – as Tinctoris writes, the middle is Both/And instead of Either/Or. Or is that what stylus mediocris really means?

It also brings to mind our contemporary concept of “middlebrow.” This term (according to Wiki) has its origins in 1920s England, and was meant to denote the intermediary grounds between highbrow and lowbrow. (Terms which are themselves the ludicrous legacy of phrenology, the “scientific” discipline that sought to explain differences between the races by means of cranial measurements. Spoiler alert: white males have the biggest craniums!) Virginia Woolf and others went on the attack against middlebrow values, claiming that these mediocre folks were “in pursuit of no single object, neither Art itself nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige.” Even today, the term has the scent of the petit bourgeoisie attached to it – it connotes tastelessness masquerading itself as Die Kultur. Musically, I hear this term applied most often to musical theater. Musicals aren’t quite popular music, but they aren’t opera either – what should we call them? Middlebrow!

Before blathering further, I’d like to get your take on this: What is the musical “middle”? Was Tinctoris’s stylus mediocris essentially the same thing as today’s “middlebrow”? In a system still thoroughly dominated by the conceptual crux of the high/low dynamic, is there even room for a middle? (Like third parties in American politics.) What might today’s middle look like (besides musicals)?

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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)

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The Complexity Paradox

These compositions are given rather as specimens of a determined spirit of patient perseverance, than as models [worthy] of imitation. In music, different from all other arts, learning and labor seem to have preceded taste and invention, from both which the times under consideration are still very remote. — Charles Burney in his A General History of Music (1776), referring to Ockeghem and his ilk

History has not been terribly kind to Johannes Ockeghem. From the 16th century until quite recently, this composer of profound gifts was branded with a reputation for “cold calculation,” and indeed many of his pieces present us with formidable challenges. Ockeghem delighted in extreme complexity, elaborate musical puzzles, and sophisticated conceptual contrivances. His “Missa cuiusvis toni,” a mass for four voices, was ingeniously designed to be sung in any of the modes, each with a different affective character; “Missa Prolationum” (Mass of the Time Signatures) plays with temporality in a mathematically dense web of interlocking periodicities. These pieces certainly aren’t easy; indeed, they bring to mind the ars subtilior compositions of the previous century. The pieces for which Ockeghem was best known for 400 years are tough nuts to crack, and this fact has led to an unfair if fascinating reception by historians. It appears Ockeghem committed the cardinal sin of too much complexity.

The notated western music tradition has an paradoxical relationship with technical complexity. On the one hand, complexity is fetishized as an ultimate conferrer of value and seriousness. Historically, big is better in the “classical” music tradition – large scale works like symphonies have found a privileged place above chamber music for generations of music historians, and long, formally sophisticated works usually win out over shorter, simpler, humbler varieties on the Grand Scale of Historical Importance. On the other hand, complexity is a sign of cold calculation, mannerism, anti-emotionalism, and artifice. At best, it’s an utter waste of time; at worst, a masturbatory fantasy. Our perception of musical complexity has always changed with the political tides; during the Cold War, for instance, academic composers in the US wore the mantle of total serialism as a mark of American freedom and intellectual curiosity, juxtaposing themselves with the Soviets’ kitschy functional music of massed choirs and brass bands. However, although such composers were granted tenure in their university gigs, most Americans would have preferred balalaika-accompanied paeans to Lenin than the latest offering by Milton Babbitt. Even when it was politically correct to embrace pure musical complexity, it didn’t mean people actually liked it.

This is the paradox of complexity: a composer can’t be a complete musical simpleton and get respect from historians – they need to show some level of mastery of complex forms. However, they can’t get too complex lest they cross the line into alienating abstraction. There are a raft of false dichotomies inherent in this paradox. As Burney suggested in the first major history of music written in English, “learning and labor” are in opposition to “taste and invention.” Is it possible to compose music that is both learned/laborious and tasteful/inventive? Could a cold and calculating 12-tone piece, in fact, be emotionally expressive as well? I don’t understand why not.

Cases like this are so fascinating in part because they reveal how deep a role taste plays in historiography. Burney, writing in the empirically-minded age of reason, saw no purpose to such extravagant musical games. Anton Webern, a product of the end-game of western music teleology, however, praised Heinrich Isaac (another composer famous for complexity and puzzles) as the subject of his 1908 doctoral dissertation. The times and the politics, to a large degree, determine the tastes.

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The secular tune “L’Homme Arme” (Man of Arms) served as the basis for an astounding number of mass ordinary cycles by all the leading composers of the late 15th Century. Moreover, setting the mass to this tune became an emblem of dynastic membership, and composers from Busnoys to Ockeghem, the elderly Du Fay to the youthful Josquin, used it to pay homage to the tradition (and to best their contemporaries). Here’s a playlist of “Kyrie” settings of the “L’Homme Arme” tune by the four masters listed above, respectively.


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