Archive for December, 2009

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!

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Today’s reading schedule brings us up to the 830th page (out of 834) of Vol. I. So hopefully readers will forgive me if I read ahead and polished off our first—and thickest—volume this morning. So much about being successful in a long-term project is counting victories along the way.

So for those of you out there who are reading along with us, this is your chance to proclaim to the cyberworld that you have accomplished the first leg of this journey. Whether you are finishing the first volume the same day as this post, have finished it in the past, or finish months from the date of this post, let us know in the comments section, and we’ll celebrate with you.

I finished Vol. I!

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“Moro, lasso”

Here’s a performance of Carlo Gesualdo’s supremely strange madrigal “Moro, lasso” from the equally odd documentary by Werner Herzog, “Death for Five Voices.” If you want to see the most extreme manifestation of the Gesualdo myth, see this film: with psychiatric ward patients who believe themselves to be reincarnations of Gesualdo and Ferraraese parking lot attendents who swear that this spot in the lot was precisely where the mad composer killed his wife and her lover, the hysteria quotient is upped to a hilarious degree here. It does have some beautiful music in it, though.

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Our modern (mis)understandings of the past are not mistakes but the products of changed historical conditions. We value in Gesualdo something his contemporaries could not have valued, because we know what they (and he) did not – namely, their future, which is now our past. That knowledge can hardly be erased from our consciousness.

So what interests us now bespeaks our condition and no one else’s. No amount of historical learning can replace new understanding with old understanding. All one can hope to do is add depth and detail to our misunderstanding. (That is where the sacred music and the instrumental music can usefully fit into even the most biased modern appreciation of Gesualdo.) If that seems a paradoxical thing to say, that has been precisely the intention.  (739-741)

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A Little Lasso

“Matona mia cara” is one of the examples Taruskin give for his “Cosmopolite Supreme” Orlando di Lasso. This one is still quite popular, judging by the abundant number of video performances of it on youtube. The performances range from ten-to-a-part choirs to those that are one to a part. The following recording falls into the latter category. It is a well-sung and decently recorded performance (one of the reasons I use it here), but the humorous premise of the song (a German soldier singing to his Italian lady lover in botched Italian) is lost amongst the slightly drawn out performance. I like that it is not being performed on stage though. One can imagine these singers singing for Ferrante Gonzaga around a Mantuan hearth.

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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.

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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!

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“Sacred words have a cryptic and mysterious power. As I have learned by trial, the most suitable of all musical ideas occur as of themselves (I know not how) to one thinking upon things divine and earnestly and diligently pondering them, and suggest themselves spontaneously to the mind that is not indolent and inert.”  — William Byrd

Byrd’s late masses are a stunning portrait of faith during a time of religious persecution. Because being a Catholic was not simply a matter of course (as it was for Palestrina) and ars perfecta innovations were kept from England after Henry VIII’s split with the pope, Byrd was forced to “reinvent the wheel.” And we can all be glad he did. The Mass Ordinary, whose text was set thousands of times in the 15th and 16th centuries, becomes something altogether new in his deft hands. The sheer freshness of Byrd’s text settings along with an innovative and deeply expressive harmonic language (including liberal use of “cross relations,” where a pitch will occur in natural and chromatically-inflected forms in close proximity) has led many scholars to approach these masses hermeneutically (interpretively). The statement of “Agnus Dei” at 1:48 is a literal, urgent call to Christ.

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Evolution has proved an alluring lens through which to see music history for obvious, sloppy reasons. On the surface, we can map the graph of organic development (amoebas to humans) directly onto music, with chant being the amoeba and (what?) Pierre Boulez being the human. (Or chant being the human and Boulez being the cyborg.) Needless to say, the fact that western music has, generally speaking, taken on more and more complex forms over the centuries has made the comparison all too easy to resist.

Moreover, beginning in the late 19th century, Darwinian thought came to influence many aspects of western thinking that were completely removed from Darwin’s actual writings, from social theory (who can forget the alpha version of compassionate conservatism, social Darwinism?) to history. The title of these posts might seem flippant, but historians truly were transposing Darwinism onto historical processes, with the result of validating the present and the European. Beyond the scale of western music history (the chant to Boulez chronology above), Darwinian musicologists looked to Darwin to help explain the vast diversity of human music-making, and with predictable results: “primitive” cultures were in an early stage of evolution, and western culture was in an advanced stage. Europeans sounded just like Africans way back in pre-history, but as we evolved our music grew more and more complex. Just give the primitives another couple thousand years and they’ll catch on, the Darwinian musicologists argued. The evolutionary scale of development was also likened by historians to the journey from childhood to adulthood: the music of primitive peoples was really just music for children, and a symphony was the apotheosis of mature, adult music. “Don’t worry, primitive people of the world, you’ll grow up.”*

Evolution is always the story of increasing complexity, right? We’ve discussed the forward flow of evolutionary musical development here, and the idea of the anachronistic hold-over (the musical fossil) here. In this “Darwinian Music” post, I’d like to turn to another phenomenon of the organic fallacy – backtracking. It turns out that “forward” is not the only direction forward.

Biological evolution works this way too, of course. There is no goal of evolutionary processes, and the more complex doesn’t always mean the more fit to survive. Dynamic change seems to be rule (though don’t tell the humble crocodile), but increasing complexity does not. In fact, if it provides an advantage, species can even evolve to be less complex. For example, many scientists believe this to be the genetic history of the virus – it started out as something more complex then gradually shed the complexity in favor of the lean, mean infecting machine that we know today.

Anthropologists will tell you that a similar process exists in human history: if a certain technology ceases to be useful, then it will cease to be used. (Any owner of a pager knows that much.) For instance, the ancestors of the Tasmanian aborigines had bows and arrows and other sophisticated hunting implements, but when they relocated to the island, they didn’t need all this stuff to get their food. These hunting technologies were lost from their cultural memory, and when Europeans arrived for the first time, they thought they had encountered a group of Stone Age hunter/gatherers surviving miraculously into the present. Little did they know (little did the aborigines know) that this culture once used all sorts of tools. They just didn’t need them anymore. It was taken as an object lesson in Darwinian history (“primitive” people with no sophisticated technologies = lower level of development), but really it was the exact opposite – complexity has little to do with survival, and the Tasmanians were surviving just fine, thank you.**

How do virus evolution and human technological de-acquisition relate to the organic fallacy of musical development? If complexity is all we’re looking for in music, then we would have hit upon the ars subtilior in the 14th century and stayed there. Of course, this was not the case; complex musical technologies are developed then lost all the time. If musical evolution is a straight line upwards (it’s not), then we backtrack regularly, just like the virus and the Tasmanians. Such backtracking has been viewed as mere hiccups in the inevitable march of history, but really it calls the whole philosophy of organicism into question.

For a musical style to survive, it must have a relevant social function and meaning to the people who create it. This is, after all, why music changes – we change. The process of dynamic change can sometimes match up with complexity, but it doesn’t have to. As we have seen, the ars subtilior – perhaps one of the most complex forms of western composition ever – came about to fill the elite need for mental puzzles and riddling. Furthermore, it was a triumphant statement of pride in newly developed notational technologies. However, it didn’t last forever in active practice – it served a function, but simpler styles were favored by a majority of musicians.

In the steady march forward, music history is filled with such potholes. Tonal harmony was in many ways a simpler system than the modal logic it supplanted (12 expressive modalities versus 2); polyphony was more complex than the monody that unseated it; in the rubble of western music teleology, minimalism is the ultimate virus of the evolutionary family. The same force of backtracking holds perpetually true in pop music as well. (Those who know me will know that I view “Crank That” by Soulja Boy as the absolute nadir of western music.)

I bring this topic up now because we’ve just hit the Council of Trent and its concomitant reforms. Like many politically-inspired reforms both before and after, church officials were seeking greater “intelligibility” in music and trying to curb perceived technical excesses. Some might argue that the resulting music represents another backtrack, where simplicity (clearer text declamation, fewer wild harmonies, etc.) wins out over complexity (thus winning out over forward evolution). There was nothing evolutionary about these reforms, however; complexity has really never been the only thing at stake in the history of the arts. Like the Tasmanians losing their bows and arrows, church officials concluded that what was needed was a more simple, direct music – all that complexity was useless. Moreover, it was actually a liability in the intensifying ideological battle with the Protestants over the soul of Europe. In the case of the virus and the Tasmanians, survival dictated backtracking; in this instance, it wasn’t so different – it was a matter of survival for the Roman Catholic church. And survival is really the name of the game – for species and for musical styles – not complexity.

* For a thorough and totally unique history of the organic fallacy in music historiography, see Warren Dwight Allen, Philosophies of Music History: A Study of General Histories of Music 1600-1960 (New York: Dover, 1962).

** An account of the Tasmanian migration can be found in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel.

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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.

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