Archive for December, 2009

“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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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!

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A long time ago in a land far, far away…

When Mozart wrote music, he never made a mistake – it was as if he was taking dictation from God. Sensing his pending death, he composed a Requiem Mass for himself. Such are the lives of the great composers.

Legends like these are nothing new to music. (Recall the first notated repertory, plainchant, and the dove whispering in Gregory’s ear.) With Josquin and Palestrina, we can see the same mythologizing forces at work: after Josquin’s death, he was turned into a larger-than-life Genius, an emissary of God expressing perfection through sound; Palestrina was turned into the literal savior of music when his Missa Papae Marcelli wowed counter-reformation church officials. Were it not for Palestrina, the Pope would have tossed the whole messy affair of music into the wastebasket of history.

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl has written a number of playful articles and books examining western music from the perspective of an outsider (an “ethnomusicologist from Mars” in one memorable piece).* While we may like to think of ourselves as a purely rational, scientific culture, our tendency to mythologize our great musicians is profound. Ask the average student in the average music department about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven and you’re bound to get a colorful potpourri of fact and fiction. (Ask the average person on the street and you’re bound to get a blank stare.) Beethoven is the great mad genius of music, with an Einsteinian explosion of hair, deaf as a doornail, pounding out tormented, brilliant music on the piano. How many times have we seen this representation in movies, TV, and cartoons? Mozart, likewise, is less a historical figure than he is a Force. With every generation, myths are kept alive and reinforced through Mother Culture; the movie Amadeus, for instance, has done a tremendous amount of cultural work to keep the Mozart myth flourishing. According to Nettl, the way our culture transforms the great dead composers is really no different from the origin myths of the Blackfoot Indians, in whose mythology the beaver is the bringer of music. When in comes to the great musicians of the past, Taruskin’s often-quoted Italian proverb holds: “Not true, perhaps, but well invented.”

It’s a curious case. Perhaps our propensity to elevate (dare I say deify) great artists after their death is a reason why living composers are such a rarity on concert programs. Music and musicians must be transmogrified into myth before they can be counted in the pantheon of the truly great and eternal. You can’t very well mythologize a living person – too much warm blood is anathema to legend. Therefore, the dead receive more attention than the living. Remember: six months ago, Michael Jackson was a washed-up kook; today, he’s the tortured genius of pop.

The discipline of musicology might not be as death-fixated, but we have our myths as well. Who hasn’t gasped in shock at the story of the legendary Susan McClary standing in front of an AMS crowd, likening Beethoven’s 9th to rape? (The original comment was quite a bit more ambiguous, and it appeared  in the Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter, hardly the hornet’s nest of an AMS conference.) Who hasn’t heard about Richard Taruskin’s legendary graduate courses, where he assigns between 500-800 pages of reading (in a handful of different languages) per week? Who doesn’t know about the two reckless grad students attempting to read all of the OHWM and – foolishness of foolishness – blog about it!

* Bruno Nettl, Heartland Excursions: Ethnomusicological Reflections on Schools of Music (Champagne/Urbana: U of Illinois Press, 1995).

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The Wedding at Cana

Our magnificent new header image, from The Wedding at Cana, was painted by Italian mannerist Paolo Veronese in 1563. It is a tour de force of Renaissance humanism – note the realistic depiction of party-goers in the middle of conversation, the lazy dogs in the foreground, and young men playing tag behind the feast. There is a sense of phenomenal motion in this scene, of the unsuppressed vitality of a gala party. However, all of this bustling life is framed by the perfect, static symmetry of the middle-ground guard rail and the background columns. All of the major lines are in perfect right angles. The full upper half of the painting is pure, classical restraint, motionless and stable. In the immediate foreground, we see a group of musicians. Rumor has it that Veronese painted himself into the picture as the fellow in white bowing the viola da gamba. (Clearly an anachronism – such instruments weren’t around in Biblical times.) But lest we forget, allow the eyes to trace themselves along the straight unperturbed path of the lines. In the exact horizontal center of the painting, framed by gay revelers and a blue sky, sits the most important guest of all – Jesus. In a sea of activity, only he is holding still. Were it not for the faint halo around his head, we might not notice him at all. And thus we see a quintessential feature of the Renaissance Zeitgeist: divinity folded in, almost hidden, amongst a mass of humanity.

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“Ave Maria virgo serena”

Listening to this motet by Josquin, “Ave Maria virgo serena,” it’s easy to see how contemporaries thought that this stunning, sumptuous style was the ars perfecta (“perfected art”). This YouTube clip does the experience little justice, but close your eyes and picture yourself in the resonant, womb-like chamber of a cathedral with multi-colored rays of light streaming in through the stained glass. Then, rising forth from the silence, a single voice, followed by another in perfect imitation, then another, then another. The experience, both then and now, is numinous.

“Ave Maria” (and the parody Masses it inspired) has so far received more attention than any other single piece of music in the OHWM (see 565-584), and this is understandable, as the piece is an exemplary case-study of the new expressive sensibilities for which Josquin is now (as then) famous. The piece works simply, elegantly on so many different levels, from the declamatory (the way syllables and notes fit together) to the syntactical (interrelationships of the parts to the whole) to the semantic (how musical gestures express the meaning of the text). It is thoroughly saturated with imitation, a primary structural device in ars perfecta polyphony. But furthermore – and perhaps most significantly – all the parts in “Ave Maria” are functionally equal. There are no more “structural pairs” setting a hierarchy: each voice is an essential player in the unfolding texture. As Taruskin points out, this level of independence of each part represents a shift in compositional practice away from writing each part separately to conceiving of a piece as a whole and representing it in the form of a score, where all parts are illuminated at once.

For me, the eureka moment comes at 1:12-1:38. There is something so painfully human about this striving gesture, so starkly, emotionally real. Just as you begin to miraculously discern the Virgin’s face in the clouds, you realize that the face is really your own.

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