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Archive for the ‘Medieval Music’ Category

Assessing the earliest stirring of the English style can be a perilous endeavor. It is true that a set of distinct features – parallel thirds, voice-exchange, a repeated pattern in the low voice, or pes – came to play a prominent role in English composition in the years following the Notre Dame School. These techniques eventually went on to exert a demonstrable influence on continental musical styles – they were not simply isolated in England. However, beyond these simple facts, our understanding of how this style developed and spread can be quite elusive.

First of all, England was hardly as isolated as we might like to believe. (Taruskin speaks of this interpretation of the English sound as the equivalent of “insular fauna – musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses.”) The Norman conquest, which began in 1066, established French culture, courts, and language on the island; a couple of hundred years later, the English returned the favor, invading and occupying much of northern France. With all these invasions and counter-invasions came whole armies of noblemen and clergy, each with their own traveling retinue of musicians. The English and the French – often at the point of a knife – shared a good deal of music between each other during these hundreds of years of strife.

Evidence of the French-English musical connection are abundant. While not primarily associated with the French in musicological circles, the English sound (thirds, voice-exchange, etc.) can be found both in French music and in music by “English” composers with suspiciously French-sounding names (Pycard, for instance). Our English sound, it turns out, is not as easily catergorizable as we might have originally thought.

A major historiographical problem that arises from this confluence has to do with the idea of influence. Music historians spend a lot of time searching for continuity between traditions, composers, and techniques; indeed, the paradigm of “slow, continuous change” is a major conceptual vantage point from which musicologists conduct their research. Although the discipline is so fractured now that it’s nearly impossible to pronounce any single scholarly perspective to be axiomatic, musicology traditionally approaches its subjects diachronically (concerned with how something changes through time). The concept of influence, then, is often a critical tool in establishing lineages. Thus the standard narrative: Composer (or group) A came up with innovation B, which then spread to country C and influenced the musical language of composers D, E, and F. Influence in popular music studies is just as pronounced: ragtimers influenced the development of jazz, which then influenced the development of soul, which went on to influence disco, then hip-hop, etc. It is easy to view historical processes through the lens of influence, where isolated developments are picked up, virus-like, by musicians and carried far and wide.

In this particular case, there are a number of theories accounting for the English sound. Some claim that the English exerted an influence over French university musicians, who happily picked up the sweet new style. Others contend that certain French techniques appealed to English musicians because of their resemblance to oral practices up on the island – when they returned home after university training, they brought these French styles with them. And as Taruskin wryly observes: “Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans.)” This touches on the issue of nationalism, which will undoubtedly come up again, but it also exemplifies a problem with the concept of influence itself. As a tool for establishing links between separate phenomenon, the notion of influence has the disadvantage of being decidedly linear. It doesn’t really account for the contentious, complex, messy situation that often accompanies the transmission and cross-fertilization of musical styles. It essentializes. (I’m engaging another text right now that does a superb job of addressing the perils of the influence concept, Elijah Wald’s How The Beatles Destroyed Rock N’ Roll. The black/white racial dynamic in the story of American pop music parallels this English/French dilemma in fascinating ways.) Influence is fundamentally a one-way stream, with the “influencer” on one side and the “influencee” on the other. Clinging too dogmatically to this concept when viewing historical processes can blind one to the myriad other ways developments can spread. Perhaps the English sound is a mash-up of two traditions, a sonic portrait of cultural enmeshment? Perhaps these little stylistic tricks were – dare I say it – developed independently on the island and the continent. This sort of synchronic reading is possible to put forth as well, but to what end? Ultimately, the problem with pure influence is that it fails to truly elucidate. There’s a futility to trying to determine linear relationships between social phenomenon, music or otherwise. Once again, I’ll close with RT (I decided not to employ scare quotes around my usages of the word “influence”):

Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. (I, 399)

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That English Sound

One of England’s greatest contributions to the burgeoning transnational musical language at this time was the liberation of the major 3rd as a consonant interval. Grant it, the major 3rd wasn’t afforded full rights as a member of the consonant club – cadences and finals still consisted of perfect 5ths only – but it functioned prominently in the “English Descant” texture. Indeed, if a music history 101 student is given a listening example from the 13th century and it’s chocked full of MA 3rds, it’s a safe bet that it’s English (or English inspired).

This snippet (recorded in Finale) is the first 13 measures of the English conductus/motet “Beata viscera,” from the Worchester fragments. (This source is regrettably one of our only documents preserving the English descant style due to the wholesale purging of all “popish ditties” over the course of the Anglican reformation.) Listen for all the parallel 3rds and 6ths. It’s a texture quite unlike anything we’ve encountered so far. Note too the way these sweet harmonies give way to steely, open 5ths at points of cadence. It would be a while yet before the 3rd would earn this privilege.

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This remarkable 4-part round is one of the best known English compositions in the world. “Summer has come” was notated over 700 years before the British Invasion, but it carries the same revolutionary power as the Fab Four. This was the first round (extant notated round, at least) written for so many voices. Furthermore, its harmonic structure differs considerably from what we’ve encountered so far, with sonorous major triads ringing out on practically every beat. (Evidence suggests that this practice was a left-over from the Viking invasions.) Could this playful song be, in fact, “the first masterpiece in music”?

The text, first in the original Wessex dialect of Middle English then in modern English:

[Sumer is icumen in – lhude sing, cuccu! Groweth sed and bloweth med and springeth the wude nu. Sing cuccu! Awe bleteth after lomb, lhouth after calve cu; bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth – murie sing, cuccu! Cuccu, cuccu – wel sings thu, cuccu! Ne swik thu naver nu.]

[Summer has come! Loudly sing cuckoo! Seed is growing, the flowers are blowing in the field, the woods are newly green. The ewe bleats after her lamb, the cow lows after her calf. The bull starts, the buck runs into the brush. Merrily sing cuckoo! That’s it, keep it up!]

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Week 8 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 8 saw both a musical example and an analysis of that smokiest of styles, the ars subtilior; Mark scratched the surface of the Trecento with a Landini clip; and I engaged in a self-indulgently free-form mediation on periodization and the Renaissance. We ended the week by taking stock of just how far we’ve come with the Challenge (and just how far we still have to go!).

The Week in Reading:

CHAPTER 10 – “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento

  • Vulgar Eloquence, Madrigal Culture, and A New Discant Style (351-359): In the 14th century, Italian composers engaged most heavily in the madrigale form, which consists of a few tercets (terzetti) capped off by a ritornello, or “send off.” The characteristic texture for this form consists of 2-part discant with cadences through occursus, or unison (a la French music a couple centuries earlier). Madrigals were set to vernacular poetry. Major source: the Squarcialupi Codex.
  • The “Wild Bird” Songs (359): A lively madrigal tradition that featured rustic texts and technically challenging parts made to imitate the flight and songs of birds. Watch out Olivier Messiaen!
  • Ballata Culture (364): Besides motets and madrigals, the Italians were big fans of the ballata genre, a popular dance form. Boccaccio even included one in the Decameron.
  • Landini (366): As Mark’s introductory post mentioned, Francesco Landini (1325-97) was well-respected blind organist whose music comes down to us is relatively large quantities. Because of this serendipitous twist of history, Landini has become the primary composer of the Trecento in music historiography. Among other things, he is remembered for his “Landini cadence,” which approaches the tonic through a 7-6 falling leading tone. Some of his music was adapted for keyboard instruments in the Faenza Codex.
  • Late Century Fusion (374): One hugely significant element of the Trecento was its element of internationalization and fusion. There are madrigals that satirize French style, hint at motet then pull back before the Italian identity becomes too obscured , play with French techniques (putting the talea in the cantus instead of the traditional tenor, for instance), etc. All of this points to a healthy musical cross-fertilization going on at this time that would ultimately lead to a greater internationalization of musical style.
  • An Important Side Issue: Periodization (380-385): Taruskin’s mini-essay on the concept of periodization, a recent obsession on the blog, is well worth the time.

This doesn’t take us right up to page 400, but we switch gears here to English music and the beginnings of Ch.11 might be better served in next week’s summary. On the menu this week: English music (and it’s nothing like their food, thank goodness!).

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With ambivalent surprise, it seems we’ve stumbled into the Renaissance.

All students of music and history would do well to read pages 380-385 of the current volume, where Taruskin directly addresses the blog’s topic du jour, the periodization of music history. All of the historical period terms are problematic in their own way, but it turns out that “Renaissance” is uniquely challenged.

The “chunking” of history is complicated but necessary: while it simplifies a superbly complex chronological and geographical canvas, it also helps organize and consolidate knowledge. As Taruskin says, without breaking apart movements and evaluating the relative weight of different trends, history would merely be “the daily dribble of existence multiplied by weeks and years and centuries.” (380) For instance, it makes great practical sense to teach Beethoven and Schubert in the same semester-long history survey, but as Prof. Locke observed, these two masters could never tell the whole story of their time and place. The word “Romantic,” however, does carry some descriptive power when discussing these repertories. As a product of a similar time and cultural milieu, with all its accompanying philosophies and aesthetic paradigms, this might be a case where the employment of a broad term like “Romantic” would really help the student grasp a few of the fundamental issues of 19th century German musical thought (though certainly not all). In fact it’s impossible to imagine understanding this time at all without acknowledging the 500-pound gorilla in the room, Beethoven. (I’m trying to come up with the most unambiguous correlation between style terms and composers/repertories, and I’m having a hard time – even this example is deeply problematic. So goes this tangled topic!)

The start and stop dates of the various eras are another matter of heated debate. Some periods are easier to map than others: it is generally agreed that the Baroque era begins in 1600, as this was the year that saw the first operas, the infamous Monteverdi/Artusi quarrel (well, around 1600), and the fledgling consolidation of what would become tonality. (Coincidentally, Taruskin ends Volume I at 1600.) But the term Renaissance is even more difficult than most for a slew of tangled reasons. In fact, the word has come to mean something very different in music than in the world of general historiography. And this is only the beginning of “the Renaissance problem.”

When non-music historians talk about this era, the word “Renaissance” (rebirth) centers on three main characteristics: secularism, humanism, and the resurgence of interest in classical art and philosophy. Of course, these features entered into the cultural landscape of Europe at different times in different places and in different media. Let’s map these elements onto music to see what “Renaissance” might mean, and when it might first have started.

Secularism: The sacred and the secular have always coexisted in Western music. In fact, the blurriness of this distinction might be enough to call the whole flawed classificatory scheme a false dichotomy. Sacred melodies entered the popular repertory, secular tunes made their way into the church, and all the while musicians have set their poetry in a way that could be quite ambiguous (The Lady = Mary, etc.). Sacred music in the Middle Ages was generally privileged over the secular in terms of what was actually notated, but as we have seen, both sacred and secular traditions were primarily oral at this time. When would we say that the fulcrum tips in favor of the secular? You could make a convincing argument that music “tipped” with the troubadours in the 12th century; you could also argue that music didn’t reach a secular tipping point until the 19th century. The range of possible answers to the question of secularity in music is so broad as to render the rubric pretty much useless.

Humanism: When did music shift from (Leo Spitzer’s words) the poetic to the empirical “I”? Precisely when did the subjective voice take a role of primacy in Western music making? You could argue (as I would) that making music is ipso facto a humanist act: even if you’re singing praise to God in a 13th century cathedral, you’re still doing so with a human voice and a human soul. Human expression is at the heart of music, even when the specific subject matter is deeply theological and transcendent of mere humanity. Again, the characteristic itself, when transposed onto music, makes little sense. (I don’t see how it makes much sense in the visual arts and literature either: Giotto painted religious themes, but he did so in a way that was more “of this world” than his predecessors. And who exactly defines when a visual portrayal is more “of this world” than what came before?)

Rebirth of Antiquity: In the visual arts, philosophy, literature, and architecture, this was easy. Aristotle’s writings were available to the literati of the 15th century; the Parthenon stood in 1400 just as it does now. But music is a different beast, since it wasn’t notated at all until the end of the first millennium. Not surprisingly, then, many writers felt that music, unlike the arts listed above, had no past. Without a past, there was nothing to revive! Musicians eventually started to emulate ancient models (or at least attempted to recreate the effect of ancient music), but this belated interest corresponds – quite paradoxically – to the birth of the Baroque sensibility (again, we’re back to 1600), not the Renaissance!

Added together, secularism, humanism, and the revival of antiquity – the definition of “Renaissance” – have highly ambivalent meanings when applied to music. (If they indeed have any meaning at all.) There’s a lot more to unpack with this historiographical category, and I seem to have bitten off more than I can chew. These five pages open up so many ideas for discussion (there’s a dissertation on every page!) and, disorganized as this post it, I wanted to just toss some of these morsels out there for readers to pick at. What does the Renaissance mean for music? How do we “chunk” this era? (Does it matter?)

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That kind of showy overcomplexity is just the sort of excess – an excess of fantasy, perhaps, or maybe just an excess of one-upsmanship – that earned the ars subtilior its reputation as a “mannered” or “decadent” style. (I, 342)

At the tail end of the ars nova era, a new breed of composers – none of whom are known today outside of the academy – began taking the rhythmic and chromatic innovations of Machaut and his cohort to dazzling levels of technical complexity. This was “the subtle art.” Arguably, the technical feats that came out of this movement were unrivaled in sheer difficulty until the 20th century.

Why did the ars nova lead to, in Taruskin’s words, a “technical arms race” in the form of the ars subtilior? A couple of threads from the last month or so of reading come together to provide a few hypotheses. For one, composers in this new style were fiercely competitive, with many of them claiming to be the true heir to Machaut. Polymeter, hyperchromaticism and the like enabled these elite composers to playfully duel for supremacy. The harder the nut to crack, the more “subtle” the music was perceived to be. And, as Mark recently pointed out, many of these pieces were actually conceived as musical riddles. They were game pieces, elaborately conceived to flummox all but the most supple of musical minds. With ars subtilior we see perhaps the most ferocious manifestation yet of the old “trobar clus,” the closed style intended only for the cognoscenti. This was subtle music (in the sense of “ornate and obtuse”) for subtle ears only.

It’s also perhaps the first musical movement to become so flamboyantly complex as to alienate people and provoke a historiographical backlash. For many years, music historians referred to ars subtilior as “the mannered style,” a term that denotes excess, self-indulgence, and decadence. (Interestingly, the word also came to describe the style of Gesualdo at the radical tail-end of the Italian madrigal, circa 1600.) While the standard terminology since the 1960s has changed to “the subtle art,” modern scholars (Taruskin writes) still find it “annoying as well as fascinating.”

Why is that? It seems that historians’ rebuke of “mannered” and “decadent” music is out of character, since every technical innovation up to this point has been greeted with approval. That the ars subtilior, one of the most complex Western styles of the millennium, would be met with disapprobation seems odd for a discipline that is often quick to heap praise on anything that smacks of innovation. Music historians, to my knowledge, have not labeled Perotin and Machaut as “decadent.” Why the ars subtilior?

This is a tough problem. It’s true that a certain level of scorn has accompanied many vanguard, destabilizing movements in music history. For the hidebound music historiographer, however, an even bigger problem comes with musical movements that seem to defy their era. As we’ve been discussing (with Ralph Locke’s help), the “chunking” of music history into periods can have the effect of closing off the diversity of musical activities in a given era and reducing the time to a few monolithic style features and composers. What, then, to make of a style that defies many taxonomical notions of its period? As mentioned, the term “mannerist” is still used to describe Gesualdo, Rore, and the madrigal composers who wrote their highly experimental music (some would call it “bonkers”) towards the end of the Renaissance. For many years, historians didn’t quite know what to make of these fringe guys – they certainly didn’t conform to ars perfecta notions of the Renaissance, but they weren’t fully Baroque either. In an effort to contain and defang subversive styles, historians have long employed derogatory terms like “decadent” to explain away inconvenient exceptions to the periods of music history.

I think that part of the fraught historical reception of the ars subtilior and Gesualdo comes down to the fact that these “mannered” styles can strike the modern ear as Modern. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that sets in when listening to Fumeaux fume – it defies expectations of what “Medieval music” should sound like. Similarly, Stravinsky famously reeled at listening to Gesualdo, finding in his music the soul of a fellow modern composer. That Solage in the 14th century could write music in the same subtle manner as Milton Babbitt in the 20th is a cup of cold water in the face of many deeply ingrained historical prejudices. “Mannered” movements like these are so fascinating because they vividly help us to see through the myth of linear creative evolution; they help explode the separation between the musical (and historical) Us and Them. They can be quite subtle indeed.

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Before we leave last week’s reading too far behind, we have to listen to this:

This tricky piece comes out of the lavish tradition of artifice funded by the aristocracy of the duchy of Berry (modern-day southern France). Its composer is a man known to us only as Solage, and his rondeau Fumeaux fume represents the lengths to which a composer’s wry ingenuity could reach. To read the text aloud in the original language (which I assume is still Occitan down there; correction anyone?) is to get a sense of its artifice. The words fold back in on themselves, like the billowing smoke they represent. It is the type of playful prodding of language and meaning that reached such extremes during this period.

Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

Qu’antre fummet so pensee:
Fumeaux fume par fumee.

quar fumer molt li agree
tant qu’il ait son entencion.
Fumeaux fume par fumee
fumeuse speculacion.

[A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.

Is, between puffs his thought:
A smoker smokes through smoke.

For smoking suits him very well
As long as he keeps his intention.
A smoker smokes through smoke.
A smoky speculation.]

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