Posts Tagged ‘periodization’

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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The following comes to us from Prof. Ralph Locke (Eastman) in response to Mark’s post “Invisible Barriers”:

The question of how to “chunk” music history into periods is one that I raise with my undergrads (music majors) when we move from late Beethoven to Schubert, Berlioz, and other composers born a good generation later than Beethoven. I warn them, among other things, that there is no coherent system of “Romantic harmony” (for example)–intensely chromatic, third relations, enharmonic modulations, etc.–that will be found in all or even most music of the early/mid nineteenth century: there were many different streams of musical style existing simultaneously, and parlor songs or four-hand piano quadrilles (for example) might be as plain-vanilla in harmonic language as something from the ”early Classic” era (e.g., the Stamitz and Sammartini in their anthology–pieces I quite like despite or maybe because of their relatively limited harmonic vocabulary, harmonic progressions, etc.). I also have them sing a French political song with me from the 1820s (unaccompanied, based on a folk tune, and protesting censorship of political songs at the time!). The more we consider non-masterpiece music (including “functional music,” as Dahlhaus conveniently labeled it), I suspect, the less meaningful these simple “period” labels become.

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One does not have to crack open Taruskin’s OHWM to infer that he does not ascribe to the traditional categorization of eras of musical history. One doesn’t even have to take the volumes off the shelf (or shelves, depending on how big your bookcase is). Just a glance at their spines shows that he has organized his five volumes according to chronology (“Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth century,” “…in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” “…in the Nineteenth Century,” etc.) rather than era (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic). I have been waiting, therefore, for the issue to come up in the text, and sure enough it did in last week’s reading.

Before coming to the conclusion of his discussion of the motet, Taruskin makes it a point to draw a stylistic connection between Machaut and Du Fay. The reason that he has to “make it a point,” rather than simply drawing the connection, is that between these two composers lies the traditional barrier between two stylistic eras: Medieval and Renaissance. These are made-up barriers, and yet they can have a profound and formative influence on how we think and act. Here’s Taruskin:

“…major historiographical divisions like that can act as barriers, sealing off from one another figures and works that happen to fall on opposite sides of that fancied line, no matter how significant their similarities. Not only that, but…an appearance of stylistic backwardness or anachronism—inevitable when sweeping categories like “Medieval” and “Renaissance” are too literally believed in—can easily blind us to the value of supreme artistic achievements such as Du Fay’s isorhythmic motets. They are not vestigial survivals or evidence of regressive tendencies, but a zenith.” [I, 281]

The power of socially constructed barriers can be startling. A couple years ago, a designer friend of mine, David Overholt did a project at NYU that explored this very phenomenon, called “Tape in Space.” David went around New York City, placing duct tape in various configurations in public spaces: across a step, in an X on a bench, or stretching waist-high from a wall to a lamppost across a busy sidewalk. David outlines the concept behind his project as follows:

“My tendencies to consider alternative solutions and push/pull ideas to the limits of their rational beginnings had me quickly consider the options in life that we come in contact with that are not walls, but in fact act as walls simply by social understanding or conditioning. Thoughts of cracks in the sidewalk, a speaker blaring music (a wall of sound), or light in a darkened room can instantly bring up a group of the same set of emotions that are evoked when coming face to face with a wall. Isolation, distance, separation, security, etc. are often derived out of ideas, objects, or senses that are, in definition, not considered walls.”

In other words, we see walls where there are none. And we act accordingly. As part of the project, David created this video. It shows how a thin piece of tape can become an infinitely vertical wall capable of literally stopping people in their tracks. It also shows how different people deal with the same situation, some even penetrating the perceived barrier. (This video is also an interesting commentary on perceived authority, something that David achieves with just a hard hat and orange vest.) I recommend watching the entire five minutes of the video, but if you have limited time, begin at about 3 minutes.

Tape in Space from David Steele Overholt [I couldn’t get the video to embed, so please click the link.]

We do the same thing by erecting barriers in music history, only our barriers are even more scant than a piece of tape: they are completely invisible.

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