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Musical Rx for a Political Season

Francesco Landini

by Thomas Binkley director and lutenist, by Andrea von Ramm soprano, by Richard Levitt countertenor, by Sterling Jones stringed instruments
Studio for Early Music, Cologne. EMI Records.

Guillaume de Machaut: Chansons I and Chansons II (2 records)

by Thomas Binkley director and lutenist, by Andrea von Ramm soprano, by Richard Levitt countertenor, by Sterling Jones stringed instruments. Studio for Early Music, Cologne. EMI Records
Studio for Early Music, Cologne. EMI Records

The musical repertory of Western Europe, so far as the general public and the concert establishment are concerned, consists of the popular masterpieces of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. Rich as this heritage is, it should be expanded by at least 500 years to include the treasures of the age of Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-1377 and Francesco Landini (1325-1397). Because of a few examples of “old music” that did slip across the time barrier, such as Wagner’s arrangement of Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, music lovers have at least been aware that the distant epochs before Bach must have more to offer. Yet by still prevailing late-nineteenth-century standards, if a composer as ancient as Machaut were to receive much attention, it would be as a “primitive.”

Despite the growing historical consciousness in the century of Burckhardt and Schliemann, Brahms alone, of the great musicians, knew the works of Bach’s immediate German, French, and Italian predecessors. As late as 1910, the one composer of vision directly involved with fifteenth-century polyphony was Webern, through his edition of Heinrich Isaac (court composer to Lorenzo de’ Medici). Schoenberg, who was soon to employ technical devices resembling those of the Flemish masters, disdained such revivals as “antiquarian.”

Practical as well as cultural reasons account for the long neglect of early music. Until recently, reliable transcriptions, let alone performing editions, were virtually not to be found; nor, of course, were the instruments for which such music was written readily available. As a further deterrent, many of the pioneering performers appeared to be forbidding eccentrics, glorying in the dull and archaic—which may sound ungenerous in view of the superficial comprehension of the music even two generations ago and of the indifference of musicology to performance. Quite naturally, music-lovers have been slower than museum-goers to recognize that the “primitive” can be profound, and that, so far from deserving our condescension, Machaut’s rondeaux, for example, both demand our respect and are, in truth, too sophisticated for us.

One bias against “old music,” even among those disposed to give it a fair hearing, arises from a question about its emotional remoteness. Understandably, a person whose ear has been attuned to composers from Mozart to Debussy is skeptical about the power of music 600 years old to inspire sentiments comparable in degree to that of the familiar masters. Not that one would expect the emotion engendered by a piece of Machaut’s to be of the same kind, of course, even in the case of such universal themes as “romantic love,” whose conceptions and conventions differ in every period. But emotions, like concepts, move in and out of fashion, and some of those of the Trecento have all but ceased to exist. Religious feelings cultivated in the theological world of Aquinas, such as the exaltation of God in the Doxology, play no part in the lives of most of today’s “intelligentsia,” one purpose of whose education was to immunize them against these irrationalities. When listening to Machaut’s motet, O livoris feritas, therefore, this contemporary audience can perceive the intensity, purity, and strength of the music, but can neither understand nor experience its emotion, a real and ferocious hatred of the Devil. The motet is bound to have an impact on anyone who hears it, but how much more powerful this must have been for those who shared its creed!

It may be that historians will date the widespread acquaintance with “old music” from the recording industry’s discovery of a new market to be exploited. Certainly the reasons for the current boom seem to be more pragmatic than artistic: the overcrowding of the catalogue of standard favorites; the fact of composers to whom royalties need not be paid; the modest salaries for performers who are few in number, lack stellar rank, and carry no union cards—unless rebec and krummhorn players have lately been organized. Compared to recordings, live performances have had only a minor influence.

But prior to the eighteenth century not much music was composed to be heard in concerts. Until the late 1500s, it was written for the liturgy, for ceremonies sacred and secular, and for the recreation of a ruling class that sang and played it—passive listening being only a small part of musical life then, though now increasing to what threatens to become the eventual exclusion of active amateur participation. Moreover, up to the time of the prima donnas of the later Italian madrigal, the virtuosi who entertained wealthy patrons were composers primarily. Yet while the polyphonic Masses of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries should be a normal part of today’s concert life, the greatest music of the fourteenth century is less suited for live performance, successions of complex short pieces being difficult to digest except when related in cycles such as those by Machaut.

Two new types of “old music” recordings have now become endemic—the anthology mixing the creations of several cultures and centuries, and the album featuring quaint and creaky instruments. The confusingly large span of the anthologies could be a result of the popular comparison between science and art: since the rate of scientific change in the past thirty years is supposedly greater than that in all previous time, the arts, and especially music, in so distant an era as that of Machaut, are assumed practically to have stood still. However this may be, many of the performances on these omnium gatherum recordings do not even vaguely delineate the chosen earlier period, whose music they inadequately represent and often badly distort, as when huge choruses are employed to sing the most intimate of madrigals.

The reconstruction of old instruments did not begin until the realization that modern ones could not produce the right diction and that this was more important than the right timbre. But “orchestral” music as such was almost wholly undeveloped before the Gabrielis and the composers of pavanes, gailliards, and other court dances; instruments in the fourteenth-century were used mainly to accompany singers. Thus many of the ensemble pieces on these records are actually modern arrangements, some of them as cute, no doubt, as Haydn’s Toy Symphony, but of little interest as music. The solo-instrument repertory, especially for lute and organ, is older and larger, and devotees of Leonardo will recall that the purpose of his first visit to the Duke of Milan was to deliver a stringed instrument for Lorenzo de’ Medici.

By rare good fortune, three excellent records, listed above, have lately been issued of music by the two greatest composers of the fourteenth century, Machaut and Landini,1 an event which has renewed this reviewer’s belief that the future of music lies as much in the cultivation of works written in the centuries before Bach as in the development of increasingly versatile electronic means—with which to convey messages of ever diminishing value, or so it often appears. These records can be recommended to listeners who have had no exposure to the music of the period, and little enough to its literature and art. The performances can hardly be improved upon, the voices having the right quality for the music, while the singing is intelligent and imaginative.

The choice of the composers is easily explained: Machaut and Landini dominate their century and its respective French and Italian “Ars Nova” movements. But first, even New York Review readers may not be aware that Machaut the composer was also Machaut the poet, since for five centuries after his death he was better known for his literary skills than for his musical ones. The radical reversal of his reputations in the two arts is recent, his recognition as one of the great composers being not much more than fifty years old. His poetry, though not highly regarded at present, nevertheless continues to appear in new editions, the latest of which, La Louange des Dames, 2 should be mentioned if only for the reason that it includes transcriptions of twenty-two of his musical settings.

The practical reasons for choosing Machaut and Landini above any others of the era are hardly less important. First, the compositions of both survive in such sufficient numbers that the listener can become accustomed to the attributes of the individual authors as well as to those of the period. (Machaut collected his works, but the existence of 153 pieces by Landini—out of a total of some 600 for the whole “Ars Nova” period3—is truly remarkable, since he was blind from childhood; moreover, all but a few of his compositions are found in at least two copies, which testifies to his stature and popularity.) Second, modern transcriptions of the extant works of both musicians are available: the listener can “follow the score.” And, finally, since all of Landini’s and the greater part of Machaut’s music is secular, some audiences will be more comfortable with its subject matter. Though it is true that Machaut’s so-called magnum opus is a Mass, this work is not typical of its composer; no doubt some readers will have heard it, and, as a result, formed prejudices against his other music—the marvelous ballads, virelais, and motets which have been overshadowed for far too long.

The Landini album must be faulted for failing to provide not only English translations of the Trecento Florentine vernacular but any vital information whatever. Sources are given for two instrumental arrangements of vocal pieces but not for the ballate, cacce, and “madrialle“—Landini’s only forms—which comprise the other twelve selections on the record. Furthermore, editors and versions are not identified, no notice is given of transpositions, and so little is said about the music itself that the listener who might want a closer acquaintance with its structural features would be obliged to consult a dozen histories, as well as such specialized works as Marrocco’s The Music of Jacopo da Bologna (Landini’s master) and Fourteenth-century Italian Cacce. The latter explains the tradition of the yelps and cries in “Così pensoso,” Landini’s vivid peschia (fishing scene), and draws attention to the exceptional form of the canonic imitation—not only at the fifth but also between the tenor and the countertenor—in “De’ dimmi tu,” his no less masterful caccia. The album does cite a few biographical facts, and quotes some of the well-known references by contemporaries, but for a period as little known as this one, a musico-historical-sociological analysis is required—on the order of Max Weber’s long superseded but in some ways still unsurpassed The Rational and Social Foundations of Music.

The principal source for Landini’s works, containing no fewer than 145 of his pieces, is the Squarcialupi Codex, one of the most beautiful and valuable of music manuscripts. Its illuminated portrait of Landini and a folio of his music are reproduced on the record cover, though the accompanying notes do not identify either the manuscript or the piece, a famous madrigal, “Musica son’ che…,” in which the composer disparages the craze for new types of popular music; Landini, of course, composed for an exclusive, aristocratic circle.

Antonio Squarcialupi (d. 1475) was Lorenzo de’ Medici’s organist, and a singer and lutenist highly praised in one of Galeazzo Sforza’s letters, but it is not known whether the compilation of the works of the twelve “Ars Nova” composers that bears this musician’s name was commissioned by him or acquired later. Completed circa 1420, which is remarkable because of the change in musical styles in the quarter of a century after Landini’s death, the manuscript, now in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, was acquired by Lorenzo’s son Giuliano from a nephew of Squarcialupi. The second largest source, this one containing seven of the eight pieces not found in the Codex, is also in Florence, in the Biblioteca Nazionale. The other most important manuscripts are in Paris and London.

The advantages of being able to compare copies of any manuscript are obvious, but the value is far greater in the case of music that was originally dictated, verbally or by being performed in slow motion, by a blind man. Luckily, Landini’s transcribers possess a kind of synoptic gospel, especially useful for collating different distributions of syllables and melismata (including lengths of ligatures), as well as optional accidentals (musica ficta), which may vary from one manuscript to another and in which the performer’s role in Landini’s time is still mysterious.

More important still, notations of rhythm sometimes conflict, and, concerning this last, even a listener with no knowledge of Landini’s style will soon realize that in one place the recorded performance of “Ma’ non s’andra” cannot be correct. By the laws of Landini’s mensural notation, the duration of one note is equal to the durations of either two or three notes of the next smaller species, the three-to-one ratio being called—after the Trinity—tempus perfectus, the two-to-one tempus imperfectus. (Machaut was primarily a three-meter composer, Landini a two-meter one.) The meter may change within a piece from duple to triple, or vice versa, but in strict accordance with these proportional relationships. Since, in addition, the time values of notes are not only relative but absolute, it is obvious that the “free” and very uncertain change of tempo occurring in the performance of the first section violates Landini’s rhythmic system.

This error may be attributable to Johannes Wolf’s transcription (published in 1904) of the Squarcialupi Codex, which does not follow the change of meter in the manuscript from duple compound to duple simple; in all likelihood, Wolf, groundbreaking musicologist though he was, concluded that the change must be a mistake because of the extreme rarity of such instances in Landini’s work.4 But the singers do not adhere closely enough to the tempo even of Wolf’s one-meter version, nor do they include an attractive cross-rhythm found in the Biblioteca Nazionale manuscript. If the listener is not too bewildered by the rhythmic side of the performance, however, what will most impress him about the piece is its tonal structure, the G-minor first part and D-minor second, and the progressions to the sub-dominant, dominant, and tonic, just as if the music had been composed in the eighteenth century.

Recordings of such music should probably not be played nonstop and, in the case of this Landini album, it might be wise to begin by hearing a single composition over and over. Perhaps the most moving is the ballata, “Eyes that are full of sadness and a heart that is heavy.” Here the blind composer seems to be singing about himself, and the music has such extraordinary power to move that even three stanzas will seem too few. The smallest devices are remarkably effective, the countermotion, the stepwise ascent of a fifth in the upper voice at the start, the triad (a dissonance according to the theory of the time) at the high point, and the suspenseful syncopation—the ear expecting a move on the second beat—at the beginning of Part Two. In the recording, the countertenor part is played by the lute alone, which, since this line crosses the superius, gives the latter extra relief as well as the preeminence it should always have in Landini’s music. This upper part is so idiomatically “Italian” that certain passages might have been interpolated by Monteverdi or even Puccini:

In the Squarcialupi Codex the composer is identified on each folio of his music as “Magister Franciscus Cecus Horghanista De Florentia.” “Cecus,” “il cieco,” the blind one. His epitaph, in San Lorenzo, reads, in part:

Deprived of the light Francesco…whom Music extolls above all others for his great intellect5 and his organ music, rests here, his soul above the stars.

Machaut composed in a greater variety of forms than Landini, and is much the larger figure historically, but his polyphonic music is far more difficult to listen to than that of the Florentine, as well as more difficult to “hear,” especially in the dense textures and intricate counterpoint of the four- and five-voice ballads and rondeaux. Like Schoenberg, however, whom in a few complex passages he sometimes resembles, Machaut indicates the leading voice; this is usually not the uppermost but the next lower one, which is not naturally focal for today’s listening habits. In the ballad “De toutes flours,” the principal “melody” is never “covered,” and, by itself, will sound to some like Gounod, but contrapuntal variation, not “melody,” is the essence of Machaut’s art, and the listener should try to hear not only the vocal line but also its full instrumental context.

The song cycle “Le lay de la fonteinne” is especially suitable as an introductory work, since it alternates monody and three-voice canons (superbly sung on the EMI record by a girls’ chorus from Marseilles). Canonic art does not contain more stunning examples than these five pieces, for while Bach and Mozart, with the scope of the tonal system, created grander works, Machaut’s canons are more absorbing rhythmically. In fact, musicians tend to think of rhythm as Machaut’s forte, but when listening to these canons who can doubt that all of the elements are indivisible aspects of the same perfection of the form?

Harmony,” properly speaking, is not an element in Machaut’s linear world, and his harmonic intervals, theoretically, at least, are extremely limiting. Tonality, with its modulations and key relationships, is a long way in the future, but Machaut may seem to approximate some of its most simple functions, demarcating phrases and segments of forms, for example, simply by switching to new “tonal” positions, or anticipating the cadence formula of a later time by sustaining the “leading tone,” “harmonized,” like the “tonic,” a fourth below. This anachronistic listening is deplored by pedagogues, of course, but can today’s audience hear “De toutes flours” and not notice the emphasis on the “dominant,” the “key-related” sequences, even the “sevenths”?

The ballads are regarded as representing a later evolutionary stage of Machaut’s music than the motets. But whether it is true or not, this reviewer stands in even greater awe of the latter, of the aforementioned O livoris, which is ecclesiastical and in Latin, and, above all, of Quant en moy, which is profane and in French. A second recording of O livoris is available for comparison in the “Alte Werk6 series, along with three other, no less astonishing motets, and this other interpretation, less spectacularly performed but sung at the notated pitch, doubles the instrumental cantus firmus, thus giving it more prominence than it receives in the EMI record, where it is almost over-whelmed by the brilliant singing of the upper two parts.

These recordings are suggested as an antidote to the cacophony emanating from the summer’s arenas of politics, and as a reminder that more soothing voices can be found from long ago.

(Mr. Craft will write on the performance of Bach cantatas in the next issue.)

  1. 1

    Both the Landini and Machaut records were awarded the Grand Prix du Disque.

  2. 2

    Edited by Nigel Wilkins (Edinburgh, 1972). The text is based on the Vogüé manuscript, now in New York. Professor Wilkins does not translate the 282 poems, and the music is reproduced from a by-no-means-calligraphic hand.

  3. 3

    See Hagopian’s Italian Ars Nova Music (University of California Press, 1972).

  4. 4

    Cf. Leonard Ellinwood’s transcription in The Works of Francesco Landini (Medieval Academy of America, Kraus Reprint, 1970). Also, where Wolf adds regular bar lines, which imply false emphases on words and syllables, Ellinwood inserts broken lines, reserving the solid ones for the actual punctus divisionis of the manuscript. And Ellinwood reduces the note values of the originals, or of their modern equivalents, by only one half (vs. Wolf’s basic quarter-none unit), and substitutes the G-clef for the C—all improvements in this reviewer’s opinion.

  5. 5

    Landini was also renowned as a disciple of William of Ockham.

  6. 6

    Archiv Produktion.

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