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 …

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