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From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra

The cyclic mass had enormous prestige from 1450 to 1550, and has been compared to the symphony of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Taruskin has some persuasive remarks about the comparison:

It is easy to forget (or ignore, or minimize) the fact that the “movements” of a cyclic Mass Ordinary, the first pair excepted [the Kyrie and the Gloria], were spread out in performance over the whole length of the service, spaced as much as fifteen or twenty minutes apart, with a great deal of liturgical activity, including other music, intervening.

And that, over and above any urge to unify the works “esthetically,” is why the “movements” of cyclic Masses were deliberately made to resemble each other as much as possible…. They all begin exactly alike, with a “headmotive”; they all feature the same foundation melody, often presented in identical or near-identical form in the tenor; and—how completely unlike the movements of a symphony!—follow similar or identical standardized formal schemes.

All of this furthered the liturgical and spiritual purpose of the music in its original setting, adorning and integrating a festal rite. But take away all the intervening liturgical activity, and the uplifting symbolic recurrences of familiar music can seem merely redundant. When cyclic Masses are performed as choral symphonies, the music—“as music,” as “esthetically experienced—often palls…. Experiencing the music “as music,” though we may think of it (or been instructed to think of it) as the “highest” way of appreciating music, is not inevitably or invariably the best way to experience it.

It is indeed difficult to appreciate the musical qualities of the cyclic mass in modern public performance conditions. We should add that some of the cyclic masses contain learned musical procedures which can only be understood by, and give pleasure to, the singers—procedures of a complexity that has never been exceeded, and rarely equaled in the history of music. Taruskin prints one example from a mass by Johannes Ockeghem, in which two choristers (almost certainly solo voices) are given the same musical line to sing at the same time, but one of them sings it eight times as fast as the other and a fifth higher, all this making perfect harmony.

Taruskin’s view is strongly argued, and largely convincing, but there are two troublesome points. It is odd to insist so exclusively on the “liturgical and spiritual purpose of the music” when secular tunes were absorbed to become the main melodic interest of the work. Above all, there are the overemphatic scare quotes—too many of them, in fact, placed twice around “esthetically” and twice around “as music.” The idea that it was impossible before the late eighteenth century to experience music “as music” is an obsession with Taruskin that reappears many times in the opening tomes. The exaggerated overemphasis here is a sign of anxiety, well founded in my opinion, that the idea is not getting across.

Interestingly, the very aspect of the cyclic mass that makes modern concert rendition ineffective is, in fact, a sign that the composers were eager for their music to be heard “as music” as well as to serve a ritual purpose. Starting each section not only with the same chant but often presented in exactly the same way made it possible for the auditors to comprehend the relation of the different sections, even if they were separated by fifteen or twenty minutes of liturgical activity. In any case, it is easy to experience the music as music even while acknowledging the importance of the spiritual or social function. Only too easy, in fact, when dealing with a musical art as extravagant as the Flemish style of the late fifteenth century. We must remember, too, that the religious music of Josquin and his contemporaries was often arranged for instruments like the lute and played privately with no ceremonial function intended: for this to happen, the music must have been appreciated “as music” before the arrangement was made.

Taruskin’s eccentric fallacy is his belief that because the word “aesthetic” was not coined before the middle of the eighteenth century, nobody was capable of appreciating an art for its own sake. It is not anachronistic, as Taruskin insists, to think that the public before the late eighteenth century enjoyed music as music, literature as literature, art as art. I am astonished that the old theory current in the 1930s that art and life in medieval society were organically integrated in contrast to modern art is making the rounds again. I thought that we had got rid of that foolishness a long time ago. It was not suddenly in 1770 that we acquired the ability to enjoy a work of art either divorced from its ritual or ceremonial use, or sometimes with these ritual meanings absorbed as an integral part of the artistic experience. It is true that the word “aesthetic” does not exist before the eighteenth century, so no one before that time could speak of “aesthetic experience”: the terms traditionally employed were “pleasure” and “delight.”


An extraordinary figure, the Flemish composer Johannes Ockeghem (circa 1410–1497), is not given his due in these volumes, since Taruskin, like so many previous historians, concentrates only on the works with complex musical puzzles, and they are unrepresentative in spite of their fame. He himself remarks on the unfair picture this gives, but does nothing to rectify it. Ockeghem was perhaps the first composer to compose polyphonic music for four voices not by adding one voice after another, but by thinking initially of the complete four-voice texture. The sustained flow of intertwining voices in his music is as fascinating as it is unpredictable. To appreciate Ockeghem’s work, one must turn back to Manfred F. Bukofzer’s brilliant Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music of 1950.

Immediately following Ockeghem, whom he claimed as his teacher, is Josquin des Pres, the first composer to benefit from the recent invention of printing, and the first composer easy to appreciate by listeners today with very little effort of adjustment to an old style. He is also the first composer to win the kind of fame accorded to literary figures like Dante and Petrarch, or a contemporary painter like Leonardo da Vinci. At the end of the eighteenth century, when scholars attempted to write the history of music of centuries past, he was the first composer to be rediscovered. (Only Palestrina, who came a few decades later, retained his renown until the present, as his works continued to be performed at the Vatican.) Indeed, Josquin was so idolized in the years after his death in 1521 that almost any anonymous piece of music that found favor was attributed to him. In recent years scholars have been pruning the list of his works, and scotching some of the anecdotes of his genius that made the rounds of writers on music in the middle of the sixteenth century.

All this scholarly activity is salutary, but it has given rise to the most unsavory aspect of modern sociological criticism, the attempt not merely to separate legend from reality in the fame of the most important artists of the past, but to dynamite these legendary reputations, to claim that the prestige of whoever seems fair game—Josquin, Beethoven, Shakespeare—is entirely due not to any innate genius, but to a process of brainwashing by the cultural elite in power. This facile and practical substitute for criticism is sometimes mistakenly called deconstruction: one needs no interest in art, music, or literature to pursue it. All references to commonly shared and recognized values can be dismissed since these values are simply a successful imposition by an elite upon the society as a whole. Taruskin is far too intelligent to be taken in by this position in all its crudity, influential as it may be, but traces rub off on him as he tries to remain abreast of the latest developments in his field.

He tells us about the famous letters received by the Duke of Ferrara from two of his agents who were scouting for the best composer to hire for his court. One scout in 1502 wrote that Josquin composes better than Heinrich Isaac, but advised the duke to hire Isaac since Josquin composes “only when he pleases not when he is requested to,” and he also demands more money than Isaac. This is the document that allowed historians to refer to Josquin as the first temperamental and difficult genius in music. The other letter, a month earlier, recommended Josquin warmly—“there is neither lord nor king who will have a better chapel than yours if Your Lordship sends for Josquin”—and added “by having Josquin in our chapel I want to place a crown upon this chapel of ours.” Taruskin observes: “The Josquin legend had been born, and was already doing its historical work.”

However, as we can see, the reputation of Josquin was not a legend but a historical fact. He was considered the finest composer during his lifetime. That his reputation became inflated later with stories, probable and improbable (much like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree), justifies correction, but that still leaves us with the fact of Josquin’s immense prestige. It is true that his preeminence has caused scholars to neglect some of his contemporaries who deserve attention, like Pierre de La Rue, a wonderfully original figure whose name is only mentioned in passing by Taruskin. He does not go all the way with the present fashion for cutting Josquin down to size, and actually believes in his superiority. About the motet Ave Maria…Virgo serena, which was misdated too late and accepted as a prototype of sixteenth-century style when it really belongs to the period in the 1480s when Josquin worked at the court of Milan, Taruskin remarks,

Far from the revolutionary work that [Edward] Lowinsky sought and found in it, it now appears to be fully representative of its fifteenth-century parent repertory, even if, as we are all likely to agree, its artistic quality far outstrips that of its companions [my italics].

Nevertheless, he treats the question of Josquin’s reputation so exhaustively that, in spite of a few excellent observations on short passages from a motet and a mass, he has no space left to explain why Josquin was accorded such extraordinary reverence.

One reason may be mentioned briefly here: no composer before him (or after him, for that matter) could make such effective use even on a first hearing of the complex imitative devices of Flemish style—the passing from one voice to another and the repetition of short memorable motifs which command the texture of the polyphonic work. This was a technique that was to govern almost all Western music for centuries, and was the glory of Johann Sebastian Bach’s style, and the basis for musical style from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Brahms to Schoenberg—all the most famous classics, in fact. Only in the twentieth century was there finally an attempt to escape from what began to be felt as the tyranny of this procedure, a reaction initiated cautiously by Debussy and carried out fully by composers like Varèse, Boulez, and Stockhausen.

Disappointing on Ockeghem and Josquin, Taruskin makes up for it by forty brilliant and satisfying pages on Palestrina, which elucidate his creation of a style so clear and suave that it was to remain a model for many decades and even a basis for teaching counterpoint for centuries to come. The pages on William Byrd and the way his music reveals the tragic situation of a repressed and defiant Catholic in a Protestant culture are almost as good, although heavily in-debted to the researches of Joseph Kerman.

However, when we reach the Italian madrigal, one of the most impressive creations of Western music, we can see why Taruskin’s 3,825 pages of text (plus ten pages of introduction, and a whole volume of indices, credits, and chronology) turn out to be paradoxically skimpy. He spends so much time on his theories of the why and how of the music and on his lively and entertaining potted history of culture that there is little space left to do justice to major elements of music history. For many scholars and music-lovers, the greatest composer of madrigals is Luca Marenzio, whose production was immense, and difficult to characterize because, as the musicologist Alfred Einstein observed, every poem for him needed a different approach and a different solution. Taruskin comments only on the opening of one madrigal. His choice, an extraordinary piece with an immensely long chromatic line, illustrates both the melancholy and the halting steps of the lover in a poem of Petrarch, Solo e pensoso (“Alone and pensive”). Taruskin’s presentation of this is sensitive. But then he appends the astonishing comment:

The opening couplet of Marenzio’s setting of Solo e pensoso is miraculously precise in depicting the poet’s pensive distraction, but can an ensemble of five voices represent his solitude?

This is like complaining about a lack of realism in Shakespeare because the actors are all speaking in iambic pentameter. Ninety percent of madrigals must be settings of love poems, and this would imply to Taruskin that four to five lovers are all wooing the same harassed lady. He tries to justify this outlandish position by claiming that Marenzio was aiming at “a literary, not a musical exactness,” and in this he is deeply mistaken, as a single listening will confirm. The modulation of Marenzio’s opening, rising over an octave, is grave, wonderfully smooth, and deeply moving even when one takes no account of the words.

Equally unjustifiable is Taruskin’s hasty dismissal as “negligible” the chromatic experimentation on instruments contemporary with the similar experiments in the madrigals of Marenzio and Carlo Gesualdo. He even claims that Nicola Vicentino’s famous monster keyboard with fifty-three pitches within the octave, which foreshadows twentieth-century experiments with quarter-tones, came to nothing. However, a well-known madrigalist, Luzzaschi, was reputed to have played very successfully on this keyboard. On the outrageous harmonic effects of Gesualdo, Taruskin astutely remarks (it is one of his most brilliant points) that they are not the effects of a composer ahead of his time, as Stravinsky and others have maintained, but are perfectly familiar ingredients of sixteenth-century style. But then so are the weird keyboard experiments, and they are part of the same world as the madrigals.

This is not an anachronistic view: the madrigals of Monteverdi, a composer a generation younger than Marenzio, were attacked by his contemporaries as the accidental discoveries of a man who had just been strumming randomly at a keyboard. (Marenzio’s audacities were, in fact, as great as Gesualdo’s or Monteverdi’s.) The dismissal of the instrumental experiments is a grave methodological error: the history of art can only be understood if the most extreme and eccentric phenomena can be integrated into our view of the whole picture. The extreme cases illuminate the conventional phenomena, the statistically normal. They mark the limits of a style and a period.

In Taruskin’s Volume 2, on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a brilliant chapter on Monteverdi’s operas brings us to the threshold of music in the modern world, to a repertory that can be performed successfully for audiences today, and it is vivid and satisfying. The social aspect of the music is lucidly dealt with: the first opera, Orfeo, was for an invited audience at the court of Mantua in 1607; the last, L’Incoronazione di Poppea, thirty-six years later, was for a commercial theater in Venice (the scores of all of the other operas of Monteverdi in between the two were destroyed in a fire during his lifetime). Here, instead of trying to explain the music factitiously by nebulous social ideals, Taruskin shows specifically how the two operas worked within their societies, the solemn ceremony of Orfeo contrasted with the sensational and even pornographic aspect of Poppea. The musical analysis in this case is as solid as we have come to expect from Taruskin, and facile social generalizations are happily kept at bay. But the modern repertory in the volumes to come will make greater demands on the historian.

—This is the first part of a two-part article.


Paul Henry Lang March 23, 2006

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