• Email
  • Print

From the Troubadours to Frank Sinatra


A history of Western music is, more or less, a history of all the music that has a history—that is, a large body of musical works that stretch from a distant past to the present through a series of stylistic revolutions. Other civilizations, India in particular, have magnificent musical traditions, but few authentic, documented musical works survive from their past. Only in the West was there an elaborate system of notation that delivered the musical artifacts of more than a millennium to the future, and, as a consequence, only in the West has there been an extravagant historical development from the Gregorian chant of the tenth century to the symphonic complexities of Wagner and Stravinsky, and the contested triumphs of modernism. Western music, in short, has a history that can be placed in richness and complexity by the side of a history of literature and a history of the visual arts.

Richard Taruskin has wisely made the invention of a system of notation the basis of his long history. It is a history of “literate” music in the West —that is, a history with verifiable historical evidence, the notated scores from the eleventh century to our time. This “literate” body of music existed alongside an important unwritten tradition of folk music and popular music, handed down orally and by demonstration. Of course, “literate” music, too, has never been taught or communicated by notation alone: how to read and interpret the texts has been transmitted by example from one generation to the next. No notation (except that for electronic music) can indicate every detail of performance, much of which has been left to the individual performer but within a tradition learned by experience and imitation.

This makes for a difficulty that has irritated philosophers of aesthetics and their readers for a long time: Is the work of music to be identified as the written text or its performance? Is a symphony of Beethoven the printed score or the sound in the concert hall when it is played? The printed text is invariable while two performances are never exactly alike. Most histories of music, therefore, have settled for being histories of texts, but this has become more and more unsatisfactory as our knowledge of the performance practice of the past has been widened by research into old accounts, and as we have realized how much we have to know about the habits of performance transmitted “orally” simply in order to be able to read our texts properly. An admirable aspect of Professor Taruskin’s project is his intermittent attempt to discuss the parallel “oral” tradition that accompanied our immense heritage of musical scores, including the improvised ornaments often added in the written scores, to take into account the way these scores were actually performed during the composers’ lifetimes (although he unwisely assumes that the documents recording these improvisations are a faithful reflection of the practice).

The best part—indeed the glory—of his overstuffed six volumes is the analyses of a huge number of printed examples (the public he has in mind is, of course, the undergraduates who take a general introductory course in the history of music, and his aim is to replace the textbooks that now dominate this lucrative field). His analyses are generally both cogent and entertaining, written in a rambunctious style that conveys technical information with great lucidity.

His intentions, however, are far more ambitious than simply enabling his readers to listen with understanding. He maintains that this is the first history of music which not only relates what was done but how and why. He aims, he writes, to present a social history of music; that is, he attempts to place the development of music in the general culture of the place and time it was created, to describe it in its social setting, to explain its genesis and its significance for the composers’ contemporaries and at times for their posterity. He gives a bird’s-eye view of the history of Western culture filled out by piquant details (he is particularly assiduous at searching out examples of anti-Semitism). He claims, in short, that he has written the first sociological history of music comparable to Francis Bacon’s attempt to embrace the entire history of culture in The Advancement of Learning, and he observes with a certain satisfaction that Bacon “never lived to complete [his task]: I have—but only by dint of a drastic narrowing of scope.”

His inspiration, avowed in his acknowledgments, is the old textbook by his teacher Paul Henry Lang, Music in Western Civilization, but unlike Lang, much of whose book was written by his graduate assistants, Taruskin completed his formidable 3,825 pages on his own; never, he declares, has he had a research assistant. He has written a very personal history, often entertaining, self-indulgent, long-winded, occasionally brilliant, and even sensible. He is very levelheaded, for example, on the scarcity of women composers, affirming that it is society, and not any lack of innate talent, that is the reason, but that it is unconvincing to claim that great women composers have been overlooked. (It is a curious misjudgment on his part, however, to give more space to Lili Boulanger than to Ruth Crawford Seeger: of the latter, one of the most interesting composers of the twentieth century, he treats only very minor pieces, neglecting the important string quartet and violin sonata for which she is most admired.)

He claims not to have followed his own taste on what to include: “I hope readers will agree that I have sought neither to advocate nor to denigrate what I did include.” His hope has been thwarted. In writing about art, a pretense of objectivity never succeeds: clearly, Taruskin writes much better about music he likes than about music to which he is indifferent. His prejudices loom large throughout the volumes.


The opening chapters of Volume 1 on the invention of notation and on the origins of the first written evidence of music, Gregorian chant, are lively and lucid. With the troubadour poets of twelfth-century southern France, the earliest secular musical repertory that is documented, however, we arrive at our first chance of interpreting a musical art with respect to its social setting. Most social interpretation of art views a body of work as the production of a class, generally a dominant or governing class, imposing its ideals. Taruskin affirms it in its simplest form:

One of the enduring characteristics of “high art,” and a perennial source of contention, is the fact that it is produced by and for political and social elites.

Troubadour songs offer a set of works for interpretation that seem to inspire no problem for social interpretation: they are “knightly songs in a European vernacular,” as Taruskin puts it:

William, (Guillaume), seventh count of Poitiers and ninth duke of Aquitaine (1071–ca. 1127), was the first European vernacular poet whose work has come down to us. The tradition, socially speaking, thus began right at the top, with all that that implies as to “highness” of style, tone, and diction…. A troubador’s subject matter was the life he led, viewed in terms of his social relations, which were ceremonial, idealized, and ritualized to the point of virtual sacralization. In keeping with the rarefied subject matter, the genres and styles of troubadour verse were also highly formalized and ceremonious, to the point of virtuosic complexity of design and occasional, sometimes deliberate, obscurity of meaning.

In short, troubadour songs were a courtly art, reflecting the ideals of the feudal aristocracy.

The true heart of troubadour poetry, as Taruskin says, was the love poem, the canso. In this form, the loved one is always a young married woman never to be possessed by the singer, whose love is always hopeless. This is indeed a refined and artificial kind of art, and cannot have corresponded very closely either with the reality or even the ideals of life in twelfth-century Provençal courts (there was a less-refined but also less-admired form in which the two lovers wake up in bed in the morning). There were two kinds of troubadour verse, clear and hermetic (or “closed”), and there were heated defenses of each style, some troubadours practicing both. It has been remarked that it is not always easy to tell the clear from the closed, and that some of the clear is sufficiently complex to have caused difficulty in understanding even to twelfth-century contemporaries.

Troubadour songs were obviously a rarefied, aristocratic form, but what does this mean? Were they written by aristocrats? Sometimes, but many of the troubadours were not at all upper class. Taruskin tells us that Bernart de Ventadorn, one of the most famous and popular, was the son of a furnace-stoker, although he oddly does not tell us that the furnace-stoker was his mother. He claims that Bernart was a commoner “like many of the later troubadours,” but some of the best early troubadours were commoners as well—Cercamon and Marcabru, for example. Taruskin also relates that Bernart “rose to prominence, and received noble patronage, strictly on his merits as a poet,” but the little we are told by Bernart’s biography informs us that his first patron found out that his wife was in love with Bernart, had her locked up, and threw Bernart out. His next patron was the duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, and, again according to his biography, he fell in love with her and she with him (s’enamoret de la duchessa, et ella de lui). The biography, written a century after Bernart was working, may be fiction, but at least it has more chance of being authentic than Taruskin’s speculations. Anyway, the idea that Bernart de Ventadorn made a successful career solely on his poetic merit and not on his personal attraction has no basis except for the evident technical virtuosity of his poetry.

Taruskin knows that the troubadour songs were generally not performed by the nobles but by minstrels, called jongleurs, and affirms that most of the non-aristocratic troubadours started out as minstrels. However, he strangely imagines:

A noble poet would compose a song and teach it to a minstrel, thus sending it out into the oral tradition from which it might be transcribed, with luck, a hundred years later.

But, as we have seen, the poet was not necessarily noble, many of them being children of furriers, or notaries, or clerks; the jongleur could have been taught by a poet from the middle class. We do not know how far the art of the troubadours penetrated into the lower classes, but it is unlikely that the popular minstrels confined their performances to the courts. It is also exceedingly snobbish as well as improbable to assume that the complex and often obscure art of the troubadours was appreciated only by the upper class. Does Taruskin think that songs about a pure love for a titled lady would not have appealed to twelfth- and thirteenth-century peasants and urban clerks? It might have been just what they wanted.

The manuscripts containing the troubadour songs were compiled a century after the troubadours had disappeared—or, rather, after their art had migrated to northern France after being wiped out in the south by the Albigensian Crusade. For a hundred years, the songs ceased to be sponsored by the courts. How did they survive if not in other venues, although little is known about them? The evidence for troubadour art is skewed in any case. As Taruskin relates, the manuscripts compiled after a hundred years were all illustrated luxury items, a medieval equivalent of coffee-table books, paid for by later aristocratic courts. How much of the poetry and music was preserved either by the minstrels’ memory or by some notation before the surviving written evidence was transcribed we do not know, nor can we tell to what extent the selection made for the manuscripts was representative or biased.

In short, the art of the troubadours was indeed elitist. How could songs in a complex style, some of them difficult to understand even after several hearings, not be so? Perhaps no art has ever been more elitist. Nevertheless, Taruskin’s terse formula—“’high art’…produced by and for political and social elites”—while obviously true, is uninstructive and unedifying. It is only a fashionable critical slogan. What made up this elite? How did it affect the art? The social situation was more than slightly ambiguous, and the slogan only hides to what extent the poetic and musical art corresponded to the interests of a small class (perhaps, in fact, a small part of a small class) or reflected the ideology of feudal society in general—or, indeed, represented the interests of a professional caste which cut across social distinctions of class.


Taruskin returns over and over again to the question of elitism. “Elite” used to have an agreeable connotation, like “liberal,” but is now used as a term of reproof.1 Taruskin approaches the subject with an air of apology or guilt, as if he felt uneasy about enjoying and teaching an art that is accessible only to a minority with the money to pay for it and the leisure to appreciate it. He does not make a sufficiently clear distinction between two different ways that art can be “produced by and for political and social elites.” The first way is for a member of the elite to engage a well-known artist to produce something for display. If you commission a famous architect to design your house, that may reflect great credit on your taste, even if you find the house impossible to live in. The second way is to create, or have created for you, a work that will express and mirror your ideals and your way of life, like Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican apartments commissioned by the Pope. The second way is preferred by sociological critics because it enables them to construct a subtle analysis of the way the art embodies the ideology of the elite, whatever the identity of the artist. For this to work, however, the elite, political or social, must not only have a recognizable identity but display some kind of consensus about the world and the way life is to be lived, and we must be able to eliminate the possibility that the artist engaged is not subverting the ideals of the patron for reasons of his own.

The two social classes that generally have the power to commission art are the bureaucratic governing class, either aristocratic or plutocratic, and the well-to-do middle class, or what used to be called the bourgeoisie. The taste of the aristocracy and the upper middle class is not always apt to produce an art that endures, and the more talented artists must sometimes find a place in the margins of the establishment—a rich patron with eccentric tastes, for example. In his characterization of nineteenth-century English culture, Matthew Arnold identified the aristocracy as Barbarians, interested largely in fox-hunting and gaming, and the middle class as Philistines, obsessed with respectability. A great deal of art that goes against the grain is paid for by the establishment unwillingly and with misgivings. When some of it endures, the sociologist must engage in an agreeable analogue of Freudian analysis, and claim that in hidden ways the work embodies the ideals of the class in power, unaware of what is revealed by an art of which it overtly disapproves. This is the stimulus for a good deal of criticism today.

Meyer Schapiro, one of the most distinguished art historians of the last century, was reproached by one of his students for having lavished praise on Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art. Schapiro replied that he knew it was bad, “but it’s the only one on an important subject, which should be encouraged.” A sociological history of art is, as we would all agree, very desirable, but there are difficulties that stand in the way.

To understand the problems of a social history of music, however, let us step back, or rather aside, for a moment, and consider a fascinating essay on the water mill by the great French historian Marc Bloch.2 In this story of the invention and exploitation of the water mill to make flour, two anomalies stand out. The first odd fact is that the water mill was invented as early as the first century BC, but it took an astonishingly long time—at least five centuries, in fact—for this extraordinarily practical machine that made life so much easier to be widely used. That is because during the Roman period, slave labor was plentifully available. As slavery declined, the expense of building water mills paid for itself, above all when the lord who owned the water rights could make his tenants pay for grinding their grain. The second anomaly is that in the nineteenth century, when steam power provided an even more practical way of making flour, the water mills continued to be used because the local lord could force his tenants to continue bringing the grain to his mill. The processes of invention and exploitation are out of phase. Inventions arrive before they are needed and continue to be employed when they are no longer useful. The history of society and the history of scientific invention do not fit neatly together.

Nor does the history of music fit neatly with social history. Of all the arts, music has the greatest kinship with science, even abstract science: Greek and Roman philosophers speculated about the relation of music to mathematics, and in the latter part of the eighteenth century the philosopher and economist Adam Smith remarked that listening to a fine symphony was like contemplating a great scientific system (it took the long development from the monodic Gregorian chant and the gradual emancipation of music from words for this observation to become possible). A musical system has important attributes of a language, like grammar and syntax, although some of the aspects of communication are very rudimentary—that is, you can convey emotion with music, and imitate cuckoos and babbling brooks, but you cannot make a dinner appointment or a train reservation without words. Nevertheless, as the musical system changes over the centuries, possibilities of exploiting the musical language suggest themselves that are too fascinating to ignore, but the works inspired by this stimulus may possibly have to wait a long time for their exploitation. A musical system appears to have a logic of its own that can be inflected but not completely controlled by social pressures; it can act as an inspiration to composers, who often feel as if they were discovering rather than inventing. That is what the greatest of music critics, E.T.A. Hoffmann, conveyed when he wrote that Beethoven was not the wild, untamed genius as so many of his contemporaries thought, but the soberest of all composers, because everything he wrote came from the nature of music itself.

Bach’s great Mass in B minor was never performed during his lifetime: as a Catholic Mass, it could not be played in a Protestant church, and the use of an orchestra was forbidden in Catholic churches during Bach’s lifetime, although he hoped it might eventually be possible. His “Goldberg” Variations is the most successful of all his works in concert performance today, yet the kind of concert in which it can be performed did not exist for another century, and it had to wait for recognition and acclaim for still another hundred years. Both these works fascinated many musicians during the long period before they could find a niche in the social world of performance. The first great set of works to become the staple of serious public piano performances was the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas: only two of these were played in a concert hall in Vienna during Beethoven’s lifetime. To judge a work, as Taruskin often does, by how it sounded in the conditions that existed when it was written is useful and even necessary, but it can lead at times to profound misunderstanding. This is where the irritating contradiction between the work as written and the work as heard begins to rear its ugly head.

In any case, many works of music like Beethoven’s Great Fugue for String Quartet appear principally as a response to possibilities of the musical system of the time, possibilities that are irrelevant to any kind of contemporary social conditions, and the system itself develops both as a response to social pressures and in ways that are completely independent. No social history of music can succeed that does not acknowledge the partial independence of the musical language, the way it can offer abstract possibilities to the imagination irrelevant to the social and economic world of the musician, but often too tempting to turn down.


For the beginning of the period from 1300 to 1600, Taruskin offers a splendid account of Guillaume de Machaut—the first composer to make a four-voice polyphonic setting of the entire ordinary of the Mass. The ordinary of the Mass is the text that is repeated at every service: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei; in between these sections, the text changes from day to day. Machaut’s setting of the ordinary around 1360 is the first large-scale musical work in several movements in history, and it elevated music to the level of greater ambition. Taruskin’s writing has the great virtue of making the reader want to hear the music. Equally illuminating is Taruskin’s chapter on the next important stage in this development, the use in 1430 of a single liturgical chant to unify the setting of all the sections of the ordinary of the Mass, each section now clearly based on the same easily recognizable melody. This endowed the composition—which came to be called the cyclic mass—with an easily perceptible unity.

A Mass written by a single composer is not only held together by his style, as with Machaut, but is now given a specific identity by the liturgical chant, which appears prominently in every movement. (The practice seems to have started in England, which played a leading role in the musical development of the early fifteenth century, but it quickly spread to the Flemish and French musicians, who were to dominate all European music until the middle of the sixteenth century, even at the Italian and German courts.) These chants were at first taken from the liturgical repertory, but very soon secular songs were used as the basic unifying melodies, a practice that would eventually provoke consternation in ecclesiastical circles, particularly when some of the choir sang the words of the secular tune instead of the liturgical text it was now supposed to serve.

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

  1. 1

    Liberal,” which used to be a term of approval, is oddly pejorative in politics today for different sides of the political spectrum on the two sides of the Atlantic—for the right wing in the United States but for the left in Europe, while “elite” is a term of opprobrium on both sides of the Atlantic for both left and right for entirely different reasons—for the right, an “elitist” is an unpatriotic, degenerate left-wing fan of the avant-garde; for the left, he is an undemocratic enemy of the people.

  2. 2

    Avènement et Conquête du Moulin à Eau,” first published in the Annales, Vol. 7, No. 36 (November 1935), pp. 538–563. Reprinted in Marc Bloch, Mélanges Historiques (Paris: SEVPEN, 1963), pp. 800–821.

  • Email
  • Print