October 15, 2010
July 28, 2009
It is in the period that we call by the refreshingly positive name of Renaissance that we first find composers who behave like composers, writing and publishing appreciable amounts of music, obviously learning from identifiable teachers, and influencing students whose names we know. Our ingrained Darwinism is gratified when history arrives at this—the beginning, significantly, of what historians call the Modern Era. Missing Links in stylistic lineages have been tracked down with a thoroughness that would edify paleontology. The composers of the Renaissance tend obligingly to group themselves into Schools (or at least not to resist over-much when we so group them ourselves) and generally give us what we want in the way of compositions in the various genres of the time.
But to look at Renaissance composers thus is to view them in a way that would have surprised them—and especially startled their employers—very much. Josquin Desprez, arguably the greatest composer of the Renaissance, is usually called in the old documents such things as “biscantor” (as a singer at Milan Cathedral), “cantor di capella” (when a ducal singer in the Sforza family’s service), “Josquin chantre” (as he ventured into France during his leaves from the papal chapel), and “maestro di cappella” (or teacher of the singers attached to the court of Ferrara). That he became renowned as a composer was a sort of bonus (though, in his case, an unprecedentedly large one) attached to, and greatly ornamenting, his occupation as a performer and trainer of musicians. Even his teaching of composition was described solely as an adjunct to day-by-day performance in the choir:
My teacher Josquin … never gave a lecture on music or wrote a theoretical work, and yet he was able in a short time to form complete musicians, because he did not keep back his pupils with long and useless instructions but taught them the rules in a few words, through practical application in the course of singing. And as soon as he saw that his pupils were well grounded in singing, had a good enunciation and knew how to embellish melodies [i.e., improvise around the written notes] and fit the text to the music [since much of this was left to the discretion of the performer, too], then he taught them the perfect and imperfect intervals and the different methods of inventing counterpoints against plainsong. If he discovered, however, pupils with an ingenious mind and promising disposition, then he would teach these in a few words the rules of three-part and later of four-, five-, and six-part, etc. writing, always providing them with examples to imitate.