An Art That Keeps Being Reborn

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.

It was left to later generations, for whom the practices did not emerge from everyday performance, to rely on counterpoint treatises and their “rules” to imitate the style of Renaissance counterpoint. But even the textbooks themselves explicitly retained their choirloft orientation for a long time. Zarlino, than whom there was no more cultivated professor of the Humanist music in Italy, could stun the best of them with his scientific formulations. But, in his great 1558 treatise on the composition of high-Renaissance counterpoint, he tells us that the reason certain melodic intervals should govern the successive entries of voice parts is that “it makes it easier for the singers.” Thus speaks the composer-theorist who has not lost touch with the musical occasion, wherein the real musical creativity is seen as happening on the spot more than in a composer’s inspired privacy.

Even that icon of the Renaissance composer, Palestrina, spent his career working at appointments as a singer, organist, or maestro di capella, and Lassus (perhaps more famous than Palestrina in their day) was so renowned for his singing voice that a legend circulated of his having been thrice kidnapped as a child for covetous nobles’ chapels. Nothing could be more practical than the musical viewpoint of the Renaissance performer-composer. In this, he is equally an ancestor of the virtuosi (whom we now revere as masters of composition) of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the most brilliant of the jazzmen of the twentieth.

It was during the Renaissance interest in the Classical past that Europe in great part developed a habit of looking to Italian models—and, often as not, to Italy herself—for instruction. In that peninsula not yet a nation was found, with remarkable regularity, the best both in performance and in the more specifically literate musical culture fostered by the development of music printing in Venice after the turn of the sixteenth century. Both Reformation and Counter-Reformation were obsessed with the kind of standardization that printing first enabled and then encouraged.

In a very few generations northerners learned their lessons so well that they would speak the Italian musical language as well and better than their masters to the south. But wherever they were, the composers, in their continuingly dominant guise as performers, themselves continued to be the innovators in musical styles that required on-the-spot manipulation of musical materials. This was equally true whether the performance was the solo effusion of a keyboard or lute performer, the “written-out improvisation” that such ecclesiastical composer-performers as Bach handed out to their ensembles as a basis for group music-making, or the olympian carryings-on that marked the operatic activities of what seemed to people—thanks to the ingenuity of such performers—like a new age.

Western music has been characterized by periodic rebirths of the art–even when a revolution like that of the aforementioned jazz is regretted by whole classes of people. The rise of the Beatles is distinguished from the craze for Josquin more by the differences in communication technology than by the differences in their music.

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