A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 10
While the Renaissance is regarded as having begun in Italy in the 14th century, convention has it that “Renaissance music” begins in the Low Countries and northern France in the 15th. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is that whereas the art and literature of the Renaissance and of the classical period that inspired it had long been studied, the same wasn’t true of music. Until the 19th century, the music of the past tended to stay in the past, unperformed, and it wasn’t until the 20th century that there was much general interest in “early music” (broadly, anything before about 1750). Such music had literally to be rediscovered, and the music of trecento Italy simply wasn’t known about when ideas of “Renaissance music” were first considered. So perhaps Landini and his contemporaries should be called the first Renaissance composers; but convention has sided with the theorist Johannes Tinctoris (c1435-1511), who was dismissive of all music prior to the 15th century and considered music to have been reborn in his time. Spearheading this apparent rebirth were the composers of what’s called the Franco-Flemish school, beginning with Dufay and Binchois and ending over a century later. Like Dufay, many of these composers spent at least some of their careers in Italy or other parts of Europe, and the widespread diffusion of their works (aided greatly by the invention of printing) helped to create an international style of music. We’ll be spending several chapters looking at the various developments in both vocal and instrumental music up to the end of the 16th century. To start us off, “The Art of the Netherlands” gives a useful overview of the secular and sacred music of the Franco-Flemish school, and it also provides a classic example of the work done by the pioneers of the early music revival. First issued in 1976, this album, like many others from David Munrow’s Early Music Consort, presented vivid performances of music that at the time would have been quite foreign to most listeners.
Ockeghem & la Rue: Requiems. Cappella Pratensis. Challenge (link)
Johannes Ockeghem, born sometime in the early 15th century, was a native of Hainaut, a French-speaking part of modern Belgium that was then a Burgundian possession. He entered the French royal chapel in 1452 and served three kings (Charles VII, Louis IX, and Charles VIII); he died in 1497. He was highly praised in his lifetime not just for his compositions but also for his voice—he sang bass, which probably explains his interest in writing bass lines in his polyphony that were more expressive and lower-lying than those of earlier composers. One of Ockeghem’s distinctions today is that he composed the oldest surviving polyphonic setting of the Requiem, the mass for the dead (a setting by Dufay, mentioned in his will, may have been earlier, but it’s now lost). It’s not known when Ockeghem composed his Requiem, and the only extant copy doesn’t contain the final sections so it’s also not clear whether he set the whole mass. The setting employs what’s called paraphrase technique, making use of an elaborated version of a cantus firmus, in this case the tunes being the Gregorian chant settings of the texts. As befits the occasion, it’s more sombre music than would be heard in other mass settings, and Ockeghem often uses a sparse texture, sometimes with just two voices. Chronologically, the next setting of the Requiem appears to be that of Pierre de la Rue (c1452-1518), a native of Tournai who held various positions in the Low Countries before joining the renowned chapel of the Duchy of Burgundy in 1492, the duchy by now being under the control of the Habsburgs. He also spent some years in Spain in the service of Philip and Joanna of Castile. La Rue’s Requiem demonstrates that, like Ockeghem, he had a fondness for low voices.
Ockeghem: Missa cuiusvis toni. Ensemble Musica Nova/Lucien Kandel. Aeon (link)
After his death, Ockeghem’s reputation rested on the technical skills displayed in some of his compositions. One such work is the Missa cuiusvis toni, which gives us the opportunity for a technical interlude that addresses at last an aspect of composition that might well have come up in the first chapter: the medieval modes. The modes corresponded to the scales produced by using only the white notes on a piano keyboard, and there were eight of them, numbered I to VIII and also given names that came from the ancient Greek musical modes, such as Dorian and Phrygian. Unlike our modern keys, which involve fixed pitches (so C major always starts on the pitch we call C), the modes were ways of representing pitch relationships, and they were distinguished by two particular notes: the “final”, which was the pitch on which the melody ended, and the “cofinal” or “dominant” or “reciting tone”, which was the pitch around which the melody was centered. Here’s the medieval composers’ love of hierarchical organisation again: the eight modes came in four pairs of “authentic” and “plagal” modes, with the two modes of each pair having the same final but differing in their reciting tones. We need go no further into the theory except to remark that two more pairs were added in the 16th century, and it wasn’t until the 17th century that our familiar system of major and minor scales had become established. Ockeghem’s Missa cuiusvis toni (Mass in any mode) was composed without clefs, meaning it is singable in any of the four authentic modes, which is quite a feat because the same cadences won’t work in all modes. Ensemble Musica Nova performs all four versions of the mass, and while it might be conceded that Ockeghem’s technical achievement will be more obvious to a musicologist than to the general listener, the fact that each version begins at the same pitch makes it easy to hear how the music changes with each mode. It’s also worth considering whether medieval theorists were onto anything when they said that each of the modes imparted a particular mood to the music.
And so we come to Josquin des Prez (c.1450-1521), who in his own time was seen as the greatest of all composers, and continues to hold an exalted status today. Martin Luther famously called Josquin “the master of the notes… other composers must do as the notes dictate”, while the Italian diplomat Cosimo Bartoli believed him to be music’s equivalent of Michelangelo, “alone and without a peer”. More recently Josquin has sometimes been spoken of as the Beethoven of the Renaissance, a towering individual who transformed music. It wasn’t just Josquin’s skills that established such a reputation; to some degree you could say he came along at the right time. This was the age of printing (of which we’ll hear more in a later chapter), which helped spread his music: Josquin was the first composer to have a printed volume devoted exclusively to his work (a collection of masses produced by Petrucci in 1502), and publishers were quite happy to attach his name to other people’s music to improve sales. Moreover, this was the age of humanism, when music ceased to be regarded as one of the mathematical arts and instead became one of the arts of rhetoric. Music now was less about applying rules and formulas and more about expression. Josquin’s motets clearly demonstrate this desire to communicate to the listener: rarely do you hear an extended melisma, because the text settings more closely resemble the natural flow of speech such that the music matches the syllables, rather than the syllables being drawn out to fit the music’s structure. Not only that, but the composer seeks to match the sound of the music with the meaning of the text; listen, for example, to Josquin’s Miserere mei, Deus (Have mercy on me, O God), with the sparse and plaintive textures of the opening words, repeated several times at different pitches; the clarity of the singing of the verses; and then the full choir returning as the opening words reappear as a refrain. Very few of Josquin’s compositions can be reliably dated, but this Miserere appears to be have written when he was in the employ of Ercole d’Este at Ferrara in 1503-4, and was perhaps inspired by the recent execution of the reforming cleric Savonarola.
Josquin: Missa Malheur me bat & Missa Fortunata desperata. Tallis Scholars/Peter Phillips. Gimell (link)
Josquin’s masses can be said to be more conservative in style than his motets, but then by their nature mass settings require a greater emphasis on structure. Nevertheless, with mass settings now in demand following the examples of Dufay, Ockeghem and their contemporaries, there was plenty of scope for innovation. The two masses recorded here use secular chansons for their cantus firmi, but in both cases Josquin uses not just one voice of the chanson to construct his mass, as was the norm with cantus firmus masses, but exploits all three voices. The resulting works are known as imitation or parody masses, and by the time of Josquin’s death the parody mass had begun to replace the cantus firmus mass. The specific technique of imitation, where a phrase in one voice is repeated in another voice, had long been used in music, but it became a prominent aspect of composition in Josquin’s time, a development that meant all voices in a piece were of equal importance. Because each of the mass movements took its ideas from the entire chanson or motet on which it was based, the mass could take on the characteristics of the model, not just its melodies but also its general structure, thus becoming a more individual work—particularly so if the model itself was already a highly individual piece such as a Josquin motet. Thus, each of Josquin’s masses can be seen as a distinct utterance in much the same way, Peter Phillips argues in his notes for the Tallis Scholars’ album, as we view the symphonies of Beethoven.
Isaac: “Ich muss dich lassen”. Capilla Flamenca; Oltremontano; Dirk Snellings. Ricercar (link)
When Josquin got his job in Ferrara, his chief competitor for the position was the Flanders-born Heinrich Isaac; Ercole d’Este had been advised that Josquin was the better composer but that Isaac was more likely to compose to please his employer rather than himself. Isaac had been in the employ of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, and in 1496 he was appointed court composer (Hofkomponist) to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I—the first time anyone had been professionally employed specifically as a composer. Although Maximilian’s court was based in Vienna, Isaac had the freedom to travel and in fact spent much of the rest of his life (he died in 1517) in Florence. Also unusually among his musical peers, Isaac remained a layman and was married. In terms of surviving music, he’s rivaled only by Josquin in quantity, and he quite outstrips Josquin in variety. On his travels from Flanders to Italy to Germany, Isaac absorbed many styles, making him the most eclectic composer of his generation. Capilla Flamenca’s recording presents “a life in music”, following Isaac from a Franco-Flemish mass setting, through such Florentine items as music written for the Carnival, a mashup of local tunes, and a motet marking the death of his patron Lorenzo, to an audition piece for the post in Ferrara, to secular songs in German. It’s perhaps for his contributions to German music that Isaac’s fame has been most lasting; he was the first of the Franco-Flemish composers of polyphony to live there, and he helped to popularise the style while also contributing to particular local practices such as the creation of polyphonic settings of Mass Propers. You’ll recall that we haven’t mentioned Germany for quite some time in this history, but now it was being brought into the mainstream of European music.
Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at 8tracks.com.
Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences (8tracks mix)
Part 5. The 13th-century motet (8tracks mix)
Part 6. Ars nova (8tracks mix)
Part 7. Trecento Italy (8tracks mix)
Part 8. Medieval England (8tracks mix)
Part 9. The Burgundian school (8tracks mix)