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Saturday morning quote #51: Renaissance or Baroque?

May 12, 2012

As the number in our title indicates, this week marks our penultimate installment in an entire year’s worth of Saturday morning quotes.  We have faithfully delivered on our promise to share quotes that inspire us as musicians specializing in old music, quotes drawn from historical sources—mostly old and sometimes more recent.  We’ll cook up something interesting to mark the first anniversary next week.

During the course of the week, correspondence with a colleague raised a few questions that ultimately have everything to do with the way we approach historical music.  The first question was more conceptual in nature and the second had to do with the nuts-and-bolts of research and comparing historical sources of music.  We’ll save the second question for another time and just address the conceptual question today.

Was Robert Ballard considered a Renaissance or a Baroque composer?

Robert Ballard (c1575 – 1649) published two books of music for the lute, 1611 and 1614, and he was an early representative of the style we have come to know as baroque, characterized by less strict imitative polyphony and a more airy texture.

Was Ballard a Renaissance or Baroque composer? Our answer is that he was neither.  Renaissance and Baroque are artificial designations that were first used to describe general periods in art history, and then absconded and applied to music history.  The designations attempt to isolate a period in time and describe a ‘style’ for the sole purpose of teaching history.  Music is spontaneous, ephemeral, fluid—and before the advent of recording, functional and necessary.

Robert Ballard composed or arranged functional dance music for the Ballet de Cour, exclusively, and he was merely dipping his oar into the flowing river of music and paddling in a slightly different direction.  While we may feel the need to categorize his music as belonging to one designated period or the other, he probably didn’t care then and he certainly doesn’t care now.  Ballard cared whether his music would sell.

As we pointed out in an earlier post, there probably was no Renaissance, only a blip in time when ready money was made available to architects, artists and musicians for the primary purpose of building or enhancing the reputation of the person who was the wealthy source.  Which leads to our quote for today:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

- Orson Welles, from The Third Man

We hope our Swiss friends don’t take offense at this amusing and rather inaccurate superlative.  But Welles’ point was that great art is not created from complacency and ease, it is created from turmoil, ambition—and for remuneration.

Our point is that designations invented for the teaching of history do not suffice if one wishes to connect with what was the living, breathing  humanity of real people who merely lived at a different time.

7 Comments
  1. Thoughtful as always.

  2. Ned permalink

    This is a very good point, and one we need to be reminded of from time to time. Our inclination to categorize things, people and periods is strong but most often misguided.

    • Thanks, Ned. Yes, we think categorizing something as ephemeral as historical music results in distorting the uniqueness of a national or regional style, and certainly is a stretch when describing a particular composer’s signature approach just so that it fits into the box that’s been created for the purpose of teaching today.

  3. Mathias permalink

    Thank you for sharing your thought. I beg to differ, though. One may deny 20th / 21st century terms and categories, concluding that e. g. Robert Ballard’s music cannot be counted renaissance or baroque. Yet it’s in the nature of historical perspectives and categories to come afterwards. So, Ballard himself may not have cared (how do we know that, btw?), but from a historical perspective, his music clearly is what the term baroque today is meant to imply, as the structural elements of his music are so (thorough-bass-pattern).

  4. Thank you for your comment, Mathias. Of course, we always expect a thoughtful perspective from you. It turns out that defining Ballard’s music as renaissance or baroque is a thorny issue: François-Pierre Goy, in his introduction to the facsimile edition of Ballard 1611, questions whether Ballard was heralding a new style or perhaps just representing an established one (Robert Ballard, Premier Livre de tablature de luth, 1611. Introductions by Pascale Boquet and François-Pierre Goy. “Collection Dominantes.” Courlay: Fuzeau, 1995).

    You can check out a review by David Buch that touches on the salient points here.

    No, we certainly can’t know what Ballard actually thought about his music. But we do know he was trying to make his mark by publishing dance music that was currently popular. As for the definition and description of musical style from one era or another, it just doesn’t work for me to shove all music from a particular period into a one-size-fits-all category. It’s hard to know but we don’t think all musicians and composers gathered together for a meeting circa 1600 and decided to stop having a renaissance and begin being baroque.

  5. Mathias permalink

    Thank you for the link to the review!

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