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Saturday morning quotes 2.1: What’s new?

May 26, 2012

We begin our second year of Saturday morning quotes with some impressions of old versus new.

Certain disciples of the new school, much occupying themselves with the measured dividing of time, seek to invent new notes, preferring to devise ways of their own rather than to continue singing in the old manner.  Thus the Divine Offices are now sung in semibreves and minims, and peppered with small notes.  Moreover they cut up the melodies with hockets, they lubricate them with discant, sometimes they even cram in Tripla and Moteti in the vernacular.

Pope John XXII, 1325

Our old friend John Dowland had a thing or two to say about old versus new.

…[Y]et I must tell you, as I haue been a stranger; so haue I againe found strange entertainment since my returne; especially by the opposition of two sorts of people that shroude themselues vnder the title of Musitians.  The first are some simple Cantors, or vocall singers, who though they seeme excellent in their blinde Diuision-making, are meerely ignorant, euen in the first elements of Musicke, and also in the true order of the mutation of the Hexachord in the Systeme, (which hath been approued by all the learned and skillful men of Christendome, this 800 yeers,) yet doe these fellowes giue their verdict of me behinde my backe, and and say, what I doe is after the old manner…

– John Dowland, 1612

Ornamented singing is indeed a question of taste, and taste can be pushed to the limit unless performed by true artists.  Or maybe we should leave it to the experts.

Returning to the idea of new music breaking down tradition and convention, there is always Stravinsky.

Who wrote this fiendish “Rite of Spring“?
What right had he to write the thing?
Against our helpless ears to fling
Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?

And then to call it “Rite of SPRING,”
The season when on joyous wing
The birds melodious carols sing
And harmony’s in every thing!

He who could write the “Rite of Spring,”
If I be right by right should swing!

Anonymous, from the Boston Herald, February 1924

What can be added to such brilliant historical observations?

  1. Kaline permalink

    Florence makes me think of the “siberian alt” Beatrijs Kamoen ; even the parrot sings better.

  2. We have to agree, Kaline. The parrot has quite a lovely tone.

  3. What can be added? If conservative voices had their way, there would never be any change (some would call it progress). We would all still be singing Gregorian chant.

  4. Thanks, Ed. It’s interesting to think about conservatism as applied to music. In fact, this seems to have happened frequently in the not too distant past. Certainly, we read about Shostakovich and the unfortunate censorship under the Soviet rule. But is the world a better place with more of what has been described as his “hateful cacophony”?

    Ideally, as musical style evolves we would hang onto the good things from the past and augment them with progressive ideas of the present. I don’t necessarily see that happening today, in an environment of performance-oriented popular and art music that has little to do with substance and everything to do with marketable characteristics.

    Nevertheless, it turns out that Gregorian chant was never a static body of work that was performed with consistency, and it seems there were many regional variations. The fact that any of it survives at all has to do with someone having written it down, and it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it today. Personally, I think everything comes down to taste whether you are performing old music or new.


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