Saturday morning quotes 2.12: Interpreting 15th century music
We have a particular interest in music from the close of the 15th century. Regular readers of our blog already know that we tend to have a slightly different take on music from the period, an approach that attempts restore humanity to a repertoire that has for too long been performed with an ethereal reverence that mimics the flatness of dimension found in some paintings and tapestries of the period. We prefer to be stirred by the passion expressed so vividly in the poetry, and the vital pulse of music that was informed by dance rhythms.
While we have benefited tremendously from the work of so many imaginative, insightful and articulate music historians — work which we tend to read, discuss and put to the test — we recognize that music history is a discipline that can easily lean more towards detached historical analysis, ignoring the practical realities of actual musical performance. We like to think it’s up to us to honor the work of music historians by using the evidence to restore humanity and dimension to the music.
“Music, which is essentially communication, thrived in this enterprising age…Music had now soaked up the images of the spiritual and material world and had become a messenger of the human subject.”
– Reinhard Strohm, The Close of the Middle Ages
We also quote from the work of Martin Picker (1929–2005), who made a special study of music from the end of the 15th century. His work in this area includes Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht: a Guide to Research, ‘Garland Composer Research Manuals’, xiii. (Garland, New York & London, 1988); The Motet Books of Andrea Antico, ‘Monuments of Renaissance Music’, viii. (University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1987); and a favorite of ours The Chanson Albums of Marguerite of Austria, (University of California Press, Cambridge, 1965). From the introductory remarks of the last-mentioned book, Picker makes the observation:
“Purely vocal performances, rather than those mixing voices and instruments, appear to have been more common in the period after 1515, reflecting the more consistently vocal texture of the music then being written.” (p. 30)
This implies that music before 1515 probably incorporated more instrumental participation in performance, particularly lute and harp, explaining why the lower parts in so much of the surviving polyphonic music are untexted. Then we have the evidence of lute intabulations of so much vocal music in the very earliest surviving prints and manuscript sources for lute, Spinacino (1507), Dalza (1508), Capirola (c. 1517), the Thibault and Pesaro manuscripts (c. 1490 – 1500). This evidence not only demonstrates the ubiquitous and active participation of the lute in vocal polyphony at the time, but the lute notation also gives us unambiguous answers to questions involving the application of accidentals to the mensural music.
It just so happens that we are performing some of this music next week in Cleveland, and we have a short video description of the music.
We invite our friends in the Cleveland area to come and hear what we keep droning on about on these pages.