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Saturday morning quotes 5.33: Get real

January 2, 2016

Our commitment to intimate music of the 16th century tends to baffle our musical friends and colleagues.  Of course there are more effective ways to reach modern audiences who have been conditioned to respond to loud music and flashy staging. To modern audiences, the acceptable standard performance involves belting out a noisy number in front of a large band; engaging in bodily gyrations before an elaborate backdrop with a distracting light show.  To us, that means Monteverdi.

We know many keyboardists, organists and string players who should (and sometimes do) understand that loud 16th-century music was typically performed only outdoors, or in massive cathedrals on important feast days.  A fine line separates pandering to modern tastes and simply doing what is necessary to attract an audience, and we respect the intelligent financial choices of our friends and colleagues. But intellectual honesty demands that we draw the line when performance practice is deliberately misinterpreted, hijacked, and used to justify a modern aesthetic.  Essentially, this describes the orchestrated early music phenomenon that advanced what was known as the a cappella heresy—a movement to perform any and all early vocal music with voices alone. This approach became the norm despite the disturbing lack of evidence to support the practice and despite clear evidence to the contrary demonstrating instrumental participation in polyphonic music.

Of course, we love vocal polyphony and indulge on a regular basis.  But it is clear that vocal polyphony developed in tandem with music for solo voice and lute, and much of the published part music may have even started out life in the more intimate format. As we learn from the writing of Howard Mayer Brown, there is a universe of information that must be discovered, digested and internalized before one can understand and deliver truly sensitive interpretations of sixteenth-century music, our area of concentration.  A particularly useful article is Howard Mayer Brown, “‘Ut Musica Poesis’: Music and Poetry in France in the Late Sixteenth Century”, Early Music History, Vol. 13 (1994), pp. 1-63.

“…If we are ever to understand the complex interplay of music, poetry, ideas and politics we need to set aside aesthetic criteria, however important they normally are to us, in the effort to comprehend better the entire range of musical activity in sixteenth-century France, as well as its effects and purposes.”

This enlightening article is chock-full of information vital to a sensitive musical interpretation of sixteenth-century music for voice and lute.  Characteristically thorough, Brown’s article has seven detailed appendices attached, including a listing of all the musical settings of Ronsard‘s poetry published between 1550 and 1566.  Regarding the more obvious development of (published) vocal polyphony and the less obvious standard practice of  (mostly unpublished) music for solo voice and lute, Brown referred to the innovations of the French Pléiade through the writing of Pontus de Tyard (c. 1521 – 1605).

“[Tyard] strongly advocates monophonic music, single lines of melody that enhance rather than destroy the words, over the polyphony of his day that produces, according to Tyard, merely a great noise without moral value (‘un grand bruit, duquel vousne sentez aucune vive efficace’) – a polyphony, in short, that does not allow the words to produce their proper effect. In this connection, Tyard makes what is perhaps his clearest statement about the aim of music: ‘l’intention de Musique semble estre de donner tel air a la parole que tout escoutant se sente passionni, et se laisse tirer a l’affection du Poete’ (the intention of music appears to be to give melody to words so that all the listeners will be moved and will understand the affect of the poet).”

“Music obeys cosmic laws, but ultimately in the service of a persuasive rhetoric that moves people at the same time as it relates them directly to a universal world order. Poetry imitates nature, but music imitates poetry. It is surely a commonplace that French musicians and intellectuals have scarcely ever been as interested as some of their European counterparts in a completely abstract music, divorced from words or dance movements. Tyard seems to underscore that attitude in implying, too, that the cultivation of polyphony (and hence perhaps by extension also of purely abstract instrumental music) was an activity less praiseworthy and less deserving of serious consideration than the creation of a music associated with poetry.”

“The fact that the compositions were said to be measured on the lyre, whereas they were in truth published as polyphonic four-part pieces, reminds us that sixteenth-century music as it appears on the printed page is not always what it seems. It is but another example of music presumably intended in the first place as solo song but actually issued in a neutral polyphonic version which had to be adapted for performance, most probably in more than one equally acceptable way.”

Vocal polyphony is wonderful to hear and fulfilling to sing.  But let’s be honest: it does not convey texts as clearly as a solo voice with the lute playing the lower parts.  Like the application of accidentals in early music, it was not necessary to state that this was the standard performance practice because everyone knew it to be so.  But it is possible for a vocal ensemble to sing with sensitivity to texts and there are some specialist groups like the Ensemble Clément Janequin who nearly always include a lute in their performances, indicating their adherence to historical practice in a manner that only enhances the virtuoso quality of their ensemble singing.  For the rest, get real and find a lutenist.


One Comment
  1. Brown was one of my favourite musicologists, and I was lucky to hear a series of lectures he gave at Amherst Early Music shortly before his death. The combination of lute and voice is my favourite, though second favourite is shawm band heard in its proper element, outdoors. Having been forced to play lute in a “crowd scene” a few times, I’ve always admired shawms’ ability to hold their own against any size crowd! Brown’s best joke during his lectures referred to the debate among early music types as to whether the Chicago Symphony should be _allowed_ to play Beethoven!

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