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Saturday morning quotes 7.4: Improv II

April 14, 2018

Francesco woodcut

“Musical notation is only a secondary witness. What is more, much of the music actually heard in the Middle Ages was never written down at all. The music historian deals not only with loss of evidence, but also with phenomena which were never ‘evident’.”

Reinhard Strohm, “The Close of the Middle Ages”, Antiquity and the Middle Ages : From ancient Greece to the 15th century, Ed. James McKinnon, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1991.

As we pointed out in our last post, the immense amount of historical European music that survives in handwritten manuscripts and in printed form is only the tip of the iceberg.  When we plunge into the shadowy depths and begin chipping away at the circumference of the immense frozen block of ice, as we approach the heart of the matter we begin to understand that the sort of music described so eloquently in historical literary sources was not played from a written score, but improvised by a musician steeped in classical and contemporary literature, trained in composition and more than familiar with sacred music and vocal polyphony.

“Improvised polyphony was everywhere in the Renaissance…In a recent article describing the incredible feats of improvisation required of Spanish choir masters, Philippe Canguilhem (2011, 99) estimates that “the vast majority” of the polyphony heard in Philip II’s chapel in sixteenth-century Spain was improvised. In earlier centuries the amount might have been even higher. The composed polyphony that comes down to us was a small fraction of the musical landscape. This realization transforms our sense of the past.”

Julie E. Cumming, “Renaissance Improvisation and Musicology”, Music Theory Online: A Journal of the Society for Music Theory. Volume 19, Number 2, June 2013.

Historical composed polyphony is what survives and therefore represents the bulk of what our academics study today.  But the act of limiting ourselves to the study of surviving historical scores is tantamount to studying jazz only from the point of view of the published piano scores of songs by Hoagy Carmichael or Jerome Kern.  To really understand, we have to dig.

“For the highly skilled musician, performing fantasias was an act of creation rather than recreation. The ambition of many skilled lutenists was to develop the ability to extemporize imitative counterpoint using materials appropriated or assimilated from both instrumental and vocal models, if not newly invented.”

John Griffiths and Dinko Fabris, editors, Neapolitan Lute Music: Fabrizio Dentice, Guilio Severino, Giovanni Antonio Severino, Francesco Cardone, Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, 140, A-R Editions, Middleton Wisconsin, 2004, p. xv.

Even though we have a wealth of wonderful historical printed works containing composed fantasias that we play and enjoy today, it follows that lutenists like the famous Francesco da Milano (1497 – 1543) were probably best known by their contemporaries for their ability to improvise.

“The tables cleared, he took up a lute and, as if merely essaying chords, he began, seated near the foot of the table, to strum a fantasy. He had plucked no more than the first three notes of the tune when all the conversation ceased among the festive throng and all were constrained to look there where he was, as he continued with such enchanting skill that little by little, through the divine art in playing that was his alone, he made the very strings to swoon beneath his fingers and transported all who listened into such gentle melancholy that one present buried his head in his hands, another let his entire body slump into an ungainly posture with members all awry, while another, his mouth sagged open and his eyes more than half shut, seemed, one would judge, as if transfixed upon the strings, and yet another, with chin sunk upon his chest, hiding the most sadly taciturn visage ever seen, remained abstracted in all his senses save his hearing, as if his soul had fled from all the seats of sensibility to take refuge in his ears where more easefully it could rejoice in such enchanting symphony.”

– Jacques Decartes de Ventemille, quoted in Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire second ou prose de la musique, 1555.

From the illustration of Francesco at the top of the page, we can’t help but notice he is not staring intently at an open book of music.

Next week we add to this survey of improvisation with some more recent examples.

  1. TJordan permalink

    Given the improvisatory nature of F. da Milano’s lute fantasies (and others), one might assume that the playing or reinterpretation of these pieces should be performed in a much freer, less metered manner than we commonly hear today?

    • It would be difficult to justify a blanket statement that, since most fantasias were improvised, notated music should be performed freely.

      The tactus, or the basic metrical unit, was a very important element in music of Francesco’s time, as was the application of rules of counterpoint (of his time). The latter were so ingrained that any educated musician would know how to apply them, whether improvising or performing notated music.

      I guess that means that a “free interpretation” must not alter the basic pulse, nor cloud recognition of the imitative passages. The most effective interpretation, in my opinion, articulates the phrasing by finding the rhythmical shape of each melodic phrase while observing the tactus.

  2. The last quote is wonderfully insightful and revealing, not only from a music historical point of view, but also from a psychological and sociological perspective. The instantaneous and unanimous silence, all senses focusing on Francesco da Milano’s performance, this spontaneously shared perception demonstrates common respect, acknowledgement, and appreciation for his craft, while illustrating the enchanting appeal and the meaning this music had for the people.

    • Thank you for your comment, J. We love this quote and will often share it in concert, as we will this week when we perform our program of 16th-century Italian music. The “spontaneously shared perception” is what we hope to foster, and the quiet intimacy of the lute tends to focus attention on minute details. I like to think that (at least some) people today still have that appreciation for intricate music, and it’s up to us to demonstrate that quiet, detailed music is not only relevant but necessary today.

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