Monday, 20 February 2012

Catching incense

As I've explored more and more music from the past thousand years, I've found that I've ended up liking music from each and every era. As composer after composer and period after period fell into place (some more easily than others), I found that the last period of music to fall was the Renaissance - specifically Renaissance choral polyphony. I was OK with music from Dufay (first half of the 15th century) backwards and from Monteverdi (very end of the 16th century) onwards, but the music of that age that spread from roughly 1450 through to 1600 seemed hard to penetrate. It all sounded much the same to me, whether it be a Kyrie by Ockeghem, a Credo by Josquin or a Sanctus by Byrd. Instrumental music, Renaissance songs, homophonic choral music were fine, but unaccompanied choral polyphony all drifted through my ears without engaging my understanding. I felt as if I were hearing the same bland cloud of musical incense in pretty much every piece. I gave it time, however, and listened again and again and eventually it clicked with certain composers - Gesualdo, Victoria, Tallis - and the light then spread ever wider, until even Ockeghem, Josquin and Byrd fell. And when they fell, I could for the life of me think why I didn't love their music earlier. It was so beautiful, so masterful, so full of imagination.

I've tried to fathom it out ever since, and I now think I have an explanation.

The music of Dufay and, before him (going backwards in time), Dunstable and Machaut and Perotin and Hildegard is more immediate in its melodic appeal - as is the music of the Gabrielis and Monteverdi from the other end of the period and on. In other words, it's more tuneful. The emphasis was on melody because the melody the composers wanted their listeners to hear was placed where it could be heard most clearly - at the top of the texture. In a four-part piece, say, the sopranos (or more accurately 'superius') would have the tune, the tenors would have a plainchant melody to accompany it, the basses would provide a harmonic foundation and the altos would fill in the gaps (to put it simply!). The uppermost line - the one the ear catches onto easiest - was supreme. Come Ockeghem and Josquin - and those who came in their wake across the length and breadth of Europe - and this changed. All four voices became musically interesting in their own right and stopped specialising. The topmost line lost its primacy (however much its brightness of sound seems to magnetically draw our ears to it.) All lines were equal, and none were meant to be more equal than others (well, most of the time!). Therefore, it's not so easy to hear tunes because tunefulness isn't what the music's about.You are listening instead to a flow of harmony, expressed through interweaving lines. It's a luminous web of counterpoint. The lines are usually beautiful in their own right, but you don't (for the most part) hear them in their own right. They are blended. I'm sure many of you have had little difficulty in just enjoying hearing this blending of voices as they float dreamily across a stained-glass window, or the face of your radio. I'm afraid I need more. When I started following individual lines or listening to the flow of harmony, the clicking process began. After all, counterpoint where (say) four voices interweave and none has primacy is pretty much what Bach was about when writing his fugues. There's no reason why anyone who loves Bach fugues shouldn't take to Renaissance polyphony as well, is there?

Well, as I loved Bach fugues and yet didn't take to Renaissance polyphony anywhere near so readily, there must be more to it than that. What?

Well, composers before and after this period phrased their pieces in a different way to the composers of this period. The key is the way melodic phrases reach their cadences. Listen to Machaut or Dufay, for example, and you hear long, clearly-shaped melodic phrases built from distinctive shorter phrases, whereas with Ockeghem and Josquin the phrases seem to wander around without purpose. With Machaut and Dufay there are clear, punctuating cadences to which these phrases lead, whereas with Ockeghem and Josquin the cadences just seem to turn up - plus we have to wait longer for them to arrive. As a result, the feel of tonal-sounding harmony (which does seem to be something people respond to easily, even in modal music) is much less strong in the music from the heart of the Renaissance age than in any other period up till the 20th century. The freedom of the bass voice is another factor in the undermining of the sense we tonally-attuned modern types have of familiar tonal-sounding harmony in the music of Ockeghem, Josquin and Co. None of these 'problems' exists with a Bach fugue.

So, the music of the period I'm describing is less obviously tuneful and less harmonically familiar than either the music that preceded it or the music that succeeded it. (Yes, I know Machaut's music sounds unfamiliar too, but the unfamiliarity seems almost modern - unlike the unfamiliarity of the Renaissance masters). It is also far less concerned with contrast, especially as regards texture. That, I believe, is why I found it hard to come to terms with for so long. It seemed simultaneously strange and boring. Spend time with it though and it will surely cast its spell over you. Then it will cease to be strange and become anything but boring. The counterpoint can nourish the imagination, the entwining melodic lines carrying you along on one voice after another through lovely harmonies. 

Hopefully, you 'got it' much more quickly than me!

As examples of what I mean, please compare Dufay's motet Ave regina caelorum with the Kyrie from Ockeghem's Missa Prolationum or the Kyrie from Josquin's Missa l'Homme ArméOr compare the Kyrie of Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame with Ockeghem's mesmeric Deo Gratias. (Some truly stunning music here!)

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