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This chapter introduces mensural notation and shows how changes of practice affect musical style during the Renaissance, mirroring the approach in the previous chapters in the domain of pitch. Here again, two crucial changes are observable, roughly contemporary with those observed in Chapter 5: the first is the gradual abandonment of major prolation (c. 1440) as the predominant mensuration in favour of perfect tempus, and the alternation of tempus perfectum and tempus imperfectum (with minor prolation) as a structural feature in larger-scale works; the second is the adoption of tempus imperfectum as the standard mensural sign during the final quarter of the fifteenth century, after which the notational subtleties associated with the system of ‘four prolations’ gradually fell out of use. But this chapter also demonstrates the great elegance of the mensural system, showing its flexibility and economical presentation of situations of considerable rhythmic intricacy, which has an aesthetic quality all of its own. In many cases, the conception of the individual work is grounded as much in its notation as in the sounding result.
This chapter rejoins the methodology of normative approaches to voice-ranges and functions sketched in Chapter 5. Renaissance polyphony is considered in terms of the related compositional determinants of scoring, texture, and scale. The principal topics are: fifteenth-century pieces that lie outside the normative parameters seen in Chapter 5; the rise of imitation, viewed as a sub-category of texture, through to its paradigmatic status in the sixteenth century; the polyphony of the English Renaissance, much of whose earlier history develops along very different lines to continental music; and finally, the changes of approach to scale in Renaissance polyphony, from the ‘out-sized’ cyclic Masses at the turn of the sixteenth century to the growing emphasis on the number of voices, culminating in the ‘sonic blockbusters’ fashionable in European courts at the end of the century, whose most enduring manifestation is Tallis’ forty-part motet ‘Spem in alium’.
This chapter introduces the two principal forms of polyphony practiced during the Renaissance: written and extemporized. The transition from manuscript to print culture is perhaps the most significant extramusical determinant for musical practice in the Renaissance period. Examples of manuscript and printed sources (including different kinds of written sources) are examined, and their implications for practice considered. Next, different forms of extemporized practices are introduced and described, including the surviving evidence for them; in turn, their implications for polyphony as a practice are considered. Finally, the two forms of practice are compared, and the relationship between the two. It is clear that most teachers of the time regarded them as interdependent, while viewing the relationship differently.
This chapter introduces the first of the fifteenth-century teacher Johannes Tinctoris’ three ‘registers’ of polyphony: the music for the Mass, beginning with the Mass cycle (setting the Ordinary of the Mass, in liturgical terms) and its development during the Renaissance, then the Propers of the Mass, then finally the Requiem. Whereas the setting of Propers and their chants is a practice as old as polyphony itself, the Mass cycle and the Requiem were more recent phenomena. Guillaume Du Fay’s ‘Missa L’Homme armé’ appears as a case-study, showing how the Mass cycle builds on the work of previous composers of Mass-music in England and aspects of the isorhythmic tradition (which in a sense it supersedes), whilst introducing new elements that condition the form’s later history through to the end of the Renaissance. The end of the chapter highlights the porousness of practice sketched earlier with regard to the boundary between mass-music and motets, discussed in the following chapter.
Since a survey of Renaissance secular forms would be even more quixotic (given the bounds of the current study) than for the motet, a half-dozen pieces are singled out for focused discussion, allowing for a summary of the specific types and more general trends they represent: Ockeghem’s virelai ‘Ma bouche rit’ as a representative of the formes fixes; Senfl’s ‘Lust hab’ ich g’habt zuer Musica’ (strophic forms); Lassus’ ‘En un chasteau’ (epigram); Flecha’s ‘La bomba’ (the descriptive chanson); Tye’s ‘Sit fast’ and ’O lux’ (instrumental music); and Cipriano ‘Da le belle contrade’ (madrigal).
This chapter introduces the following three, which survey the principal forms of Renaissance polyphony. Crucial to these forms is the relationship of music and text, which reveals considerable differences in approach during the period itself and relative to later periods from the Baroque to the present day. In unravelling these differences, the notion of genre and its pertinence to Renaissance music is critiqued in the light of recent scholarship, showing that Renaissance approaches to the concept of the musical work were also considerably different. Whilst this is a somewhat contentious issue, the points of tension uncovered here make sense of the evidence of primary sources (especially before the advent of print) concerning the re-purposing of polyphony outwith the context of its composition. The key difference from subsequent periods is that the notion of an ‘original’ would likely have had little pertinence to Renaissance musicians, and certainly none of the baggage that pertains to it in a later, Urtext-driven age. It also explains the relative porousness of the categories that later become studied under the heading of genre.
This chapter examines the use of borrowed material; that is, basing polyphony on existing music, whether plainchant or polyphony previously composed. The techniques described have intentionality in common: cantus firmus treatment of varying degrees of strictness, including paraphrase, ‘imitation’ technique (formerly known as ‘parody’), and more allusive forms. Special consideration is given to the different motivations for the practice (dating back to the origins of polyphony itself), ranging from symbolic or allegorical representation to emulation and competition between composers. Picking up from Chapter 8, the family of ‘L’Homme armé’ Masses offers a case-study of these relationships, but the practice of musical borrowing transcends any single genre, type, or destination. Equally remarkable is the possible range, scale, and scope of allusion, from overt quotation over an entire work to passing reference or evocation of a given technical parameter in ways that may not be directly audible. Finally, different types of borrowing reconfigure the relationship between composer, performer, and audience; these changing dynamics are closely considered.
This chapter introduces the topic and this book, setting out its key aims and general approach, which privileges the appreciation of Renaissance music in its sounding reality whilst fostering an awareness of what lies beyond the notes. It then interrogates the periodization of music history, and specifically that of the Renaissance in music. It reviews previous approaches towards locating the topic historically, arguing for an intrinsically musical approach to the question, and proposing the Europe-wide reception of the ‘Missa Caput’ (by an anonymous English composer), c.1440, as a possible starting-point.
Extending several of the themes explored previously (especially in Chapters 3 and 12), this chapter explores the notion of game-playing (in the widest sense) and its incidence on the conception and reception of Renaissance polyphony. Topics include: hexachord pieces and games involving specifically musical device (e.g. ostinato); pitch-related games, especially cadence; fugal and non-fugal canons; Augenmusik and visual puzzles or paradoxes; and the relationship between music and number. The question to whom these games were directed, and to what end, surfaces once again. It is proposed that much in Renaissance polyphony that was regarded by critics of later periods as self-indulgently abstract or abstruse is attributable to this ludic quality, which was ‘lost in translation’, particularly by writers of the Enlightenment and its aftermath. Yet again, listeners are encouraged to consider what lies beyond the sound-image of Renaissance music, thus deepening their appreciation of the music.
Having considered polyphony as practice in the previous chapter, the focus switches to its practitioners. To begin, the view of music as theory and practice in the Renaissance period is reviewed, tracing the transition from the medieval view of music as science to its status as an art, which comes to a head in the Renaissance period and affects the perception and social status of practitioners of polyphony. This leads to a detailed consideration of the singer-cleric, the primary model for practitioners of polyphony at the start of the period, and the gradual recognition of composition as a salaried activity in its own right, independent of singing, in the decades just before 1500. The sixteenth century brings greater diversification, not least owing to the rise of an urban middle class, catered to by the explosion onto the scene of print culture. The implications of these trends for musicians is considered in the remainder of the chapter, which examines the changing status of the composer, the role of instrumental ensembles in the performance of polyphony, and the emergent status of women as both paid performers and published composers.