S wain argues that in Renaissance music stylized cadences—7-6 suspension cadences, with the penultimate soprano note raised a half-step, where necessary, to create a leading-tone—served to provide an easily recognizable cue to phrase endings. From this developed the V7-I cadence, a gesture whose pitch content was so distinctive that the strict rhythmic conventions of the Renaissance cadence were no longer necessary. He argues that it is no accident that the rise of genres such as the string quartet and the symphony—lacking, as they did, the solo/ripieno contrast of the Baroque concerto—coincided with a new interest in the possibilities of large-scale tonal contrast. With one kind of contrast no longer available, something new had to be found to take its place.”
David Temperley, commenting in 1999 on Joseph Swain’s ‘Musical Languages’.
G esualdo proves [that] ... individual compositions, in the last analysis, count not for what they contribute to the development of a [musical] language, but how they handle their own ‘native’ language [that encompasses expressions and idioms in the broader culture, far beyond music], and it remained for a later perspective to rediscover the intrinsic value... It is a cliché to say of a great composition that it appeals on many levels, but the [inevitably] stratified nature of any musical community makes the cliché a real—almost indispensable—virtue. The health of a musical community depends on great numbers of people who simply listen with sensitivity and intelligence ... plus a few listeners who may attend to the more abstract effects of syntax as well.”T he performance last night in Kansas City by Piffaro & King’s Noyse with Ellen Hargis entitled ‘New Waves in Ferrara: Two Bands, Fresh Sounds’ illustrated a number of 16th and 17th Century innovations. “Large-scale tonal contrasts” of the sort referred to in the quotes above and a surprising amount of chromaticism were among them.
Joseph Swain, p. 165.
T he King’s Noyse consists of five members (two Renaissance-design violins with the neck in-line with the box, two tenor-register violins slightly larger than a viola, and one cello-sized ‘bass violin’) plus Ellen Hargis (soprano). And Piffaro nominally has seven members, but they have on their on-stage table an arsenal of recorders of various sizes/registers, shawms (pre-cursors to oboes, ranging from tiny sopranini ones to giant basso ones), Renaissance bagpipes, sackbuts (trombones), dulcians (precursors to bassoons, in various sizes/registers), harp, lute, guitar/vihuela, percussion instruments). The instrumentation of the ensemble changes with every piece!
I n contrast to the ‘modern’, ‘individualistic’ intimacy that characterizes chamber music from the Baroque forward, the works that Piffaro-plus-King’s Noyse performed (by de Rore, Gesualdo, Luzzaschi, Agostini, and others) reveal the astonishing degree to which each individual musician had to envision and remember and anticipate the voice-leading of others’ parts as well as her/his own part. What I mean is, the kind of intimacy that is evoked in the chamber music ensemble literature from Baroque times onward entails each voice in the ensemble responding to one or more of the others on a relatively short timescale on the order of milliseconds to seconds. By contrast, the kind of intimacy evoked in the ‘New Waves in Ferrara: Two Bands, Fresh Sounds’ program embodies a kind of ‘collective’ intimacy—arising partly from the mostly-barline-less musical text, and from the musicians’ relation to that text, which entails their planning (conceptualizing in advance, and remembering) their playing on a time horizon of multiple bars, multiple phrases, or even an entire piece. The Renaissance ‘evenly-written polyphony,’ orchestrated such that each instrumental part resembles the human voice, compels a collective ‘band-like’ mentality and rhetoric—as David Douglass and Bob Wiemken said during their pre-concert lecture. [There are various writings on Renaissance poetry that characterize this sort of rhetoric as ‘enargeia’—‘to create or energize a communal actuality’ (see Norton, Plett, and Sharpling links below). I don’t notice that this term is used in the Renaissance musicology research literature, but, if it’s true that it’s not already so used, it seems to me that the musicologists might do well to adopt/adapt this expression from their literary colleagues.]
B efore attending the concert I looked at my copy of Anne Smith’s book (link below), which contains photomacrographs of original scores of Renaissance ensemble and vocal music. In some scores, 16th-Century composers corrected some notes and made the revisions in the margins or with the correction immediately following the passage as it was originally written. In other words, due to the costliness of paper the composer chose to fill-in empty spaces rather than use a new piece of paper for revision work. In other examples, the parts/voices were not notated in bar-vertical-alignment with each other—again to save paper. The rehearsal and performance consequences of this Renaissance Northern Italian notational practice in terms of performers’ reading and memory and interpretation were (and are!) monumental. And, regardless whether Piffaro/King’s Noyse/Hargis have created for themselves fair-copy transcriptions (using contemporary music software like Finale® or Sibelius®) that conform to modern practices for readability, the inherent challenges and the virtuosic complexity of the parts remain.
O f course, to deliver an emotionally-moving performance and coherent, worthy interpretation of any music requires each performer to have a vision of the whole piece in mind; requires conceiving the trajectory of the whole. Even if there are random/aleatoric/improvisatory elements, you have to have some advance plan or vision or notion of how you will execute those. The distinct or special aspect of this Renaissance music is the long scope this planning has—the autocorrelation and inter-part crosscorrelation with look-aheads/lags of multiple bars, multiple phrases, or even an entire piece. Makes our frenetic little attention-spans of today seem even tinier than usual!
M ore than that, though, these long timescale inter-relationships—and the look of the scores, and the notations’ shapes, and the composers’ revisions in the margins—seem like beautiful schematic diagrams—wiring diagrams!—that specify meditations on courtly love, loss, reminiscence, and how people related to each other (or, how the composer conceptualized those relations, conditioned by the values and morés of their patrons) in the 16th and 17th Centuries. With evocative Italian poetic lyrics (very nice English translations by Hargis and others in the program notes, by the way)— every passage unfolds an ineffable narrative, charting the process, drawing us in, revealing more and more of the human condition—what it means to be human in any Age. Emulating Walt Whitman’s famous phrase “I contain multitudes,” we consider the “you” in this Renaissance music: we imagine that, in this Renaissance music replete as it is with all of these Large-scale Mutual Awarenesses, the “you” of each performer truly contains multitudes. This is why we like serious music of all kinds, and why we love to attend concerts; at least partly why—one major reason among many.
T he idea ... that one can understand the ratios of musical consonances [in tempered scales] without experiencing them with the senses is wrong. Nor can one know the true theory of music without being deeply versed in its practice.”
Letter from mathematician Giovanni Battista Benedetti to composer Cipriano de Rore, 1563.
- Piffaro website
- Piffaro CDs/MP3s
- Piffaro channel on YouTube
- Ellen Hargis website
- King’s Noyse website
- King’s Noyse CDs/MP3s
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- Luzzaschi page at Wikipedia
- Luzzaschi search at ScorSer.com
- de Rore page at Wikipedia
- Frescobaldi page at Wikipedia
- Gesualdo page at Wikipedia