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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento
Richard Taruskin

Was there a musical “Renaissance”? Was this it? To ask such questions, of course, is to answer them. If there were no problems with the term, there would be no questions to ask. The short answer to questions like these is always (because it can only be) yes and no. A fair sorting of the issues is the best we can do or hope for, one that will address not only the immediate case but also the question of periodization as broadly as it can be framed.

The “yes” part of the answer addresses the broad question. Artificial conceptual structures are necessary for the processing of any sort of empirical information. Without them, we would have no way of relating observations to one another or assigning them any sort of relative weight. All we would be able to perceive would be the daily dribble of existence multiplied by weeks and years and centuries. That is the very antithesis of history.

On a more mundane level, we need subdivisions of some kind in our conceptualization of history because subdivisions provide handles by which we can grip the part of the story that interests us at the moment without having to contend at all times with the whole. Without such conceptual subdivisions, which when applied to chronology we call “periods,” we would have no way of delimiting fields of research, or of cutting up a book like this into chapters, or of organizing scholarly conferences, or (say it softly) of recruiting faculties of instruction at colleges and universities.

There is always the attendant risk that artificial conceptual subdivisions, hardened into mental habits, become conceptual walls or blinders. And there is also the related risk that traits originally grouped together for convenience will begin to look as though they are inherent (or immanent, “in-dwelling,” to use the philosopher’s term for it) in the material being sorted rather than the product of a creative act on the part of the sorter. When we allow ourselves to be convinced that traits we have adopted as aids in identifying and delimiting the “medieval” or “Renaissance” phases of history are in some sense inherent qualities of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance—or worse, that they express the “spirit” of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance—we have fallen victim to a fallacy.

That fallacy is called the fallacy of “essentialism.” When an idea or a style trait has been unwittingly defined not just as a convenient classifying device but as something essentially “medieval” or essentially “Renaissance,” we are then equipped (or rather, fated) to identify it outside as well as inside the boundaries of the period in question. They are then liable to take on the appearance of “progressive” traits (if they show up, as it were, in advance of their assigned period) or “regressive” ones (if they show up afterward). Not only does this confusion of assigned attribute with natural essence contribute to the teleological view of history as a directed march of styles (directed toward what, though, and by whom?); it also reflects back upon whatever it is that we are observing the values we associate with terms like progressive and regressive, which are borrowed from the language of politics and are never morally or emotionally innocent.

When periods are essentialized, moreover, we may then begin seeing objects classed within them in invidious comparative terms as more or less essentially medieval or Renaissance. We may become burdened with considerations of purity or fidelity to a Zeitgeist (a “spirit of the time”) that never burdened contemporaries. And that is because unless we are very cautious indeed, we can forget that the Zeitgeist is a concept that we, not “the time,” have constructed (or abstracted). We may then value some objects over others as being better, or even as being “the best” expressions of “the spirit of the Middle Ages” or “the spirit of the Renaissance.” If this sort of essentialism seems innocuous enough, we might transpose the frame of reference from the chronological to the geographical, and reflect on what happens when people become concerned over the purity or genuineness of one’s essential Americanism or Africanness or Croathood.

Subdivisions, in short, are necessary but also risky. Periodization, while purportedly a neutral—which is to say a “value-free”—conceptual aid, rarely manages to live up to that purpose. Values always seem somehow to get smuggled in. And this happens even when periodization is conducted on a smaller scale than the totality of history. Composers’ careers are also commonly periodized. All composers, even the ones who die in their twenties or thirties, seem to go through the same three periods—early, middle, and late. No prizes for guessing which period always seems to contain the freshest works, the most vigorous, the most profound.

The reason for raising these questions now is that the fourteenth century, and in particular the trecento, has been a period of contention with respect to musical periodization. In art history and the history of literature, scholars have agreed that the Florentine trecento marks the beginning of the Renaissance ever since there has been a concept of the Renaissance as a historiographical period. (That is not as long as one might think: the first historians to use the term as it is used today, for purposes of periodization, were Jules Michelet in 1855 and, with particular reference to art and literature, Jakob Burckhardt in 1860.) For art historians the first Renaissance painter, by long-established convention, is Giotto (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1266–ca. 1337), a Florentine whose primary medium was the church fresco, or wall painting. In literature, it is Dante and Boccaccio, both Florentines, who for historians mark the great Renaissance divide.

An Important Side Issue: Periodization

fig. 10-5 Giotto di Bondone, The Kiss of Judas, a wall painting from the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Giotto’s realism and his adoption of ancient Roman models have made him, for art historians, the first “Renaissance” painter.

The concept of the Renaissance in general historiography centers on three main considerations: secularism, humanism (sometimes conflated as “secular humanism”), and the rebirth—in French, renaissance—of interest in the art and philosophy of pre-Christian antiquity and its adoption as a “classical” model. All three concepts depend on the prior (and implicitly repudiated) notion of a medieval world that was sacred and inhuman in its outlook and shut off from the classical past. (“Essential” concepts can only originate as comparative ones: if we did not know “hot” we would not know “cold.”) Applying them to the fourteenth-century Florentines, moreover, is done in hindsight, a hindsight that casts them as anticipators of trends that reached fruition later. (“Anticipations,” being “progressive,” are value-enhancers.)

Even though Giotto’s output is almost entirely sacred in its subject matter and intent, he is regarded as an incipient secularizer because his figures, to the modern eye (and even to his contemporaries), have seemed more realistic—more “of this world”—than those of his predecessors. (Boccaccio: “he painted anything in Nature, and painted them so like that they seemed not so much likenesses as the things themselves.”6) That greater realism, moreover, can be attributed to Giotto’s adoption as a model for emulation of the artistic remains of ancient Roman culture in preference to the more immediate legacy of Christian (Byzantine) art. (Boccaccio: “He brought back to light that art which for many centuries had lain buried under errors.”) Dante’s status as a proto-Renaissance figure depends above all on his being the first great Italian poet to use the vernacular, that is, a living language of this world, even as he adopted a pre-Christian classical poet, Virgil (who actually figures in Dante’s Divine Comedy as the author’s guide) as his model for emulation. And Dante is a protohumanist despite his divine (that is, inhuman) subject matter because of his passion for introspection, for analyzing and reporting his own physical and emotional reactions to the visions and events that he portrayed. Putting himself so conspicuously into the picture meant putting a man there, which ultimately meant putting Man there. Or so the periodizing narrative insists. Boccaccio’s status as a proto-Renaissance figure is much easier to account for, given his realistic subject matter, his prose medium, and his irreverent style. Historians differ as to Dante’s position with respect to the medieval/Renaissance divide. All agree on Boccaccio’s place. But Dante and Boccaccio were contemporaries. Could they then belong to different periods?

It is not at all difficult to relate the proto-“Renaissance” indicators to the music of the trecento. Its secularism is self-evident; with the possible (and, for periodization, possibly troublesome) exception of the troubadours, on whose legacy the trecento poets and musicians so zealously built, no artists were ever so fully preoccupied with the inventory, and the pleasures, of this world. Its intimate connection with the rise of “the vulgar eloquence,” to use Dante’s term, is likewise a demonstrable fact. The special relevance of Landini, the foremost exponent of “ballata-culture,” to Boccaccio’s world could hardly be more conspicuous.

Landini’s output can be related just as effectively as Dante’s or Boccaccio’s to what the literary historian Leo Spitzer called the shift from the poetic to the empirical “I”—from the poet as impersonal observer to (in Michael Long’s words) “the poet as individual engaged in self-analysis.”7 This shift came about in response to the tastes of the Florentine public—an audience of self-made men—and can easily be viewed as a shift from the God-centered worldview of “The Middle Ages” to the Man-centered view of “The Renaissance.”

Since the view of trecento music as a harbinger of the Renaissance turns it into a “progressive” repertory, hence extra-valuable for teleological history, the trecento-as-Renaissance view has won many advocates ever since the trecento repertory was rediscovered by musicologists around the beginning of the twentieth century. It has not caught on generally, however, partly because the rediscovery came after the conventional style-periodization of modern music history had been established, and partly because of the situation implicit in its very rediscovery.

That situation, simply put, is the extreme perishability of music compared with the other art media, and the consequent lack of classical models for it. There could be no revival of a pre-Christian classical past in music, since there was practically nothing left from that vanished musical culture to revive. As a result, the idea arose among musicians and their audience alike that music was an art virtually without a past—or at least without “a usable past.” As one German writer, Othmar Luscinius, put it in 1536, at the very height of what we call “the Renaissance,”

how strange it is that in matters of music we find a situation entirely different from that of the general state of the arts and letters: in the latter whatever comes closest to venerable antiquity receives most praise; in music, he who does not excel the past becomes the laughing stock of all.8

We have already observed a comparable attitude in Landini’s madrigal Sy dolce non sonò, in which all the mythological (i.e., classical) masters of music were mocked by a comparison with (on the one hand) a “modern” musician (Philippe de Vitry), or (on the other hand) a barnyard fowl. Many modern historians prefer to view the beginning of the musical “Renaissance” somewhere between the beginning and the middle of the fifteenth century, a period from which we have many witnesses testifying to the general perception that music had been reborn—or rather, that a usable music had actually been born—in their own day. We will sample and evaluate their opinions on the new in later chapters; here it will suffice to quote the fifteenth-century theorist Johannes Tinctoris’s opinion of pre-fifteenth-century music, including trecento music. Such songs, he wrote, were “so ineptly, so stupidly composed that they rather offended than pleased the ear.”9 Indeed Cosimo Bartoli, a Florentine scholar of the sixteenth century, observed (in a book about Dante!) that the composers of Tinctoris’s time had “rediscovered music, which then was as good as dead.”10

If we call that “rediscovery” the beginning of the “Renaissance” period for music, we are using the term in a very different way from the way it is used in general history. We are in effect endorsing and perpetuating an invidious comparison. The term, in such a usage, is not descriptive but honorific—a mark of favorable judgment—or even, as the music historian Reinhard Strohm has suggested, a mere “beauty” prize.11 The use of the term “Renaissance” to coincide with what fifteenth-century musicians saw as the birth of their art, or its rupture with its past, becomes downright paradoxical at the other end of the period. For at the end of the sixteenth century, musicians did in fact try to revive the art of pre-Christian antiquity—not in terms of its style (for they could not know what that was) but in terms of its effects as described by classical authors. Only then did music actually join “the Renaissance,” as the term is understood by general historians. But this belated emulation of antiquity was precisely what led to the overthrow of what music historians now call the “Renaissance” period, and its replacement by the so-called Baroque!

Yet to try and avoid this terminological quagmire merely by pushing the beginning of the “Renaissance” back a hundred years to the trecento would scarcely help. As we will shortly see (and whether or not it makes sense to call it a “Renaissance”), there was indeed a stylistic watershed for music in the fifteenth century, as there was for painting and literature in the fourteenth. If there is to be a periodization, it should not contradict the actual history of styles. As already hinted, the fifteenth-century watershed came about as the result of the internationalization of musical practices—what might be called the musical unification of Europe. But it was not a “Renaissance,” and there is no point in calling it that. We may as well admit that the term serves no purpose for music history except to keep music in an artificial lockstep with the other arts—a lockstep for which there is a need only insofar as one needs to construct a Zeitgeist, an “essential spirit of the age.” So as far as this book is concerned, then, the answer is no: there was no musical Renaissance, and therefore no “Renaissance music.” The latter term will only appear in this book surrounded by ironic quotation marks (“scare quotes”) as if to say that although one may use it occasionally for convenience to designate music of a certain age, one should not take it as really descriptive of anything in particular.


(6) The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio, trans. Richard Aldington (Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing, 1930), p. 329 (Sixth Day, Fifth Tale).

(7) Michael Long, “Francesco Landini and the Florentine Cultural Elite,” Early Music History III (1983): 87.

(8) Othmar Luscinius, Musurgia seu praxis musicae (Strasbourg, 1536), quoted in Jessie Ann Owens, “Music Historiography and the Definition of ‘Renaissance,”’ MLA Notes XLVII (1990–91): 307.

(9) Johannes Tinctoris, Liber de arte contrapuncti (1477), as translated in Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 199.

(10) Cosimo Bartoli, Ragionamenti Accademici (1567), quoted in Owens, “Music Historiography,” p. 311.

(11) Renhard Strohm, The Rise of European Music 1380–1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 541.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 8 Oct. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 8 Oct. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010008.xml