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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

The major genre on which all these composers lavished their skills, and the chief vehicle for their fame, was a genre that did not exist before the fifteenth century. It may be fairly regarded as the emblem of the century’s musical attainments, for it was a genre of unprecedented altitude.

The quality of “height” or hauteur, as we observed at the end of the previous chapter, was an important determinant of style within an aristocratic culture. It was the yardstick by which subject matter and rhetorical manner had been correlated since pre-Christian times. The classic formulation was given by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 bce), the Roman statesman and orator, who sought an ideal union of rhetoric and philosophy to guide human affairs. To make knowledge effective, it had to be cast in the proper expressive form.

Cicero distinguished three basic styles of oratory, which he called gravis, mediocris, and attenuatus: weighty, middling, and plain. The Carolingian rhetoricians and their scholastic descendants in the twelfth century had modified the Ciceronian doctrine to reflect literary rather than oratorical categories, substituting humilis (“low”) for Cicero’s plain-spoken style and associating it with the vernacular tongues that had replaced Latin for everyday speech, including the speech of the unlettered. In arguing for artistic literature in the vernacular, Dante had set himself the task of proving (on the basis of the troubadours’ achievement) that vernacular languages could accommodate all three levels of discourse, identifying them in terms that had even more obvious social connotations: illustre, mediocre, humile (noble, middling, lowly).

It was Tinctoris who first applied a variation of this time-honored scheme to music. In his dictionary of terms, he designated three musical styles, calling them magnus, mediocris, and parvus: great (= high-ranking or lofty), middle, and small (= low-ranking). He associated each of them with a genre. The small, predictably enough, was associated with the vernacular chanson. The middle was associated with the motet, especially as transformed by contact with English models, as we witnessed in the previous chapter.

The great or lofty style was the style of the Mass—a new type of standardized Mass composition in which five items from the Ordinary (no longer including the brief dismissal-plus-response formula) were set as a musical unit. A musical unit precisely, not a liturgical one, for there is nothing unified about the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei as a set of texts. They had different histories, traced in the early chapters of this book; their structures were different, and they served different functions. Two are prayers, two are acclamations, one is a profession of faith. Only the Kyrie and the Gloria are consecutive in the liturgy.

Settings of the Ordinary in the fourteenth century, as we have seen, were of individual items, or occasionally of pairs. Such complete formularies as exist were ad hoc compilations of individual, musically heterogeneous items (even when, as in the case of Machaut, they were all the work of a single author), opportunistically assembled for “votive”—which from the church’s point of view chiefly meant fund-raising—purposes.

And now, all of a sudden (or so it seems), the Mass Ordinary emerges as a unified musical genre—the most fully unified in history, covering a longer span, and shaped by more purely “musical,” composerly (hence arbitrary) processes, than any we have yet encountered. The fact that its constituent sections were nonconsecutive in performance meant that its musical unity was “thematized” and made symbolic. The musically integrated Mass Ordinary setting now unified the whole service, symbolically integrating a process lasting as much as an hour or more by means of periodic inspiring returns to familiar, hence significant, sounds.

It was the most potent demonstration yet of the abstract shaping powers of music and their potential import in mediating between the human and the divine; and it was a kind of shaping for which the literate tradition and only the literate tradition could provide the necessary means. Consequently, the genre of the musically unified Mass Ordinary quickly acquired enormous prestige as a symbol of ecclesiastical power—the power, let us recall, of a church that was itself newly restored to unity, a church that frequently lent its support to temporal authorities, intervening in their affairs and disputes, and that just as frequently drew similar support from them.

Cyclic Mass Ordinaries were what chiefly filled those early Sistine chapel manuscripts, and thirteen of these mammoth cycles, posthumously collected together in one fantastically decorative presentation manuscript, were what attested to—or rather, what established—Ockeghem’s claim to pre-eminence among the composers of his day. In short, the Mass Ordinary “cycle” became, in Manfred Bukofzer’s words, “the focal point on which all the artistic aspirations and technical achievements of the composer converged,” for it was the focal point of patronage and prestige.1


(1) Manfred F. Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York: Norton, 1950), p. 217.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012003.xml