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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin
“Il Eccelentissimo Adriano” and His Contemporaries

fig. 15-3 Adrian Willaert, in a woodcut that served as frontispiece to Musica nova (Venice, 1540), a collection of ricercars for organ or instrumental ensemble by Willaert and several of his Italian disciples.

The other main finishing or perfecting touch that distinguished the “classic” polyphony of the mid-sixteenth century higher genres (Mass and motet) was the full rationalization and codification of dissonance-treatment, a polishing or smoothing-out process if ever there was one. Here again, Zarlino was the authoritative theorist, but in matters of high gloss he confessed his particular indebtedness to his revered teacher and mentor, to whom he never referred except as il eccelentissimo Adriano, “the most excellent Adriano.” We know him as Adrian Willaert. Thanks in part to Zarlino, Willaert looms in history as the great mid-century stylist.

Born around 1490 in West Flanders (now Belgium), either at Bruges or in a smaller town to the south, Willaert was the last in the line of Flemings and Frenchmen who dominated Italian court and chapel music since the early fifteenth century. In a way he was Josquin’s creative grandchild, for his primary teacher was Jean Mouton (ca. 1459–1522), a member of the French royal chapel under Louis XII and Francis I and an important composer of motets. The poet Ronsard, writing in 1560, called Mouton Josquin’s best pupil.8 Other writers, too, called attention to their special affinity.

It is unlikely, though, that Mouton could actually have studied with Josquin. He could have known the older man only in the period of his own relative maturity—and even at that, only if Josquin really was in residence at the French court, for which there is no clear evidence. It is certain, however, that association with Josquin, the greatest luminary of the day, was as good for Mouton’s reputation as it would be for anyone else’s, and that Mouton consciously emulated Josquin’s motets in his own. The style characteristics he educed from Josquin—paired imitation, clear declamation, a rhetorical approach to form—he passed on to Willaert in turn.

He also passed on what Glareanus, who admired Mouton the most of all the composers of the immediate post-Josquin generation, called his facili fluentem filo cantum: his “leisurely flow of melody,”9 the result of a studied regularity of rhythmic motion and a sophisticated technique for evading or eliding cadences, an important development about which there will be more to say in connection with Willaert and Zarlino. Willaert was by no means its only inheritor, or (by that token) Josquin’s only creative grandchild. Before looking closely at his work, we can create a context for it by briefly inspecting that of his two most important contemporaries, both slightly younger than Willaert but shorter-lived. Between them, they succeeded in developing Mouton’s leisurely flow into a majestic sound-river, in which the various component voices, no longer functionally distinguished in any obvious way, constantly enter and leave, contributing their individual, elegantly shaped lines to a generous yet impervious texture that leads a seemingly inexhaustible life of its own.


(8) Pierre de Ronsard, Livre des mélanges, in Ronsard, Oeuvres complètes, ed. P. Laumonier (Paris, 1914–19), Vol. VII, p. 20.

(9) Glareanus, Dodekachordon (Basel, 1547), p. 450.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 15 A Perfected Art. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015004.xml