We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

Passages from two pithy motets in Byrd’s Gradualia, one from each book, show the ultimate degree of refinement not just of Byrd’s art but of the whole art of Catholic church polyphony. Ave verum corpus, the sacramentary hymn for the feast of Corpus Christi, is probably the best known piece from these late books, possibly Byrd’s best known sacred work outside of the Masses. Partly because its text is a hymn, and partly because of the way (reminiscent of the ending of Josquin’s Ave Maria) it addresses Christ using the first person singular, it is one of Byrd’s most unwaveringly chordal settings. Not only that, the motet is virtually without conventional dissonance; even cadential suspensions are often avoided. At the same time the harmony is famously wayward and, by implication, discordant. Why the seeming contradiction between the stark simplicity of the texture and the fractious harmonic ambience? As usual, the answer is to be sought in the domain of rhetoric.

The subject of the motet is one of the great marvels of Christian dogma: the transubstantiation of the Communion Host into the body of Christ. We have already seen Palestrina using unusual harmonies to delineate a magnum mysterium; but where Palestrina uses a chromaticism that arises out of a speeded-up sequence of ordinary fifth-relations, Byrd exploits with special expressive intensity a harmonic usage that, while not unknown in continental music, was cultivated with special gusto by English composers and is for all practical purposes an English trait.

That special feature is called the “false (or cross) relation”; it consists in the immediate juxtaposition or brief simultaneous occurrence in two voices of a diatonic scale degree and its chromatic inflection (often pitting the major vs. the minor third in a triad). Successive cross relations pervade the motet; simultaneous cross relation occurs at the moment of prayer, miserere mei (Ex. 16-20), in which the bass’s F rubs directly against Fé, the sustained chord third in the tenor, creating a dissonance to add urgency to the words addressed to God.

The Peak (and Limit) of Stylistic Refinement

ex. 16-20 William Byrd, Ave verum corpus, mm. 36-43

For a last look at Byrd, and at the ars perfecta, we can focus on Non vos relinquam, the Vespers antiphon to the Magnificat for the feast of Pentecost, known in England as Whitsunday. The Pentecost liturgy, being the climax of the jubilant post-Easter season known as Paschal Time, resounds throughout with the word “Alleluia,” the emblem of exaltation. That was another word Byrd never took for granted, but clothed in countless specially expressive guises. Here he throws in an extra “Alleluia” of his own to rebound against the first word of the liturgical text in what was known as a “double point”: a complex of two motives that unfold in perpetual (and perpetually varied) counterpoint (Ex. 16-21). It was something he had inherited from Ferrabosco (who had inherited it from the Continent), but which Byrd took to a new level of suppleness and concision.

The remaining ejaculations on “Alleluia,” for each of which Byrd invented a new motive and wove a new point, are liturgical. In his setting they punctuate a texture that has become so interpenetrated with imitative cells and little homorhythmic blasts as to make the task of unraveling them a wholly pointless and thankless exercise. This is the ultimate—the farthest point the ars perfecta reached before it gave way to new stili moderni or froze into the mummified state known as the stile antico. Byrd, who lived until 1623, was the very last composer for whom the ars perfecta was not a stile antico but a living style to sustain the best imaginings of the greatest musical minds.

The Peak (and Limit) of Stylistic Refinement

ex. 16-21 William Byrd , Non vos relinquam (Gradualia, Book II)

Our comparative survey of Palestrina and Byrd at the latest extremity of the ars perfecta has shown nothing if not the extraordinary versatility that pliant medium had achieved over the century of its growth since the humanist embrace of Josquin. Why was it abandoned? It is not enough simply to invoke progress (at best) or change (at least) as the general, inevitable condition of human history. One must try to account for changes, especially changes as fundamental as this one, in specific terms, as responses to specific pressures.

In the three chapters that follow, three such pressures will be identified and described in turn. There was the joint pressure of the new markets opened up by printing for secular music, and of the literary movements that influenced the ways in which secular poetry was set. There was the pressure, already a haunting presence in the last two chapters, of religious unrest. And there was the pressure of what might be called “radical humanism,” the true Renaissance idea, which (paradoxically in the light of conventional style-periodization and its attendant labels) actually brought about the loss of faith in “Renaissance” styles and ideas, leading to their disintegration and the birth of the “Baroque.”

None of these pressures accomplished their evolutionary work suddenly. To account for each of them it will be necessary once again to step back in time and renarrate the story of sixteenth-century music from a new perspective. Breaking down a complex story of change into several perspectives is admittedly an artificial analytical technique, and one not normally available to those who actually live through the change in question.

Therein lies both the advantage and the disadvantage of retrospect. We can perform our dissection, if we are lucky, to our satisfaction, and persuade ourselves that we understand the change better than those who experienced it. But they are the ones who felt (or resisted) its necessity, suffered the losses, and rejoiced in the gains. Our understanding is rationalized, articulate, and imaginary; theirs was immediate, real, but inarticulable. The reconciliation of the two, as well as the resynthesis of all the different stories our analytical perspectives entail, must take place in the reader’s mind.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 3 May. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 3 May. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 3 May. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016013.xml