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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection

Palestrina, Byrd, and the Final Flowering of Imitative Polyphony

CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Before turning our attention to the many other ingredients in the seething cauldron that was sixteenth-century music, it will make sense to pursue the ars perfecta to the end. For indeed, the perfected art had an end, and it was near at hand. It had to be, for anything perfect, in this world, is doomed. Perfection cannot change, yet nothing in human history stands still. The only way to preserve the perfected art was to seal it off from history. This was done, but the price was high. The ars perfecta, as we shall see, still exists, but not in a way that matters anymore. In the sixteenth century it claimed all the greatest musical minds in Catholic Christendom. Later, it harbored nonentities, and the church that maintained its artificial life-support system gradually lost its significance as a creative site for music. The sixteenth century was the last in which the music of the Catholic church made history. From then on it was history.

The ars perfecta came about because musicians had something timeless, universal, and consummate to express: God’s perfection as embodied and represented by God’s own true church, the institution that employed them. Although nowhere stated by Zarlino, still less by Willaert (who wrote a quantity of secular music in genres we will soon be taking up), the values of musical perfection, however mediated by humanism, implied and reflected belief, as the Credo of the Mass puts it, in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam: “one holy universal church, sent by God.” The standards to which musicians serving such an institution aspired transcended the relativity of taste, just as the doctrines of religion are held by believers to represent an absolute truth, mandating in turn an absolute standard of behavior—one that does not aim to gratify the individual and that cannot be altered to suit the wishes or purposes of individuals, or the changing values and fashions of secular society.

Therein lay both the beauty and the despair of the ars perfecta. It was the music of Utopia—a term coined by Thomas More, not at all incidentally, during the sixteenth century. The world was its enemy. Perfection had to be enforced in order to exist at all. And yet music, a human product, did inevitably change. Many deplored the changes; the word used to sum them up—“Baroque”—though now regarded as a neutral identifying tag like “Renaissance,” was originally a term of opprobrium, used by jewelers to describe a misshapen pearl or by critics to describe a bombastic utterance. It meant “distorted.”

That is what music surely became from the perspective of the ars perfecta, as would anything that deviated from a standard of perfection. By the second half of the sixteenth century the forces of “distortion” were rife, and some of them had arisen within the church itself. Others were the result of literary movements. Still others were the outcome of a radical turn within musical humanism, which had always been an uneasy ally of religious transcendentalism. There were also pressures brought by the burgeoning music trade, pressures that reflected the overall rise of mercantilism and that militated further against the prestige of religious art. As we shall see, moreover, in every one of these responses that led away from perfection and toward the “Baroque,” it was Italy that took the lead. What is usually called the “Baroque” period might more truly be called the period of Italian dominance in music.

By century’s end the ars perfecta was only one style among many—no longer privileged, no longer where the action was. In a way its fate mirrored the larger fate of the Roman Catholic Church, which was left at the end of the sixteenth century a transformed institution—no longer truly “catholic,” but much more truly “Roman.” It was no longer truly “catholic” because it was no longer the undisputedly universal Western church; now it had to compete for adherents with a whole variety of Reformed churches that had sprung up to the north for a variety of reasons, doctrinal (Germany, Switzerland) and political (England). It was more truly Roman because its power, having become more localized, was more and more strongly concentrated among the Italian bishops and cardinals. The last non-Italian pope before the election of John Paul II in 1978 was Adrian VI, a Netherlander who was elected in 1522 and reigned, rather ineffectually, for only twenty months. For more than 450 years, from Clement VII to John Paul I, the nationality of the Roman pope was a more or less foregone conclusion. The same sixteenth-century transfer from Netherlandish to Italian leadership took place in Roman Catholic music.

The two composers to be chiefly treated in this chapter—Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (ca. 1525–94) and William Byrd (1543–1623)—were the outstanding members of the last generation of musicians who kept the ars perfecta faith unquestioningly. Theirs was the last generation of musicians who unanimously saw the highest calling of their art in divine service, and whose primary social relation as artists was to institutions of the Catholic religion. They brought the ars perfecta to its greatest stylistic heights even in the period of its cultural decline. Their actual relationship to religious authority differed diametrically. Palestrina was the quasi-official musical spokesman of Catholic power, Byrd its clandestine servant in adversity. The difference is reflected in their music, to be sure, and with intensity; but that difference found expression within a fundamental stylistic agreement, which after all is what the ars perfecta was all about.

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. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-016.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-016.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-016.xml