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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

And this raises a final cluster of fascinating, somewhat troubling questions. What is the relationship between the esthetics of modern music-listening and the esthetics of fifteenth- or sixteenth-century service music that is so often transplanted now from its natural habitat to the secular concert stage or to the even more casual venues where recordings are savored? What survives the translation process? What is lost in it? What, for that matter, may be gained?

These questions apply with particular urgency to cyclic Mass Ordinaries—large and impressively complex compositions in multiple parts. Their status as the paramount genre of their day prompts comparison with genres that enjoyed comparable standing in other historical periods. As Manfred Bukofzer, the most eminent historian of the genre, once put it, the cyclic Mass Ordinary in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries “held as dominating and prominent a place in the hierarchy of musical values as the symphony did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”7

The comparison between the cyclic Mass Ordinary and the symphony seems especially compelling because both genres are composites of smaller constituent units that are conceived and presented in a certain fixed, conventional order. But a moment’s reflection will confirm that the constituent sections of the cyclic Mass Ordinary actually have very little in common with symphonic movements, and that the nature of the two genres as wholes, however unified, is really just as dissimilar and incommensurable as is the nature of their component parts.

The manuscript choirbooks containing cyclic Mass Ordinaries can mislead us. Unlike the scores that preserve and transmit classical symphonies or more recent compositions, they are service books that store music as economically as possible for active use. Each voice part, as we know, is separately inscribed for the individual singers’ benefit, rather than space-wastingly aligned for a reader’s perusal. The “movements,” moreover, are entered in direct sequence, like those of a symphony, even though they were never performed in direct sequence. But that, of course, is how they are generally performed in concert and recordings today, as if Masses were in fact choral symphonies.

Modern transcriptions of cyclic Masses, like those on which we have been relying for most of our examples, “score” the works in accordance with modern practice and make them look more like symphonies than ever. So it is easy to forget (or ignore, or minimize) the fact that the “movements” of a cyclic Mass Ordinary, the first pair excepted, were spread out in performance over the whole length of the service, spaced as much as fifteen or twenty minutes apart, with a great deal of liturgical activity, including other music, intervening.

And that, over and above any urge to unify the works “esthetically,” is why the “movements” of cyclic Masses were deliberately made to resemble each other as much as possible. As we have seen, they all begin exactly alike, with a “headmotive”; they all feature the same foundation melody, often presented in identical or near-identical form in the tenor; and—how completely unlike the movements of a symphony!—follow similar or identical standardized formal schemes.

All of this furthered the liturgical or spiritual purpose of the music in its original setting, adorning and integrating a festal rite. But take away all the intervening liturgical activity, and the uplifting symbolic recurrences of familiar music can seem merely redundant. When cyclic Masses are performed as choral symphonies, the music—“as music,” as “esthetically” experienced—often palls. The ideal structure that makes such a strong appeal to our minds (our “organs of contemplation,” as idealist philosophers have sometimes dubbed them) can actually tire the ear when presented without admixture in actual sound. Experiencing the music “as music,” though we may think of it (or been instructed to think of it) as the “highest” way of appreciating music, is not inevitably or invariably the best way to experience it. And it can have little to do with what originally made it “high.”


(7) Bukofzer, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music, 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. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012012.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012012.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012012.xml