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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

Gaspar van Weerbeke presided over a stellar group of young musicians in Milan, testifying to his employer’s zeal in patronizing nothing but the best as an aspect of princely self-aggrandizement. That is to say: with great acuity, the Sforza dukes managed (in part through Gaspar’s scouting “nose”) to recruit at early phases of their careers a pleiad of future stars, including at least two whose future fame would eclipse Gaspar’s own. They included Johannes Martini (d. 1498), who served briefly in Galeazzo’s chapel choir in 1474, between stints at the rival court of Ercole (Hercules) I, Duke of Ferrara, where he eventually directed the chapel choir. In all likelihood, and in time-honored fashion, he used his invitation to sing at Milan as a stepping-stone toward the betterment of his rank at Ferrara.

Even more illustrious than Martini was the youngest northern star who trained under Gaspar van Weerbeke at Milan in the 1470s, a Frenchman named Loyset Compère (d. 1518) who eventually went back home to serve in the court chapel of King Charles VIII in Paris. It was on Compère that Gaspar van Weerbeke and his specially crafted Milanese music made the strongest immediate impression. An even greater number of motetti missales survives from Compère’s pen than from Gaspar’s, and Compère continued to develop this style and to apply it to new genres. His Marian pastiche, Ave Maria, is about as low in style as a motet can go, leading one to suspect a double purpose, hailing both Maria Virgo and Galeazzo Maria, both Virgin protectress and noble patron. In its patchwork of texts and tunes it is a virtual send-up of the ancient ars combinatoria, cast in very up-to-date patter declamation—syllables placed on minims!—that renders the texts with a dispatch bordering on flippancy.

In the motet’s prima pars (first half), a cantus firmus is sneaked into the altus, the least “essential” (and therefore, so to speak, least conspicuous) voice, and paraphrased in such a way as virtually to disappear into the contrapuntal warp and weft. It was a familiar melody, however, and no doubt meant to be noticed (at second hearing, perhaps, with a furtive smile of recognition). The plainsong original, a sequence for the Feast of the Assumption (but often sung at other Marian services and appropriated, as it is here, for votive purposes), begins with the familiar words of the daily “Hail, Mary!” prayer, entered above the polyphony in Ex. 13-9.

Meanwhile, the tenor, the voice most likely to carry significant preexisting material, is confined to a monotone recitation of the prayer that the sequence quotes, as if mimicking the mumbling of a distracted communicant going through the rosary, the string of beads on which one counted off the “fifteen decades” (15 × 10 = 150!) of Aves that a pious Christian was expected to recite each and every day. When the rosary recitation in Compère’s tenor reaches the name of Jesus, the prayer shifts over to a patchwork of all-purpose litanies: “Kyrie eleison,” “Hear us, O Christ,” “Holy Mary, pray for us,” and so on. The texture, meanwhile, gathers itself up from the opening fairly fragmented state through paired voices (beginning, of course, with the “structural vs. nonessential” opposition), proceeding through an opposition of high and low voices, and ending with an emphatic homorhythm.

Fun in Church?Fun in Church?

ex. 13-9 Loyset Compère, Ave Maria, mm. 1-18

The secunda pars expands the litany to include a wide variety of patron saints, mirroring the crowd of new names with a pervasively imitative texture in which the order and interval of entries, and the rhythmic values, are unpredictably varied. The motet explodes at the end into a long and exceptionally virtuosic triple “proportion.” This is truly something new: funny church music—funny, but still pious. Piety of this kind, though, is “humane”—pitched to the level of its hearers, rather than (like the English High-Church polyphony sampled earlier) way, way over their heads.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Middle and Low. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013005.xml