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 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

And yet the perfection of the ars perfecta shows up all the more clearly against its rough-hewn rival. Of course the rough-hewn metrical psalm was just as deliberately rough-hewn as the perfected style was deliberately perfected. We have just seen examples of both from a single composer, who chose his styles according to his purposes. The difference shows up particularly well at the “joints”—the line ends and cadences: pronounced and emphatic in the metrical psalm, artfully smoothed over in the Latin motet. Indeed, there is no place where Ex. 15-3a, the opening of Qui consolabatur me, could have broken off without interrupting something in progress.

The place chosen to break it off, the spot where the setting of the line “recessit a me” ends, is a particularly vivid case in point. A cadence on B-flat is elaborately foreshadowed and contrapuntally prepared to take place between the superius and the “quinta vox” in m. 23 and thus bring the first section of the motet to a graceful conclusion. But the quinta fails to follow through with the expected B-flat, leaping instead to E-flat. The superius, as if surprised, veers off into a little melisma to mark time till the next available B-flat harmony. But the next point of imitation (its words—quaero quod volui, “I seek what I desire”—almost seeming to mock the poor superius) has already got ten underway, introduced right under the surprising tenor E-flat by the bass, and the superius finally trails off without full cadential support.

This sort of thing was where the true art of “perfected” composition lay. As Richard Wagner would put it many years later, the art of composition was the art of transition. Here is where Willaert was the supreme technician, and that is why, for Zarlino and all who read his treatise, Willaert was the perfector of music and the preceptor supreme.

In part, of course, Willaert owed his supremacy to the fact that in Zarlino he had what Josquin had in Glareanus, namely an ardent propagandist. Partly, too, it was a matter of favorable location and business acumen. Willaert lived and worked in Italy, at once the focal point of patronage and the center of the burgeoning music business. He was lucky enough to find an admirer in Andrea Gritti, the doge (chief magistrate) of republican Venice, who chose him, over several candidates with more seniority, for one of the most prestigious and lucrative cathedral posts a musician could aspire to—maestro di cappella at the splendid eleventh-century church of St. Mark’s, one of Europe’s architectural glories. He was installed in 1527, when he was in his middle thirties, and served until his death in 1562.

Willaert and the Art of Transition

fig. 15-4 St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice.

He also struck up a profitable relationship with the local music printers, Antonio Gardane and the brothers Scotto, the undisputed captains of the sixteenth-century Italian music trade. Beginning in 1539, Gardane and the Scottos brought out about two dozen volumes devoted to Willaert’s works, comprising Masses, motets, and several genres of secular vocal and instrumental music. The man became a one-man music industry.

And yet Willaert’s preeminence did depend at least in equal part on the specific qualities of his music. His secret, the thing that made him, rather than Gombert or Clemens, the true “classic” of his time, and the arbiter supreme of established excellence, was his stylistic moderation and lack of idiosyncrasy. Moderation, and a certain impersonalism, are traits commonly correlated with classicism. Willaert possessed them, one might almost say, to an extravagant and individualizing degree.

He achieved the extraordinary balance, clarity, and refinement identified with perfection by avoiding Gombert’s density and Clemens’s conceits. In effect, he leapfrogged backwards over the achievements of his “post-Josquin” contemporaries and deliberately restored some basic elements of Josquin’s own style, as idealized and propagated by the humanists. The result was a leaner, cleaner idiom that Zarlino could more easily codify and that could then become a true lingua franca, a medium of international commerce. Thus it was Willaert, above all, who made Josquin (or rather, “Josquin”) a truly representative sixteenth-century composer.

Willaert and the Art of Transition

ex. 15-5a Adrian Willaert, Benedicta es, coelorum regina, mm. 1-15

Willaert and the Art of Transition

ex. 15-5b Adrian Willaert, Benedicta es, coelorum regina, mm. 24-31

Willaert and the Art of Transition

ex. 15-5c Adrian Willaert, Benedicta es, coelorum regina, mm. 144-50

The process can be most keenly illustrated by a motet of Willaert’s that parallels a motet of Josquin’s with which we are familiar. His Benedicta es, coelorum regina, published by Gardane in 1545 (Ex. 15-5), draws its melodic material from the same Gregorian sequence that had previously served as motet source both for Josquin (see Ex. 14-9) and for Mouton, Willaert’s teacher. The two settings, Josquin’s and Willaert’s, would thus seem related in a direct line of succession. And yet they are actually quite dissimilar. Josquin’s setting observes a radical functional distinction between the cantus firmus voices and the “free” ones, each group treated separately, if equally, in imitation. In Willaert’s motet the chant material is thoroughly absorbed into the imitative texture, and there are no essential functional distinctions among the voices.

But this observation, even as it puts distance between the two settings of Benedicta es, links Willaert’s with the opening of Josquin’s Ave Maria, the model of models. That is the work with which Willaert’s Benedicta es (like most of his other motets) has most in common. There is the same varied pairing of voices, the same canny deployment of the texture so that tuttis are rare and climactic. That texture, in consequence, is airier and simpler than Gombert’s or Clemens’s, and for that reason all the closer to Josquin’s.

Texting is more often on the semibreve than on the minim, and it is more nearly syllabic (hence more intelligibly declaimed) than in the work of Willaert’s immediate predecessors. There are even suggestions, at times, of Josquin’s rhetorical use of homorhythm for emphasis. Willaert was famed for his attention to declamation. Zarlino included a famous, nearly unprecedented set of declamation rules in his treatise that is widely presumed to reflect Willaert’s explicit teaching.

Where Willaert is nevertheless recognizably a “post-Josquin” composer is in his use of harmony. The obvious giveaway is the final chord of the piece, a full triad approached plagally—even now the most typical sort of “Amen” cadence (see Ex. 15-5c). Note that Willaert’s spacing of the final chord, with the intervals progressively smaller as the pitch ascends—octave, major third, minor third reading up—corresponds to the theory of the senaria (six-as-perfect-number) as set forth by Zarlino. Were there a fifth part, it would certainly take the D between the Gs, so that the intervals of the senaria would line up even more completely: fifth, fourth, major third, minor third. (A sixth voice, theoretically, would go an octave below the low G, but in practice it is freed by the limitations of human vocal range to double one of the existing Gs.)

There is also the more disciplined and regular handling of dissonance—more regular not only than Gombert’s or Clemens’s, but even more regular than Josquin’s. As one example of a dissonance that might occur in any of the others but not in Willaert, see m. 21 in Gombert’s In illo tempore, near the end of Ex. 15-2. The dissonance is in the superius: before moving to B, its C is held against the Gs in the tenor and sextus, producing a 4–3 suspension, and against the D in the quintus, producing a 7–6 suspension—but also against the B in the bassus, which produces a 9–8 suspension against what we would call the leading tone. Today’s students learn to avoid that one by applying the rule that one does not sound the resolution tone (in this case B) against the suspended tone (in this case C). Zarlino’s readers were the first students to be so instructed in writing, and Zarlino must have learned the rule from Willaert.

The most important way in which Willaert’s style differs from Josquin’s, however, is that Willaert (like Gombert and Clemens) was at all times concerned to maintain a seamless, “leisurely flow of melody,” as he had learned to do from his teacher Mouton. And so he was at all times concerned with mitigating, eliding, or actually evading cadences. Even without benefit of Zarlino, Willaert’s motet is already a veritable textbook on smooth cadence-avoidance.

Sometimes the avoidance is achieved by what we still call the “deceptive cadence.” The first example of this comes at the very first cadence in Ex. 15-5: the end of the opening superius/altus duo (m. 8). The altus drops out instead of sounding its octave G against the one in the superius, and at the same time the bassus sounds an unexpected E a third below the final. That E, however, while unexpected harmonically, is very much expected melodically: the deceptive cadence arises right out of the bassus/tenor imitation of the opening point. Nothing could be smoother. Sometimes the avoidance is more subtle. The phrase “Et mundi” (first heard in the superius in mm. 13–14) is calculated to enter against, and draw attention away from, cadences that have been prepared in the other parts.

An especially ingenious cover-up is the one that hides the literal repeat of the opening superius/altus duo in m. 28 (Ex. 15-5b) behind continuing, harmonically diversionary action in the lower parts. Where earlier composers, including Josquin, had often inclined toward overtly modeling the shape of their chant-derived motets on that of the chant itself (in this case the “double versicles” of the sequence), Willaert, while actually honoring the melodic repeat, tries to obscure the fact. The aim seems always to be the avoidance of anything that will sectionalize the music, except where the composer expressly wishes to sectionalize it. The abstractly conceived, “purely musical” or composerly form of the polyphonic motet, in two cadentially articulated halves expressly labeled “first part” and “second part,” takes precedence over the form of the liturgical model. The result is a music that is carefully and expertly controlled in every dimension, yet one without a hint of flashy tour de force. That is as good a description as any of a “classic” style.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015007.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015007.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 29 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015007.xml