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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

Classicism, by definition, is teachable. We can be sure that every one of the technical observations just made about Willaert’s music corresponds to the composer’s conscious practical intentions because the techniques involved were abstracted and explicitly transmitted as methods by Zarlino. A fairly hilarious instance of this abstraction and transmission is a bicinium that Zarlino devised to demonstrate “how to avoid cadences” (Il modo di fugir le cadenze). Its object is to give as many examples as possible of Willaert’s technique of making the voices “give the impression of leading to a perfect cadence, but turn instead in a different direction”13 (Ex. 15-6).

The Progress of a MethodThe Progress of a Method

ex. 15-6 Gioseffe Zarlino, Il modo di fugir le cadenze (Istitutione harmoniche, Book III)

Because he was so obviously and enthusiastically a perfecter of method, and because like many methodical types he seems to have had both a flair and a taste for pedagogy, Willaert enjoyed an enormous celebrity as a teacher. No previous composer left behind so distinguished a list of pupils or so explicit a technical legacy. The pupils included two famous Flemings. One of them, Cipriano de Rore (ca. 1515–65), was appointed to succeed Willaert as St. Mark’s choirmaster, no doubt owing to the lingering preference given northerners, like the lingering preference for Europeans as orchestra conductors that can still be observed in America today. Partly owing to ill health, Rore was unsuccessful in the St. Mark’s post and withdrew after a couple of years. He died in 1565 and was replaced by Zarlino, a fellow pupil of Willaert but an Italian, who held it until his death in 1590. Afterward the musical leadership at St. Mark’s remained in native hands, reflecting a lessened sense that high art music was an imported product. Largely thanks to Willaert, Venice was full of outstandingly learned Italian musicians: Nicola Vicentino, Girolamo Parabosco, Costanzo Porta, and above all Andrea Gabrieli, to name only his most famous Italian pupils. It was Willaert’s very supremacy in Venetian music and his very success as a teacher that finally overcame the Franco-Flemish hegemony. Indeed, by the end of the century Italy would become the great training center for musicians in the literate tradition.

The Progress of a Method

fig. 15-5 Francesco Spinacino’s Recercare de tous biens as it appears in his Intabolatura de Lauto (Venice: Ottaviano Petrucci, 1507).

The other important Fleming whom Willaert trained, or at least decisively affected, was the Ghent-born Jacques (or Jachet, or Jakob) Buus (ca. 1500–65), who in the 1540s worked under Willaert as second organist at St. Mark’s and published three books of music for his instrument. The fact that Buus was the first distinguished musician in the literate tradition to be chiefly concerned with instrumental music gives him considerable historical significance, and a place in this narrative a little out of proportion, perhaps, to his actual musical achievement. But he, too, played a role of some consequence in the perfecting of the ars perfecta and its further cleansing, so to speak, by dint of transference to a wordless medium.

That medium was the ricercare. The word, etymologically related to our word “research,” connotes seeking and finding. That is an old metaphor for what we now think of as artistic “creation,” familiar to us at least since the days of the troubadours, the “finders” of courtly love songs. Terminology based on the seeking rather than the finding end of the process may go all the way back to the Vulgate, the standard (fourth century) Latin translation of the Bible, where the term “composer” is rendered in one place (Ecclesiasticus 44:5) as requirentes modos musicos, “seekers of tunes.”

As a musical term, the word ricercare goes back to the beginning of the sixteenth century and is first encountered in early printed lute tablatures. A tablature or intabulation is a form of notation, still used to indicate guitar or ukulele chords in popular sheet music, that prescribes not the sounds to be produced but the hand placements or other actions that go into producing them. The Intabolatura de lauto by Francesco Spinacino, published in Venice by Petrucci in 1507, contains the very first known use of the term (in a variant spelling, recercare) and also illustrates the use of tablature (Fig. 15-5). What looks like a staff in this source is actually a stylized picture of the neck and fingerboard of the lute, each line representing a string. The numbers superimposed on the lines represent the frets behind which the player’s fingers are to be placed, and the headless stems above show the rhythm.

Early lute tablatures like this one are only marginally a part of the literate tradition. What they really contain are recordings, as it were, of the kind of performances virtuoso instrumentalists gave of vocal music. Practically all the pieces in Spinacino’s collection are arrangements of currently fashionable motets and chansons. The book opens, in a manner that will hardly surprise us, with an Ave Maria by Josquin (not the famous piece discussed in the previous chapter but a short setting of the traditional prayer), and goes on to provide intabulations of the most popular songs of the day, including both J’ay pris amours and De tous biens playne.

The only original compositions in the collection are the ricercari, and they are minimal, consisting mainly of finger-flexing scale segments and flourishes. The first one, shown in Fig. 15-5, suggests by its title, Recercare de tous biens, that it was intended as a prelude before playing the intabulation of the song itself. It, too, was probably a transcription of an unwritten virtuoso practice, and the whole book probably served as a primer—a book of notated examples for emulation as a part of one’s training in that unwritten practice—rather than a collection of finished texts.

Some of Spinacino’s ricercari have minuscule points of imitation, to show another kind of thing that virtuoso improvisers were expected to toss off. Whether these impulsive little passages underlie the development of the kind of ricercare that Buus practiced, which was composed “strictly”—that is, in pervading imitation throughout—is hard to say. It is worth remembering, though, that a great deal of what a church organist does today is still improvised—such as grinding out music by the yard to accompany liturgical actions of indeterminate or unpredictable length: communions, for example, where the length of the ceremony depends on the number of mouths to fill. That is where church organists probably played their ricercari. The first organ ricercari were published in Venice in 1523 by Marco Antonio Cavazzoni, then the organist at St. Stephen’s Church in that city. They still resemble the fairly raw written-out improvisations of the lutenists. But eventually the Venetian organ ricercari began aspiring to the style of the ars perfecta motet. And just as the first published lute ricercari appeared in Venice, the strict church motet-ricercare seems also to have been a Venetian innovation and one perhaps attributable to Willaert and his immediate circle.

The earliest strictly composed ricercari appeared in Venice in 1540, in a set of four partbooks called Musica Nova. Eighteen of the 21 textless pieces in the collection are called ricercari. Although the title page calls them “suitable for singing or playing on organs or other instruments,” and the partbook format made possible home performance by ensembles, there can be little doubt that they were primarily composed for the organ and for church, and that performance by ensembles was a secondary option offered by the publisher to stimulate sales. All of the composers represented in the collection were church men. Pride of place, naturally, went to Willaert. One of his ricercari is printed first, but only two of the remaining twenty were his. The lion’s share, thirteen in all, were by a composer called “Julio da Modena” in the edition, but identifiable by comparison with other sources as the organist Julio Segni, who did indeed hail from Modena, but who from 1530 to 1533 served as Willaert’s first organist at St. Mark’s and probably composed his ricercari at that time. (The remaining composers represented in Musica Nova, Girolamo Parabosco, and Girolamo Cavazzoni, Marco Antonio’s son and a future luminary of the instrument, were then teenagers receiving instruction from Willaert.)

So Buus, Willaert’s second organist at St. Mark’s, was following in a tradition perhaps established by Segni, Willaert’s former first organist, in composing ricercari for the keyboard in the clean “perfected” style of a Willaert motet—ricercari so nicely crafted and precisely voiced that they could be published in partbooks and marketed as actual ensemble music. It was a complete about-face from all previously known keyboard practice, and its justification cannot be sought within the domain of the keyboard. There is no reason why keyboard music should ape the contrapuntal consistency of contemporary vocal music save an ideological reason: that the perfection of style achieved by the high art music of the literate tradition was held to be a universally valid achievement. The hegemony of the literate tradition had begun. Academic music had been born.


(13) Zarlino, The Art of Counterpoint, p. 151.

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 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015008.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 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015008.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 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015008.xml