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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

An academic style is one in which the process of making is considered to be of paramount value, and therefore one in which the maker’s technical apparatus is at all times on display. It is a species of tour de force in that its “art” is demonstratively advertised, never concealed, but it has a different character from other tours de force that we have encountered because the primary addressee of the compositional display is not the casual beholder (or ordinary “consumer”), but rather the initiated connoisseur of craft, which in practical terms means the composer’s fellow practitioners or producers. It is an art of guild secrets, of tricks of the trade, of a self-selected and exclusive professional class. It is a new, inner-directed manifestation of the aristocracy of talent. Its remuneration comes not in the form of public acclaim but in professional prestige.

The all but interminable fourth item from the 1547 collection Ricercari di M. Jacques Buus, Organista in Santo Marco di Venetia da cantare, & sonare d’Organo & altri Stromenti…, Libro Primo, a quatro voci (Ex. 15-7) has long been a famous piece because of the way it takes things to extremes. A motetlike ricercare will generally proceed like a motet through several points of imitation, each based on a new soggetto or “subject” (to use Zarlino’s word) as if crafted to fit a new line of text. Buus’s fourth ricercare proceeds similarly and at unusual length, but with every one of its points based obsessively on the same five-to seven-note motivic “head.” Ex. 15-7a shows the beginning of the ricercare with the motivic heads set off by brackets. Ex. 15-7b tunes in again at the very end, some 83 measures (and a good ten or a dozen minutes) later, to find the same motive still chugging away. While applying a technique that had its origins in text-setting, Buus’s ricercare has thus clearly and deliberately transcended those origins and has entered the utopian realm of abstracted technique. The aim now is not to match a soggetto to a phrase of text but to show everything that can be done with a given soggetto within the technique normally applied to texts. It is, in effect, the great motet in the sky. The irony, of course, is that a technique devised to particularize the musical potential of a specific text—that is, in the humanistic sense, to enhance its content through rhetoric—has left rhetoric behind in its pursuit of an ideal, exhaustive (which means, ultimately, a generalized) consummation. From text-realization the technique has turned toward self-realization. Depending on one’s point of view, that turn can be seen as an ascent or a descent—or, perhaps, just a deviation. At any rate, the name of the genre seems eminently justified: the composer’s aim has indeed been deflected from expression or communication to pure “research.” It will not be the last time.

In pursuit of its own exhaustion, Buus’s soggetto appears in myriad variants. Most entries are rhythmically unique, all have independent continuations, and a few have independent preparations (for example the bassus in m. 7 and m. 10). The whole piece has a rudimentary “macrostructure” or overall form, shaped around a section in the middle that features rhythmic augmentation of the soggetto and counterpoint in syncopes. Enlargement in another dimension is achieved by varying the pitch of entries far beyond what can be found in any texted piece. The vast majority of entries are made exactly where one would expect to find them in a motet: on G, the final, and at the higher fifth or tuba (D). A large number also take place at the reciprocal—that is, lower—fifth (C). Yet in the course of the piece the soggetto is transposed to every note of the scale, even B. At times the secondary pitches stake out little contrasting tonal regions. Thus the tonal contrast, too, announces a sectional division and contributes to the perception of an overall shape. Rhythmic and tonal contrasts, in short, function in this ricercare the way the words of the text do in a motet, as formal articulators.

Academic Art

ex. 15-7a Jacques Buus, Ricercare no. 4, mm. 1-15

Academic Art

ex. 15-7b Jacques Buus, Ricercare no. 4, mm. 98-110

Yet the overall impression is one not of sections succeeding sections but rather the ultimate “leisurely flow of melody”—so leisurely as to attract a great deal of censure over the years from modern writers who have found it dull. Listened to the way modern listeners are encouraged to listen to “classical” music—that is, as object of one’s full attention, with no other purpose than to repay that attention—Buus’s ricercare can indeed seem dull. Given its technical rigor and its uneventfulness, it is easy to write it off as music that only a composer could love; and that is actually not too bad a characterization of much academic composition.

But while academic, Buus’s ricercare is not “absolute music” in the our modern sense of the term; such a thing did not yet exist, even if a certain amount of sixteenth-century music is now listened to in that way. Rather, Buus’s ricercare, like virtually all the music of its time, had a definite role to play within a social occasion. Its primary purpose was to fill time otherwise empty of sound in church. Viewed as accompaniment to action—yes, as background music—the piece seems quite apt to its purpose. That purpose, in fact, explains the curious fermatas that appear about two-thirds of the way through the piece. They denote not a “hold till ready,” but an alternative ending—to be used, we may assume, on days when there was a light turnout for Mass and the communion ritual could be correspondingly curtailed.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015009.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 25 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015009.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 25 Oct. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015009.xml