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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

But let us conclude this chapter with some reminders that perfection, as a standard, is a matter of attitude and values. The ideals implicit in the ars perfecta were not universally shared at any time or in any place, as we have only to glance across the English Channel to discover. When last we looked, English church music had already diverged significantly in style from the continental variety, and the stylistic differences, it was already evident, indicated a difference in attitude. But if Josquin’s style and Cornysh’s already made for a striking contrast, just compare two excerpts from the Sanctus of a Mass by John Taverner (1490–1545), Willaert’s exact contemporary (Ex. 15-8).

Alternatives to PerfectionAlternatives to Perfection

ex. 15-8a John Taverner, Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, Benedictus, mm. 7-21

The luxuriant melismatic cantus-firmus polyphony that characterized the Eton Choirbook antiphons has continued its jungle growth. Neither textual declamation nor structural imitation play anything like the role they had long since come to play in the humanistically influenced church music of continental Europe from the Low Countries to Italy. None of the music examined up to now in this chapter sported anything so old-fashioned as a traditional plain-chant cantus firmus in long notes. Taverner occasionally unifies the texture with repetitions among the voices, but such imitations are still close to their conceptual origins in such “medieval” devices as voice-exchange and hocket (see in particular the higher moving parts at “Domini” in Ex. 15-8a).

The impression is of a music—and a religious attitude—supremely untouched by “Renaissance” humanism. Such music is still a loftily decorative art rather than one expressive of its occasion. And it is still one that insists upon the difference—or rather the distance—between the human and the divine.

That was explicitly the reaction of a Venetian diplomat who was privileged to attend High Mass at one of Henry VIII’s royal chapels, sung by choristers “whose voices,” he marveled, “were more divine than human.” His other comment is best left in his own Italian words: Non contavano ma giubilavano, “they did not so much sing as jubilate,” the last being a word that has carried a charge of religious emotion for us since the days of St. Augustine, who described jubilus-singing as “a mind pouring itself forth in a joy beyond words.”

At the most basic level, it came down to a difference in how music and words were supposed to connect. Where continental musicians strove to make their music reflect both the shape and the meaning of the texts to which it was set, and none more successfully than Willaert, the insular musician remained true to an older attitude, according to which the music contributed something essentially other than what human language could encompass. The English melismas continued to hide the text, so to speak, from aural view, and thus preempt it. Next to the work of Taverner, the ars perfecta is revealed as a fundamentally rationalized art, an art whose tone had been lowered in the name of reason, brought down to earth.

The English still sought the opposite. Their music, aspiring to raise the listener’s mind up above the terrestrial, provided a sensory overload: higher treble parts than anywhere else, lower bass parts, richer harmonies—including that special English tingle, the suspended sixth (given a spotlight at the very end of Taverner’s Sanctus; see Ex. 15-8b). Motivic imitation—an orderly, rational procedure if ever there was one—is only a sporadic decoration here, never a structural frame.

Alternatives to Perfection

ex. 15-8b John Taverner, Missa Gloria Tibi Trinitas, Benedictus, mm. 26-end

The heaviest overload of all came in the guise of length, a heavenly expanse in which the listener is lost by design. An early Tudor setting like Taverner’s of the Mass Ordinary—a text that can be recited in a couple of minutes—will typically last about three-quarters of an hour, and that is minus the Kyrie, which in Tudor England was always full of tropes, left in plainchant, and considered a part of the Proper. A Tudor polyphonic Mass setting begins with the Gloria. And even so, it is half again as long as a full five-section continental Ordinary from the sixteenth century, which will usually clock in at under thirty minutes if sung straight through at a comparable tempo.

It is often said (and even echoed, somewhat ironically, here) that the English music of the early sixteenth century represented a survival of medieval attitudes that had, owing to the so-called Renaissance, become outmoded on the continent. Dueling Zeitgeists again: they simplify the story but do not clarify it. For the “Renaissance” Zeitgeist is represented in this dichotomy in a very selective and tendentious guise. As students of humanism have long agreed, humanism as a mode of thought is by no means to be equated, in its totality, with rationalism or “modern” empirical attitudes. It retained a great deal of magical thinking about nature and about human nature, and about the influence of the cosmos on the human constitution, all of it fully sanctioned by a different strain of classical thought from the one on which the ars perfecta theorists relied. The god of the perfectionists was orderly Aristotle, the great observer and classifier and logician. The god of magical thinkers was Plato, who believed in a realer reality than that which either our senses or our empirical logic can grasp.

The transrational and transsensible powers of music that the ancients described—its ethos, to use their word for it—lay altogether outside the Aristotelian ken of those highly professionalized musicians of the ars perfecta like Zarlino or Willaert. But they attracted the keen attention of neo-Platonist humanists (mainly literary men), many of whom practiced astrology and tried to harness the occult power of music to aid them in calling upon cosmic forces. Chief among them was the Florentine physician, classical scholar, and musical amateur Marsilio Ficino, the founder of the Platonic Academy of Florence, a bastion of humanism and an emblem of “The Renaissance” if ever there was one. He thought that music was the best avenue available to humans for “capturing celestial benefits,” and even tried to codify the practice of “channelling astral influxes” in a treatise called De vita libri tres (“Three books on life”). Needless to say, Ficino’s treatise has little in common with Zarlino’s. It prescribes no actual method of composition, but instead gives three rules by which to judge the products of composition, drawing on the magical powers of correspondence or analogy—that is, of shared attributes. A three-sided relationship is set up between the active force, the stars, and the passive receiver, the human organism, with the song, which imitates the attributes of the stars in a form assimilable by the human organism, as the effective mediator of the influx. As translated by Gary Tomlinson, the leading modern investigator of the occult branches of musical humanism, Ficino’s rules are these:

  1. (1) To examine what powers in itself and effects from itself a given star, constellation, or aspect has, what these remove and what they provide; and to insert these into the meanings of our words so as to detest what they remove and approve what they provide.

  2. (2) To consider what star chiefly rules what place or person, and then to observe what sorts of tones and songs these regions and persons generally use, so that you may supply similar ones, together with the meanings just mentioned, to the words which you are trying to expose to the same stars.

  3. (3) To observe the daily positions and aspects of the stars and investigate to what speeches, songs, motions, dances, moral behavior, and actions most people are principally incited under these, so that you may imitate such things as far as possible in your songs, which aim to agree with similar parts of the heavens and to catch a similar influx from them.14

Thus, to channel the benefits of Venus, one makes a song that is “voluptuous with wantonness and softness”; to channel the sun’s influence one makes a song that has “grace and smoothness” and is “reverential, simple, and earnest”; and so on. Not technical perfection but uncanny efficacy is the goal. What did these songs sound like? Who sang them? Did they work? Wouldn’t we like to know! But Ficino never wrote down any of his astrological songs, and (as Tomlinson has emphasized) they are irrevocably lost behind the oral curtain to those, like us, who depend on our literacy (and on empirical reasoning rather than analogy) for knowledge.

Not only Ficino’s explicitly astrological songs, but a great deal of more ordinary music-making, too, was credited with irrational magical force during what we now call the Renaissance. There is a famous memoir by a French diplomat, published in 1555, of the playing of the Italian lutenist Francesco da Milano (1497–1543), that resonates with what Ficino called raptus or trance, what modern anthropologists call “soul loss,” and what the more recent language of spiritualism calls “out-of-body experience.” Francesco had been hired to entertain the company at a noble banquet:

The tables being cleared, he chose one, and as if tuning his strings, sat on the end of the table seeking out a fantasia. He had barely disturbed the air with three strummed chords when he interrupted the conversation that had started among the guests. Having constrained them to face him, he continued with such ravishing skill that little by little, making the strings languish under his fingers in his sublime way, he transported all those who were listening into so pleasurable a melancholy that—one leaning his head on his hand supported by his elbow, and another sprawling with his limbs in careless deportment, with gaping mouth and more than half-closed eyes, glued (one would judge) to the strings of the lute, and his chin fallen on his breast, concealing his countenance with the saddest taciturnity ever seen—they remained deprived of all senses save that of hearing, as if the spirit, having abandoned all the seats of the senses, had retired to the ears in order to enjoy the more at its ease so ravishing a harmony; and I believe that we would be there still, had he not himself—I know not how—changing his style of playing with a gentle force, returned the spirit and the senses to the place from which he had stolen them, not without leaving as much astonishment in each of us as if we had been elevated by an ecstatic transport of some divine frenzy.15

The last phrase in this description of musical shamanism or sorcery, about “ecstatic transport” and “divine frenzy,” is rife with neo-Platonist buzzwords. At the other end of the passage we get a valuable clue to the music through which the sorcerer wielded his magic. To “seek out” (chercher in French, cercar in Italian) is the root word behind ricercare, and a fantasia, as we already know, is an early way of describing “made up” (as opposed to quoted) music. We get a glimpse of a ricercare-in-action, the kind of thing that only occasionally got written down, and the kind of effects it could produce, not on the permanent page but in ephemeral performance. The passage celebrates the power of the artist-improviser, the diametrical opposite from the artist-creator of the literate ars perfecta ideal. It celebrates the power of music in performance, something lost when music becomes text, and therefore lost to the historian’s direct experience.

Lest we think for that reason that the account must be wholly fictional, and lest we therefore despise it, we might reflect on other manifestations of musical soul-loss as experienced by the audiences of charismatic performers throughout history and into our own time. Similar uncanny mesmeric effects were achieved by Romantic virtuosi like Paganini on the violin and Liszt on the piano—effects that, in the twentieth century, have largely been ceded to what are now known as popular entertainers: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson. These are the names of Francesco da Milano’s most recent heirs.

Like him, and like Paganini and Liszt did when performing, they work primarily in an oral medium. While there is certainly some contact between their art and preserved musical texts of various kinds, it is a secondary contact of a sort already available to Francesco da Milano. But it did not constitute his art, the way the music text of a Willaert or a Buus constituted the ars perfecta in Francesco’s time, or a symphony by Beethoven in Paganini’s time, or a string quartet by Arnold Schoenberg in Frank Sinatra’s time.

The ars perfecta, the Beethoven symphony and the Schoenberg quartet, being primarily textual, are more adequately recorded in history than the performances of Ficino, Francesco, Paganini, or Sinatra. The historical record is partial (in more than one sense). It leaves out a lot—not necessarily because it wants to but because it has to. The danger is that we will forget that anything has been forgotten, or value only what is not left out, or think that that is all there ever was. As the fox who couldn’t reach the grapes reminds us, there is a tendency to despise what one can no longer have. What we no longer have (until the twentieth century) are recoverable performances. It is a bad mistake to think that texts can fully compensate their loss, or that they tell the whole story, or that the story that texts tell is the only story worth telling.


(14) Gary Tomlinson, Music in Renaissance Magic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 113.

(15) Jacques Descartes de Ventemille, quoted in Pontus de Tyard, Solitaire second ou prose de la musique (1555), trans. Joel Newman in “Francesco Canova da Milano” (Master’s thesis, New York University, 1942), p. 11.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015011.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 6 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015011.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 6 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015011.xml