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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 15 A Perfected Art
Richard Taruskin

In its penetration (through publications like Musica Nova or Buus’s ricercari) of the instrumental domain, long the bastion of the unwritten and the spontaneous, the ars perfecta can seem to embody a crowning triumph for literacy. All that was captured, though, was the elite protruding tip of a huge iceberg. The vast majority of instrumentalists continued as before to perform by a combination of ear, hand, and memory. Even church organists more often improvised their accompaniments to liturgical action than read them off their music rack. (And they still do; organists are perhaps the only literate musicians who still receive training in the art of improvisation.) Even those who did read their music (or rather, Buus’s or Willaert’s music) off the rack did not read it literally, the way we might imagine them doing on the basis of our own education and experience. Again a reminder is due that literacy has never totally eclipsed orality, even in those repertoires and fields of practice where it can seem most firmly ensconced. And there is no reason to expect that it ever will.

Which is by no means to disparage the degree of ready literacy that existed among sixteenth-century church musicians. Choral sight-singing, practiced since Guido’s time, will hardly amaze us nowadays. We can do that. But the idea of an organist putting four separate partbooks on his music rack to play a ricercare at sight is somewhat stunning. Yet any sixteenth-century organist could do it, even a mediocre one. For anyone aspiring to a professional post it was considered a requisite, not an exceptional, skill.

Nevertheless, we should not suppose that what came out of the organ under those circumstances were the notes in the partbooks and nothing but the notes. No performer treated musical texts in those days with the scrupulous reverence our contemporary practice sanctions and enforces; and this, too, is evidence that despite the burgeoning availability of music books and the academization of certain composerly techniques in the sixteenth century, oral performance practices remained alive and well.

We have very specific evidence of what we would call freedom even in the performance of Buus’s ricercari. Less skilled organists, or lazy ones, liked to copy the music they played into keyboard tablatures rather than go through the brainy effort of mentally “scoring” a set of partbooks. Music publishers catered to this set with publications containing transcriptions of favorite organ pieces into the kind of notation that simply tells you at a glance, like a modern keyboard score, where all your fingers have to go. One of Buus’s ricercari was published both ways (Ex. 15-9, Fig. 15-7).

Peeking Behind the Curtain

ex. 15-9a Jacques Buus, Ricercare no. 1 from Il secondo libro di recercari (Venice: Gardane, 1549), opening point, scored from partbooks

Peeking Behind the Curtain

ex. 15-9b Jacques Buus, Ricercare no. 1, opening point, as it appears in Intabolatura d’organo di recercari (Venice: Gardane, 1549)

Peeking Behind the Curtain

fig. 15-7 Jacques Buus, Ricercare no. 1 from Intabolatura d’organo di recercari, Libro primo (Venice: Gardane, 1549).

The differences between the two versions are the differences between, on the one hand, an idealized conception or premise in writing from which all performances will derive (the piece set down for all time), and on the other, an actual performance—that is, a once-only “oralized” and ephemeral realization (the piece as we are hearing it right now). Our age tends to minimize the distinction and try to realize all pieces in performance just the way they have been set down, thinking in this way to capture their timeless essence. Such a performance is often called an “authentic” one. A better term for it might be a “literalistic” one, were that term not burdened with a negative connotation in ordinary usage; for what such a performance really represents is a fully “literacized,” text-dominated concept of music.

That was certainly not the sixteenth-century way, and we have to keep it constantly in mind that the music we know from its written traces—the music we know by sight, so to speak—was not the music that anybody in the sixteenth century actually heard. That great submerged iceberg of sound is gone forever from today’s ear, hand and memory. All we have to go on if we wish to hear it again are a few didactic guides, some scattered practical examples like the one in Ex. 15-9b, and our imaginations.

The didactic guides, especially, give a tantalizing glimpse of a lost world of music-making. The two earliest authors of printed method books for instrumentalists were Silvestro di Ganassi dal Fontego (1492-ca. 1550), who actually worked alongside Willaert in St. Mark’s, and Diego Ortiz (ca. 1510–ca. 1570), a Spaniard who worked at the court of Naples. Ganassi published two books. The first, a method for wind players called Fontegara (Venice, 1535), deals mainly with the vertical whistle-flute or recorder. The second, a double volume for string players called Regola rubertina (Venice, 1542–43), mainly deals with the “leg-viol” or viola da gamba. (Its title, “Ruberto’s rules,” is a tribute to Ruberto Strozzi, a member of a celebrated Italian family of noble musical amateurs.)

After some rudimentary instruction on playing technique, both manuals shift over to the more creative aspects of instrumental performance, which grew directly out of the kind of music-making Tinctoris had described a hundred years earlier, when he wrote about the two blind brothers who converted famous songs into dazzling instrumental displays (see chapter 13, Ex. 13-15). In the sixteenth century, the virtuoso instrumentalist’s repertoire was still largely parasitic on vocal music. The art of instrumental virtuosity was the art of passaggii or passage work, in which the plain “classical” lines of sacred or secular songs in the ars perfecta style were converted into flamboyantly ornamental sonic cascades and necklaces. One learned the technique by systematically breaking down a song into its component intervallic progressions—up a third, down a fourth, and so on—and memorizing dozens of note patterns to decorate each interval, which one could later apply in actual performance to any song, and on the basis of which one could eventually evolve one’s own personal style of playing “diminutions” (or “divisions”), as this process of substituting many short notes for each long one was called.

The Regola rubertina also contains a number of “preludizing” pieces called “recercars” like Spinacino’s (or Francesco’s) for the lute. Such pieces were evidently better suited to string technique, whether plucked or bowed, then wind. Ortiz’s Trattado de glosas or “Treatise on embellishments” (Rome, 1553), which like Ganassi’s Regola rubertina is addressed to viol players, also contains “recercadas” galore, in addition to even more systematic instruction in diminution. Ortiz’s methods are more sophisticated and detailed, and give us an even more embarrassing sense of how little we know of old music when all we know is what was written down—and, even more important, what is lost from music as well as what is gained in the process of its becoming literate.

The first half of Ortiz’s text is devoted to diminution technique in the abstract. The second half consists of model recercadas for every occasion, showing how diminution technique, once internalized, was applied in practice. First come the “free” improvisations—actually strings of little cadence formulas subjected to transposition, sequential treatment and diminution. Then there are recercadas based on individual voice parts extracted from polyphonic classics. This is just a more thoroughgoing application of the embellishment practices shown in Ex. 15-9b.

Then come the really creative exercises, the ones that really give a glimpse of a vanished musical culture. They begin with recercadas in the cantus firmus style (or as Ortiz has it in his native language, recercadas over a canto llano, a “plainsong”). Here the player had to be able at one and the same time to imagine a discant against a familiar tenor and to embellish it with diminutions. What is particularly interesting and instructive about Ortiz’s examples is the source of his cantus firmus. Although he says that the technique he is imparting may be applied to any church chant (and might well have provided music to accompany the same moments in the service as Segni’s or Buus’s organ ricercari), the actual tenor Ortiz selected on which to compose his illustrative examples was one that had been used for over a century by dance bands.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 15 A Perfected Art." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015012.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015012.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-015012.xml