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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 16 The End of Perfection
Richard Taruskin

The Mass in Four Parts, the earliest of the settings, was composed almost immediately after Byrd’s second volume of protest-motets was issued, and retains something of their tortured mood. The mode—transposed Dorian, but with a specified E-flat that “Aeolianizes” it into something more nearly resembling plain G minor—contributes to the mood, of course; but more potent by far is the astonishing degree of dissonance, which grates most where it is least expected, in the Agnus Dei, a text outwardly concerned with gentleness, deliverance from sin, and peace.

Byrd’s setting, unlike practically any continental setting, is one continuous piece, not a triptych. The three invocations of the Lamb, all strictly if concisely imitative in texture, are nevertheless distinguished from one another by the progressive enrichment of their “scoring”: the first for a duo, the second for a trio, and the last, with its new words (dona nobis pacem, “grant us peace”) for the full complement. It is when those very words are reached, amazingly, that the voices begin rotating in a stretto based on a syncope, and the dissonance level—a suspension on every beat, emphasizing the sharpest discords (major seventh, minor second, minor ninth)—begins to approach the threshold of pain. The music (Ex. 16-17) is unprecedented both in its sheer sensuous effect and in its exceptional rhetorical complexity.

Musical HermeneuticsMusical Hermeneutics

ex. 16-17 William Byrd, Mass in Four Parts, Agnus Dei, mm. 40-56

There is irony in it, to be sure. One is surely meant to sense a contradiction between the meaning of the word “peace” and the extreme tension of Byrd’s discords. But move up from the level of literal meaning to that of implication, and the apparent irony is trumped by a naked truth: they only beg for peace who have no peace. Once one has thought of this, one can hardly view this Agnus Dei as anything other than a portrait of the artist as recusant—or, more appropriately perhaps, a portrait of the general mood that reigned where such a Mass as this was sung.

The Mass in Five Parts, the last of the settings, displays a very different “reading” of the same text, yet one just as complex and profound. Again there is a rhetorical progression of harmonic density that gives shape to the threefold petition, from three parts to four to the full five. The first acclamation uses harmonic color to distinguish Christ’s metaphorical name (“Lamb of God”) from the actual prayer. By first withholding, then reintroducing the B-flat, Byrd reminds us that the flat has, ever since Guido of Arezzo, been a “softening” device. The harmonic softening on miserere can only refer to the act of mercy itself, rather than the petition. The emphasis, therefore, is not on what is lacking (as in the Mass in Four Parts) but on what is given. That emphasis is maintained to the end.

In the second acclamation, like a magician, Byrd makes the conflict of B-durus and B-molle express the same idea by reversing roles. By transposing the cadence from F to G, where the B-flat darkens the tonic harmony and the B-natural brightens it, Byrd again makes the point that the Lamb of God will not fail its pious petitioners. The third acclamation (Ex. 16-18) is again something different. The whole choir gathers itself up for a pair of sudden homorhythmic outbursts—literal “calls” to the Lamb of a kind no other composer had thought to make. Again we are reminded of the plight of the persecuted. But this time the leisurely dona nobis pacem comes as a relief, and expression of confidence, of faith.

Musical Hermeneutics

ex. 16-18 William Byrd, Mass in Five Parts, Agnus Dei, mm. 33-42

The kind of detailed interpretive analysis these descriptions of Byrd’s Agnus Dei settings have attempted is what literary scholars call hermeneutics. Byrd’s is the earliest music—certainly the earliest Mass Ordinary music—to have called forth such interpretations from modern critics, because his Masses and his alone seem to offer true interpretive readings of their texts. These are the kinds of readings “official” settings like Palestrina’s do not encourage, precisely because they are official. That is, precisely because they are official they take meaning as something vested and given rather than as something that arises out of a human situation. Byrd’s Masses, precisely because they are written out of a very extreme human situation, open up new levels of musical meaningfulness. It goes without saying (but better, perhaps, with saying) that the only meaningfulness we can speak of meaningfully is the meaningfulness the music has for us now. But that meaning includes our impressions (impressions conditioned by specific historical awareness) of what meaningfulness the music may have had for Byrd and his co-congregants.

The Credo from the Mass in Five Parts also invites hermeneutic reading, and such reading is of course to be recommended as an exercise in “historical imagination.” Here let it suffice to call attention to one particular phrase, since it resonates so strongly with the premises on which this chapter is based. At the beginning of the chapter, when justifying the pursuit of the ars perfecta to its end, it was pointed out that the “perfect art” would have had no reason for being were it not for the artist’s belief in the perfection of God’s church as an institution: belief in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam.

Compare Palestrina’s setting of these words in the Credo of the Missa Papae Marcelli (Ex. 16-19a) with Byrd’s (Ex. 16-19b). Palestrina sets them gracefully but somewhat perfunctorily as a double module—a parallel period in five parts, the basses exchanging at the repeat. The line is both preceded and (especially) followed by more dramatic music. The “confiteor,” the personal acknowledgment of one’s baptism, that comes after the lines about the church is set off by longer note values and a higher high note. The et unam sanctam passage, one feels, was something on the way to something bigger. At any rate, Palestrina’s very evenly paced recitation is clearly the work of a man for whom this text is a comforting ritual formula, not a risky personal declaration.

Musical HermeneuticsMusical Hermeneutics

ex. 16-19a Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Missa Papae Marcelli, Credo, mm. 145-53

Musical Hermeneutics

ex. 16-19b William Byrd, Mass in Five Parts, Credo, mm. 157-68

Byrd’s setting of the line begins with a violent chordal tutti that disrupts a pair of elegant polyphonic trios, and continues in agitated homorhythmic declamation replete with a near-bombastic repetition of the words apostolicam ecclesiam—“a church sent by God” (not instituted by a king!)—that sends the passage to its melodic peak. After this shriek of Catholic defiance, the concluding Amen, entirely set apart from the rest by a cadence and a fermata, comes across as no mere ending formula but as a genuine intensifier, the very essence of affirmation. The whole history of the English Reformation and the plight of the recusants seems to be contained in this Credo as in a musical microcosm. At the very least, for Byrd these words were just what they were not (because they did not need to be) for Palestrina: a personal, rather than an institutional, Credo; a profession of dangerous personal faith.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016012.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 16 The End of Perfection. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016012.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 16 The End of Perfection." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 14 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-016012.xml