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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

Bembo’srevival of Petrarch was a watershed for Italian poetry and for the reestablishment of the Florentine or Tuscan dialect as a standard literary language. Precociously erudite, the future cardinal published an edition of Petrarch’s complete works in 1501, when he was thirty. Four years later, he published a dialogue on courtly love that included a selection of illustrative verses of his own composition in the style of Petrarch, demonstrating what Bembo took to be the great poet’s essential devices and themes. The most famous part of the book was the chapter devoted to lovers in conflict, in which the device of antithesis—the immediate confrontation of words, feelings, and ideas with their opposites—was exploited in spectacular fashion. In a later work, Prose della volgar lingua, Bembo drew out of Petrarch the idea of an antithesis of styles (“heavy” vs. “light”) as well. His polar categories—gravità (gravity or dignity) and piacevolezza (pleasingness or “charm”)—were to be realized technically by the mechanics of the verse: phonology or sound-content, rhyme-scheme, meter.

These theories were enormously stimulating to musicians; Bembo’s poems, and eventually those of Petrarch himself, became a locus classicus—an endlessly returned-to source—for composers of madrigals, who began to specialize in the expression of violent emotional contrasts that could be effectively linked with musical contrasts—high/low, fast/slow, up/down, consonant/dissonant, major/minor, diatonic/chromatic, homo-rhythmic/imitative—as bearers (or at least suggesters) of semantic meaning. Musical tones all by themselves may not possess much in the way of semantic reference; in other words, they may not denote objects or ideas with much precision. But antithetical relationships between tones and tone-constructs can connote plenty. (We have already seen this, of course, in the predictable “ascendit/descendit” contrasts in sixteenth-century Mass settings like Palestrina’s: this convention may already have been a “madrigalism,” an extension of the “Petrarchian antithesis,” first exploited in madrigals, to another textual realm.)

An ideal starting point for observing the growth of “literary music” through the madrigal, and its growing antagonism to the impersonal universalism of the ars perfecta, would be Il bianco e dolce cigno (“The white delightful swan,” Ex. 17-14), the first item in Arcadelt’s first book of madrigals (1539), the most frequently reprinted music book of the whole sixteenth century (some 53 times, the last in 1642!). It was possibly the sixteenth century’s most famous single piece of art music, surely the one that most people knew by heart (as they did not and could not know a legendary but rarely heard work like the Missa Papae Marcelli).

Like most madrigal poems, the text of Arcadelt’s swan song is inordinato, to use the contemporary word: it consists of a single stanza in lines of varying length, without refrain or any other obvious formal scheme, and the music does not impose one either. This is the most dramatic way in which the madrigal differs from the other vernacular genres of the sixteenth century. Most of the others were in some sort of fixed form, descended mainly from the ballata: to those already mentioned one could add the Spanish villancico, a dance-descended song that enjoyed a big burst of polyphonic creativity under Ferdinand and Isabella (whose main court composer, Juan del Encina, composed upwards of sixty). Even where the poems were devoid of refrains or strophic repetitions, like many “new style” chansons, composers were more observant of their forms, and certainly of their meters, than of their contents.

A madrigalist, by contrast, went after content and its maximal musical representation, and, as time went on, was more and more willing to commit what offended humanists like Vincenzo Galilei called a “laceramento della poesia”—mangling or trampling on the form of the poem—in order to get at that content. Composers of Arcadelt’s generation, and especially oltremontani like Willaert and (later) Lasso, tended to recite the poem fairly straightforwardly, aiming at a general mood of gravity or charm. Their settings are mild compared to what came later. But even Arcadelt’s swan poem is built `a la Petrarch around an antithesis (the swan’s sad death, the poet’s happy “death” in love), and the composer gives two vivid hints of the particularizing impulse that would later become such a fetish among madrigalists. Both of them involve (implicit) antitheses.

The first high-powered affective word, piangendo (weeping), receives the first chromatic harmony (Ex. 17-14a). There is nothing intrinsically weepy about the chord itself: it is just another major triad. But in context it contrasts with the diatonic norm and is therefore, like the word with which it coincides, a “marked” feature (to use a modern linguists’ term). As to the second hint, there could be nothing more ordinary, or less particularly “expressive,” in music of the sixteenth century than a point of imitation (although we should note that points of imitation were not common in Italian secular music before the motet-writing oltremontani began putting them in.) Yet Arcadelt’s imitative setting of the thrice-repeated last line (Ex. 17-14b), by standing out from the homorhythmic norm, becomes “marked,” and therefore illustrative of the sense of the line, which refers to a multiple, repetitive act—and underscores the “charming” double entendre: lo piccolo morte (“the little death”) was the standard Italian euphemism for the climax of the sexual act.

Because it so privileged the humanistic axiom that music should be the servant of the oratione, the sense of the poetry, and therefore “imitate” it, the madrigal became a hotbed of musical radicalism and experimentation. Because of its “literary” premises, it was tolerant of audacities that in any other genre would have been thought blunders or (at the very least) lapses of style. Any effect, however bizarre or however it transgressed the rules demanded by the universal standard of the ars perfecta, could be justified on a “literary” basis.

“Madrigalism” in Practice

ex. 17-14a Jacques Arcadelt, Il bianco e dolce cigno, mm. 1-10

Real crimes against perfection begin to show up in the 1560s, beginning with the madrigals of Cipriano de Rore (1516–1565), the Flemish associate (and pupil?) of Willaert. He was unusual among the oltremontani for the enthusiasm with which he followed the literary premises of the madrigal into uncharted musical terrain. Dalle belle contrade d’oriente (“From the fair regions of the East”) comes from Rore’s fifth and last book, published posthumously in 1566.

“Madrigalism” in Practice

ex. 17-14b Jacques Arcadelt, Il bianco e dolce cigno, mm. 34-46

The whole poem consists of one sustained, multileveled antithesis: narrated recollection of physical pleasures at the beginning and the end as against the sudden outpouring of emotional anguish in the middle, expressed in “direct discourse” or actual quoted speech. The multiple contrast is expressed with unprecedented violence in the music. The narrative portions at the two ends are full of delightful descriptive effects: the rocking rhythms where the poet speaks of enjoying bliss in his lover’s arms (“fruiva in braccio…”), the tortuous imitative polyphony where the intertwining of the lovers’ limbs is compared with the snaky growth of vines.

Musical descriptions like these, as observed in the previous chapter, usually depend on the uncovering of unsuspected correspondences and are basically humorous no matter what is actually described. That is why the middle section (Ex. 17-15), with its serious content and agonized mood, adopts a wholly different approach to the task of “imitating nature.” Here the imitation is no easy matter of analogy or metaphor: what is imitated is the actual speech of the disconsolate lady, replete with sniffles and sobs, especially poignant when, after an unexpected rest representing a sigh, she blurts out her harmonically wayward, syncopated curse upon Eros (“Ahi, crudo Amor”). In keeping with the agonized mood, the soprano part (corresponding in range to the lady’s voice) makes a direct “forbidden” progression through a “minor semitone” from C-sharp (as third of an A major triad) to C-natural (as root of a C minor triad). It is a supremely calculated effect, needless to say, but it is fashioned to resemble a spontaneous ejaculation, following an old theory of Aristotle’s that, speech being the outward expression of emotion, imitation of speech is tantamount to the direct imitation of emotion.

“Madrigalism” in Practice

fig. 17-6 Cipriano de Rore, anonymous portrait in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The direct imitation of tortured speech, evoking a single subject’s extreme personal feeling by the use of extreme musical relationships, is as far from the aims of the ars perfecta as can be imagined. The musical means employed, judged from the standpoint of the ars perfecta, are full of bombastic exaggeration and distortion—in a word, they are “baroque.” But Rore’s exaggerations and distortions only begin to suggest the violence that the last generations of madrigalists, working around the turn of the century, would wreak on the consummate musical idiom their fathers had perfected.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 17 Commercial and Literary Music." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017008.xml