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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 17 Commercial and Literary Music
Richard Taruskin

Just as it was in the realm of Catholic sacred music, when the generation of Willaert gave way to that of Palestrina, so it was in the realm of the madrigal: native Italian talent gradually took possession of the elite genres. The first of the great Italian-born madrigalists was Luca Marenzio (1553–99), who spent most of his career in Rome, with short forays in other Italian centers and, at the end of his rather short life, at the royal court of Poland. He published nine books of madrigals over a period of nineteen years beginning in 1580; his reputation was so far-reaching by the time of his death that all nine books were reissued together in a collected memorial edition, published in Nuremberg in 1601.

Paradox and ContradictionParadox and Contradiction

ex. 17-15 Cipriano de Rore, Dalle belle contrade d’oriente, mm. 26-48

Solo e pensoso (“Alone and distracted,” Ex. 17-16), from Marenzio’s ninth and last book (1599), has for its text a famous verse by Petrarch himself, one that was frequently set by the madrigalists. Marenzio’s setting of the opening couplet, a stroke of “nature-imitating” genius, illustrates another possibility for “painting” a text musically, one to which the late generation of madrigalists had increasing recourse. Music “moves,” and in its movements it can analogize physical movement, even physical space. The opening image of the poem is that of numbly wandering “with slow and halting steps.” The steady tread of semibreves in the accompanying voices suggests the steps pretty clearly. But what are they accompanying?

They are accompanying a soprano voice moving in semibreves (whole notes) through perhaps the first complete chromatic scale in the history of European art music. (The part ascends through fifteen semitonal progressions, covering more than an octave, and descends through eight.) What better way to indicate unpremeditated movement through deserted fields, parts unknown? The soprano’s half steps are unpredictably treated as diatonic or chromatic, as sixteenth-century terminology would have it. In modern terms, and perhaps somewhat oversimply, the diatonic semitone is the one that progresses from one scale degree to another (every diatonic scale has two), and the chromatic semitone is the one that inflects a single degree and (by definition) cannot be found in any diatonic scale.

Using chromatic semitones is obviously incompatible with modal integrity, though it would be a gross overstatement to call madrigalistic chromaticism “atonal,” as some have done. Marenzio takes care to bring things into tonal focus at the end of the couplet (making use, in fact, of techniques of tonal focusing that were as new as his chromaticism) and by extending the last note long enough to sustain a normal authentic cadence. But the new freedom of movement did play hob with modal theory—and even more so with tuning systems: it was precisely this kind of harmony that made tempered tuning, which finally eliminated the actual difference in size between the two kinds of semitone, a necessary invention.

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ex. 17-16 Luca Marenzio, Solo e pensoso, mm. 1-24

The free intermixture of major and minor semitones was something the madrigalists pioneered, because they were the first musicians to have need of such a device for their pictorializing purpose. They had some predecessors in a certain crackpot brand of musical humanism that sought to recover the nondiatonic modes of Greek music (the “chromatic genus,” which used minor semitones, and even the “enharmonic genus,” which used quarter tones). A radical humanist named Nicola Vicentino built himself around 1560 a monster keyboard instrument called the arcigravicembalo, with fifty-three different pitches within the octave, on which he could experiment in search of the miracles of ethos (emotional contagion and moral influence) that the ancient Greek musicians were reputed to have achieved with their music. But it came to nothing.

There was also a negligible tendency on the part of some sixteenth-century musicians to experiment with complete circles of fifths as another way of encompassing the totality of chromatic pitch space. This tendency, too, demanded a radical revision of tuning systems if it was to work. It produced some curious little pieces, in particular a motetlike composition by the German composer Matthias Greiter (ca. 1495–1550) that transposed the beginning of a song called Fortuna desperata (“Hopeless fortune”) twelve times by fifths in order to symbolize the rotation of Dame Fortune’s wheel. But it, too, came to nothing. The chromaticism of the madrigalists came to something because its purpose was communication (or representation) of feeling, not pure (or mere) research. It was at first something that only unaccompanied voices, able to adjust their tuning by ear, could effectively perform.

Paradox and Contradiction

fig. 17-7 Enharmonic keyboard comparable to Vicentino’s, by Vito Trasuntino (Venice, 1606), now at the Museo Civico Medievale in Bologna.

Yet in its very realism, the expressivity of the madrigal contained the seeds of its own undoing. The opening couplet of Marenzio’s setting of Solo e pensoso is miraculously precise in depicting the poet’s pensive distraction, but can an ensemble of five voices represent his solitude? One makes allowances for convention, one can easily answer, but in that case why the chromatic experimentation? Its purpose, clearly, was to surmount convention in the interests of expressive exactness. It was a literary, not a musical exactness that was sought, and it exposed a contradiction between literature and music, the two media that madrigal composers were trying to fuse. The motivating “literary” idea brought literalism in its train; and once literalism was admitted, absurdity had to be confronted. There was no way out of the bind.

Another composer who set Solo e pensoso to music was Giaches (originally Jacques) de Wert (1535–96), an Antwerp-born composer who was taken to Italy as a child, became a naturalized citizen of Mantua, and grew up to all intents and purposes an Italian composer. A very prolific madrigalist, he published eleven books by the time of his death, and a twelfth was issued posthumously in 1608. Solo e pensoso, from his seventh book, was published in 1581, when Marenzio was only beginning his career. It, too, is full of the sort of expressive distortion music historians sometimes designate as “mannerism,” borrowing a term from art history (think of El Greco’s blue-skinned elongated saints).

Wert portrays the poet’s distraction by the use of crazy intervallic leaps that utterly mock the smooth recuperative gestures of “perfected art.” The madrigal’s opening motive (Ex. 17-17) proceeds through two successive descending fifths, a rising major sixth (an interval for which you’ll search all of Palestrina in vain), a falling fifth, a falling third, and two rising sixths. And by beginning with a point of imitation, Wert contrives to have the word solo actually sung “solo.” But when the other parts enter, the illusion of solitude is broken even more decisively than in Marenzio’s setting, because the five voices move so much more independently of one another. No way out.

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017009.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017009.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-017009.xml