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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism
Richard Taruskin

The original Academy, a school located in the gardens of Academus (a legendary hero) near Athens, was founded by Plato early in the fourth century bce and lasted until 529 CE, when, having long since moved to the grounds of Cicero’s villa at Tusculum near Rome, it was closed down by the Emperor Justinian as part of an antipagan campaign, an act often associated with the coming of the “Dark Ages.” The revival of the term by associations of artists and thinkers—beginning with the Accademia Platonica, an informal circle led by Marsilio Ficino that met at the palace of Lorenzo dei Medici in Florence between 1470 and 1492—was thus one of the most self-conscious, programmatic acts of the humanist rebirth of learning.

During the sixteenth century Accademie—literary and artistic coteries supported by noble patronage—flourished in many Italian cities, but Florence would always be the center. The most prestigious one of all was the Accademia degli Umidi, later the Accademia Fiorentina, founded in 1540, which commissioned translations of works by Greek and Latin authors and also treatises on Italian (that is, Tuscan) literary style. Mei (1519–94) was at twenty-one the youngest charter member of this academy. His initial academy-sponsored treatises, though devoted to Italian literature, already reveal some knowledge of Greek music theory. Beginning in 1551, he made Greek music his main subject and completed a four-volume treatise on the modes (De modis musicis antiquorum, “On the musical modes of the ancients”) in 1573, by which time he was living in Rome.

This enormously erudite dissertation, which draws on classical writers from Aristoxenus and Ptolemy to Boethius, and also summarizes “modern” mode theory up to and including Glareanus, deals both with the tuning and structure of the modes and with their expressive and “ethical” effects. The concluding book is a discussion, based mainly on Aristotle, on the uses of the modes in education, in therapy, and, finally, in poetry and drama. In ancient times, Mei asserted, poems and plays were always sung—and always monophonically, whether by soloists or by the chorus, whether unaccompanied or doubled by instruments. Despite the wealth of information it contains, Mei’s treatise contains no actual examples of Greek music beyond the late Delphic hymns mentioned and illustrated near the end of the first chapter of this book.

So despite all his expertise and diligence, Mei’s treatise contained everything anyone might have wanted to know about Greek music except an idea of what it sounded like. And that, paradoxically enough, is exactly why it became an important influence on the course of contemporary music. There was no musical evidence to contradict his impressive assertions about what Greek music could do and how it did it, and why contemporary music could no longer equal its effects.

Mei did not know what Greek music sounded like, but he knew (or thought he knew) what it did not sound like. It was not full of counterpoint, the invention of conceited sensualists preoccupied with their own technique and with mere aural titillation. Their music was just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, because its many simultaneous melodies “convey to the soul of the listener at the same time diverse and contrary affections.”1 It was precisely because their music was monophonic, Mei believed, and because their modes did not all use the same set of pitches, that the Greeks were able to achieve their miracles of ethos, or moral influence through music.

Mei’s researches became known to a group of Florentine humanists who in the 1570s and 1580s were meeting at the home of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi, a hero of the defense of Malta against the Turks and a favorite courtier of Grand Duke Francesco I of Tuscany, for whom he had the job of organizing court entertainments, including musical spectacles. It was in this latter capacity that Bardi became interested in theatrical or dramatic music. He corresponded with Mei about the music of the Greek tragedies and comedies, and also put Vincenzo Galilei (ca. 1530–91), a lutenist-singer in his employ, in touch with the great scholar.

Galilei, who had studied with Zarlino (and whose son Galileo, as we know, made something of a name for himself in another field), was the best-trained musician in Bardi’s inner circle. He had already published a treatise on arranging polyphonic music for solo voice accompanied by lute, and had begun a gloss on Zarlino’s Istitutioni harmoniche, supplemented with information on ancient music theory as it was being disseminated among humanists. It was in connection with this project that Galilei began corresponding with Mei, whose research had revealed the differences between the ancient system of modes and tunings and the modern, contradicting Zarlino’s assertion that the new had grown directly out of the old. This challenge to the historical legitimacy of the ars perfecta estranged Galilei from Zarlino. It became Galilei’s mission to effect a true reconciliation of ancient theory and modern practice.

This he never achieved; indeed such a thing was scarcely achievable. But his correspondence with Mei won him over to the view that the ars perfecta, far from the ultimate perfection of music, was a frivolous deviation from the true meaning and purpose of music as practiced by the ancients, and that the only way of restoring to music the expressive powers of which the ancients wrote would be to strip away the purely sensuous adornments of counterpoint and return to an art truly founded on the imitation of nature.


fig. 19-1 Title page of Vincenzo Galilei’s Dialogo della musica antica et della moderna

Galilei cast this inflammatory thesis into the suitably Platonic form of a dialogue: the Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna (“Dialogue on music ancient and modern”), in which the two fictitious interlocutors were named after Count Bardi (to whom the book was dedicated on publication in 1581) and Piero Strozzi, a noble dilettante in Bardi’s circle, called the Camerata. Coming from a practicing musician, and couched in bluntly argumentative language, this formulation of principles derived from Mei’s purely “academic” research caused controversy (Zarlino himself retorting acidly a few years later in an addendum to his treatise called Sopplimenti musicali).

Galilei’s strongest invective was reserved for the madrigalists (this despite the fact that he himself had published a book of madrigals seven years earlier and would publish another six years later), because the madrigalists already thought of themselves as the humanist reformers of music. They already claimed to be imitating nature in their work, and they were having an enormous influence even on composers of church music during the Counter Reformation. Galilei, presuming to speak for the Greeks, ridiculed the madrigalists for committing a travesty. “Our practicing contrapuntists,” he sneered, will say

that they have imitated the words, each time they set to music a sonnet, a madrigal, or other poem in which one finds verses that say, for example, “Bitter heart and fierce, cruel desire,” which happens to be the first line of one of Petrarch’s sonnets, and they see to it that between the parts that sing it are many sevenths, fourths, seconds, and major sixths, and that by means of these they have made a rough, bitter, grating sound in their listeners’ ears. Another time they will say they have imitated the words when among the ideas in the text are some that have the meaning “to flee,” or “to fly.” These will be declaimed with such speed and so little grace as can hardly be imagined. As for words like “to vanish,” “to swoon,” “to die,” they will make the parts fall silent so abruptly that far from inducing any such effect, they will move their listeners to laughter, or else to indignation, should they feel they are being mocked…. Finding words denoting contrasts of color, like “dark” versus “light hair,” and the like, they will set them to black and white notes respectively, to express their meaning most astutely and cleverly, they say, never mind that they have altogether subordinated the sense of hearing to accidents of form and color which are properly the domain of vision and touch. Another time, they will have a verse like this: “He descended into Hell, into the lap of Pluto,” and they will make one of the parts descend so that the singer sounds to the listener more like someone moaning to frighten and terrify little girls than like someone singing something sensible. And where they find the opposite—“He doth aspire to the stars”—they will have it declaimed in such a high register that no one screaming in pain has ever equaled it.

Unhappy men, they do not realize that if any of the famous orators of old had ever once declaimed two words in such a fashion they would have moved their hearers to laughter and contempt at once, and would have been ridiculed and despised by them as stupid, abject, and worthless men.2

We have seen all of these techniques and many more of the same sort practiced with utmost seriousness and effectiveness. Even “Augenmusik”—music for the eye, as in Galileo’s example of white and black notes—had a perfectly serious motivation and could produce hair-raising aural effects in the hands a musician like Jacobus Gallus (see his St. John Passion in the previous chapter, Ex. 18-12). But Galilei had a certain point in ridiculing “madrigalisms”: they are indirect and artificial imitations, based on analogies—i.e., shared features—rather than homologies, real structural congruities. As such they are like plays on words, or witticisms. Depending on mechanisms of wit, they can be taken as humor—and indeed, we often do react to a madrigalism, even a serious one, the way we do to a joke: we laugh with delight when we “get it.”


(1) Girolamo Mei, letter to Vincenzo Galilei (8 May 1572), trans. Claude V. Palisca in The Florentine Camerata: Documentary Studies and Translations (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 63.

(2) Vincenzo Galilei, Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna, ed. Favio Fano (Milan: A. Minuziano, 1947), pp. 130–31.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 19 Pressure of Radical Humanism." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 2 Dec. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-019002.xml