Renaissance Works with a Long Performance History

This is an extremely preliminary list of Renaissance works which continued to be performed for several decades. This was an unusual situation, as during this period, music typically fell out of fashion and was subsequently not performed. Many more works survived as examples for private study, but not as active pieces of music to be performed in public. This is a basic fact of the Western musical experience which only changed decisively with the "Classical" generation of composers.

Specific documented listings

The purpose of this list is to highlight the exceptions to this general rule. Links are to recorded examples.

Medieval Music

For Medieval music, information is even sketchier, and so any lengthy stays in the repertory may not be evident. Here, of course, plainchant is an obvious exception, as the major chants have been performed since the early medieval period continuously to today's Catholic liturgy. It is beyond the scope of the present page to chronicle this history, and the way in which performance practices changed over time, but plainchant must certainly be noted as the largest exception to the trends of early performance repertory.

Beyond this, there are suggestions that some other Medieval works may have remained current for some time. These include such famous works as the Machaut Mass (which was written for an endowed commemoration) and the large-scale Perotin organa (which were written c.1220, but still copied and discussed c.1280 and later). Especially in the latter case, it becomes impossible to distinguish continuing public performance from scholarly appreciation, although there is definitely some indication that the Notre Dame repertory was composed for performance at significant liturgical occasions over the period of some decades. In the case of Machaut, there is recent documentary evidence to suggest that the Mass may have been performed periodically in Rheims until at least 1411.

Notes and broader exceptions

The continued performance of Gregorian chant, as well as Lutheran and some other Protestant hymn tunes, raises a general point about the continued performance of tunes as basic material. Just as plainchant was frequently used as basic material in larger compositions, so too were various popular tunes or melodies taken from much older compositions. Many tunes survive in this way, although the continued public performance of individual full polyphonic compositions is much less common. Of course, the performance of popular tunes on their own terms certainly has an extended history, although one moving farther from the "art music" under discussion. One can also move fully into the realm of "folk" music, where the Scottish epic Graysteil has an oral performance history confirmed in some written sources, as do Highland pipe and other isolated repertories. (Comment: Jack Campin)

Beyond melodic material, many composers of this period borrowed harmonic patterns or contrapuntal figures from their predecessors. This was a standard practice, and very characteristic of the later Renaissance as a whole. In this case, the new works really were new works. Although they share material with an older composition, they represent re-writes in some way, usually rather extensively so. This phenomenon does not suggest by itself that the earlier work was still performed, since composers did study older music on paper, and in fact academic interest in this music has been fairly continuous. The result is more in the spirit of an homage, or perhaps a simple recognition of some fine basic material which could be profitably reused.

The history of musical revival in England is more complicated, and so items such as the Gibbons Anthems reappeared in collections from the 18th century onward to the beginning of their continuous modern history in the late 19th. However, strictly speaking, these items are not examples for the present list, because they did originally lapse from the repertory, and so represent an early part of the revival phenomenon. To elaborate on previous remarks, the Commonwealth-Restoration sequence seems to have been the defining point of musical revival in England, propelling the idea eventually into what we now call the early music movement. One might wonder how things would have been different without the English Civil War.

What the elusive & uncertain nature of many of these exceptions serves to underscore is that prominent public performances of large-scale works some decades after they were written was a rare phenomenon during these periods. Another area which blurs this distinction is the repertory of various outlying places, which tended to receive works only much later and often kept performing them longer as well, although it is certainly unclear if the older layers of manuscripts compiled over extended periods (e.g. Speciálník) continued to be performed as the newer layers were added. It would require a comprehensive study to sufficiently elaborate this point. At some level of thoroughness, the question becomes quite complicated, even if it seems simple as posed.

It must be re-emphasized that this list is presently very preliminary and that other details should be added. In the case of the repertory of the Papal Choir, many records have until recently been closed, and so other long-term items may yet turn up, even in so central a location (a recent published study on this topic will soon be consulted - Citation: Mark Fox). If you can further assist with this compilation, please contact me.

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Todd M. McComb