The Age of Polyphony

It is natural for anyone to view one particular segment of music history as its center, to identify with a style personally and to consider other music in relation to this center. For the contemporary composer, at least to some degree, the center must be located in the present, even if that becomes less directly true. Lacking as it does a need for explicit historical reference, it is popular music which can proclaim itself most confidently in the present, even if it is there only by default. For the classical music enthusiast, a center might be taken with Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner... increasingly it is Bach, reflecting the displacement of contemporary style. Another center which presents ample opportunity for perspective is the Franco-Flemish polyphony of Josquin et al. This is the era when music printing began, and an era which proved decisive for Western harmonic style. The period around 1500 can be viewed as a sort of "golden age" for music from more than one perspective.

Gaining an understanding of this music, let alone using it as a basis for understanding other music, has long proved illusive, but the past ten years have seen various gaps in knowledge filled. Simple technical matters of accidental and relative tempo have been slow to develop, hindered both by a natural tendency for investigators to base their ideas on better-known classical period ideals and the trickiness of the music itself. This latter factor, combined with its longstanding historical reputation as quoted by subsequent generations of theorists, has served to give it a sphinx-like quality, one which continues to hold in the nearly complete absence of truly convincing interpretations. Combining large-scale vision & handling of momentum with the attention to detail & clarity this music demands is very challenging, but we do begin to have the opportunity to hear a few renditions in which there are no real technical misunderstandings or flagrant neglect of one or more significant aspects. Balancing layers of detail against the motivic development over the long term will always prove challenging in the larger works, but we can hope that these aspects are not simply ignored in favor of the usual melodramatic interpretive vanities. It is precisely in this sense of balance, large- & small-scale elements, vertical & horizontal concerns played against each other in sometimes devious ways, that the glory & complexity of this music presents itself.

The progression of our understanding is clear enough. The basic contrapuntal & rhythmic features of Machaut's music have been understood for some time, including the tuning more recently, yielding a dialogue now focusing on more specific questions of forces and even ornament. The music of Dufay and his generation has also reached something of a consummation, at least among many interpreters, extending even to Ockeghem. The latter development has been something of a miracle, given the irrationality of much of Ockeghem's design, but it is a design which is now embraced by the public and increasingly well-understood in both outline & detail. Even with the continued bizarre neglect of Busnoys' output in the area, the chansons which form the backdrop to the fifteenth century's outpouring of large-scale sacred polyphony are handled by various performers with some facility. This command of the mid-fifteenth century, including the rough similarity between the cantus firmus masses of Dufay & the English composers of his era, serves to create a solid foundation upon which to build a view of the more varied & complicated technique of the subsequent generation. Note, of course, the tunnel vision inherent to this statement. From the perspective of another age, one might as well move straight onward to Josquin and speak of no variety, just as I have casually grouped Dufay & Caput & Frye together. However, viewing the post-Ockeghem generation as a center yields an expanded sense of variety, in fact one long recognized by modern music, where c.1500 century counterpoint has yielded inspiration over & above the segment of its technique which conditioned the sixteenth century.

Moreover, it is only when the cantus firmus technique of Dufay and the various unifying ideas of Ockeghem seem routine that one can begin to appreciate the context of the succeeding generation, building as it does directly on its precedents. Whereas Josquin's reliance on the relatively singular and straight-forward technique of pervasive imitation, and that technique's subsequent development & embodiment in the Western harmonic principles with which listeners are already implicitly familiar, makes his music immediately more accessible, the intricate & seemingly arbitrary styles of e.g. La Rue or Agricola can easily remain completely opaque without a clear understanding of the earlier principles they develop. Whereas Josquin's relatively restrictive technique was eagerly welcomed as a compositional basis precisely because of its regularity and usefulness to the less creative composer, other composers of his generation offer a far richer set of ideas, not only in their extroverted inventiveness, but in the sheer subtlety with which they present themselves. They retain the imprint of medieval ideas, both in an emphasis on structural elaboration and in inherent subtilitas. Moreover, composers such as Obrecht & Agricola did not subjugate music to text, a fashionable rallying cry for the following centuries. Whereas clear textual illumination of word-based music has a definite logic about it, it is in the abstract textless realm that art music eventually found itself most firmly planted, and consequently sixteenth century objections to the "barbarisms" of medieval style become increasingly irrelevant to contrapuntal technique and its application today.

It is certainly not through fault that Josquin had his harmonic technique elaborated for centuries, but the fact of it means that there is relatively less to find there today. Indeed, from that perspective, we can argue for standing public appraisal of composers of this generation nearly on its head. It is familiarity with technique which has allowed for a glimmering of public appreciation, but it is novelty which allows for contemporary application. Instead of asking which of Josquin's contemporaries was most like him, we can ask which was least like him. While Ockeghem is one such example, the relative simplicity of his counterpoint — a simplicity which is certainly a virtue, and not only because it has allowed for public apprehension — makes it almost pale next to some of the subsequent elaborations. The sheer symphonic quality of this music is beyond what any of the early historical investigators could have imagined, precisely because it was this elaborate quality which was downplayed by Renaissance concerns for text and formal clarity. I want to reconfirm a commitment to this repertory, and plan to take up the present topic directly in the next article.

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Todd M. McComb