The Age of Polyphony - II

That this age built directly on its precedents should go without saying, as it does to some degree for any age, but it is the multifaceted degree to which earlier ideas were elaborated that helps to project this character so strongly. Such a phenomenon is not unique, as e.g. the music of Beethoven gave rise to a subsequent generation of composers who elaborated & extended his ideas in various directions. Indeed, elaborating & incorporating every technique of the previous generation can be seen as one pole of compositional activity, activity which tends to oscillate between such a period of fulfillment and other periods of rejection & conscious novelty. We can easily observe such a cycle in the twentieth century, first with the rejection of earlier technique inherent to the serialism movement, and then with the expansion & incorporation of every possible idea in multi-threaded postmodern styles. Likewise, the generation of Dufay et al., as proclaimed by Tinctoris, saw itself as breaking from earlier style and creating a new harmonic idiom, one particularly suited to the emerging form of the cyclic mass. For two solid generations, first with that of Ockeghem, and then with that under discussion, these ideas & techniques were subjected to all manner of creative transformations. It was only the following generation which chose to focus on certain aspects of this body of technique, discarding the rest.

The aspects chosen for retention were, of course, largely those developed by Josquin: shorter phrases, more repetition, points of imitation around which to build a structure, more audible texts, and word painting. Among these, it may have been the shortening of phrases and resulting emphasis on ostinato which proved to be the most decisive break. Although it was a key technique, imitation was not a real departure. It had been employed by other composers, and ideas on structural economy were very much current throughout the period, not only in canonic technique, but in such broader areas as the cantus firmus mass itself. Likewise, were it not demanded of every composition, the ingenuity of the new word painting would have proven easily adaptable to the medieval aesthetic. To the medievals, of course, word painting could not have been demanded everywhere, precisely because it would have lost its subtlety and its sophistication. It would have been obvious to everyone, but this is precisely what the modern age demanded. Shorter phrases & clearer textures were part of modernity itself, of the drive to include more of society in its grand goals of progress. It was important that more people understood the music, just as it was important that more people understood the technology, and the resulting relative ease of understanding carries over to today. Even Josquin's best music could be divided into sections easily, and taken as the basis for a brief instrumental adaptation, all with no loss of substance. On the other hand, stripped of its context, the motivic interplay in a mass section by e.g. Obrecht or Agricola might be utterly baffling. Indeed, anticipating later symphonic thought, even early phrases might make little sense until one later hears how they are transformed.

Although the modern age came to demand streamlined thought, it opened with an abundance of ideas from which to choose. Indeed, Petrucci — whose decision to feature Josquin so prominently certainly served to consummate the latter's reputation — had no qualms about publishing mass cycles whose techniques would soon become increasingly marginalized. Besides three books devoted to Josquin's masses (1502, reprinted 1514, 1516; 1505, reprinted 1515; 1514, reprinted 1516), Petrucci published the following dedicated mass books: Brumel (1503), Ghiselin (1503), La Rue (1503), Obrecht (1503), Agricola (1504), Isaac (1506), Weerbecke (1507), Févin (1515), and Mouton (1515). The latter two worked at the French court, with Févin's volume actually including works by other composers (such as La Rue). As a student of Josquin, Mouton may have been most significant for having taught Willaert, who was in turn the main transmitter of the former's style to Zarlino et al. in Italy, and consequently to subsequent music theory. The Italian (i.e. homophonic) orientation of Weerbecke places him somewhat to one side of the "Franco-Flemish polyphonists" under consideration, but his nearly complete neglect today, and especially that of the structural technician Ghiselin, provides an easy illustration of the sheer volume of contrapuntal invention from this period which has yet to be understood or digested. As opposed to Italy, hand copying remained strong in the North in the work of scribes such as Alamire, and there it was La Rue who took pride of place in the sources. It is also notable that Petrucci chose to publish masses in dedicated volumes, but mainly published motets in anthologies.

As this era marked the decisive development of Western counterpoint, it can be instructive to consider the number of parts the Franco-Flemish masters favored. Naturally, we believe that the earliest polyphony involved adding one voice to an existing chant, resulting in a two-part work. Pérotin soon developed the style to four parts, and Machaut continued to write for any number from one to four parts (and of course his famous mass is in four parts). Although there are a handful of settings for more than four parts, such as two of Dufay's isorhythmic motets, four voices continued to be a de facto maximum until the (evidently) late works of Ockeghem. Whereas Josquin's masses are almost entirely in four parts, with five- and six-part sections restricted to a handful of individual sections, his motets & chansons frequently make good use of six-part writing. His followers (e.g. Gombert) wrote for more parts regularly, including conspicuous examples far outside the norm (as well as a 24-part work by Josquin himself). Among contemporaries of Josquin who are known best today, Isaac shared an interest in six-part writing, while Brumel wrote overwhelmingly in four parts (aside from his own conspicuous example to the contrary). La Rue essentially follows Ockeghem in his use of four and sometimes five parts (with six parts being exceptional), while Obrecht unusually wrote more three-part music than he did for more than four parts.

While dissecting esoterica such as representation in print or preference for a particular number of contrapuntal parts can be interesting, it effectively tells us little about the musical strengths of specific composers. The continued prominence of quartet, and sometimes quintet or sextet, writing in Western music is indeed a fascinating topic, but one to set aside for the time being. Counting parts as an indication of greatness is a ridiculous notion, but one which does plague appraisals of later sixteenth century counterpoint. In fact, it was for their reduced scoring in sections for two & three voices that composers of Josquin's generation often won acclaim. Josquin's duets, like Dufay's before him, were some of his most admired music. It was for their sense of melody that composers continued to be admired, and it was a sense of melody inherent to harmonic structure which formed the basis for the greatest achievements. We judge these works today, as was also done (if less explicitly) then, on their handling of forward momentum. Individual parts should not only be singable, but must not seem as though they are merely going through the motions, waiting for something else to happen. Their lines should continue because it seems natural for them to continue, not to fill out a texture. The prominence of reduced-scoring passages is one solution. I will return to the issue of individual assessment after some intervening preliminaries.

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Todd M. McComb