The Age of Polyphony - VI. Assessment

People always want to know the very best. They construct the idea of "best" with recordings, and of course with music, and with most things important to them. Given the option, why bother with anything but the best? It is such a naïve idea, but also one of elegant simplicity. After all, one cannot hear every piece of music ever made. Such a suggestion is impossible. One cannot read every score, hear every recording, or attend every concert. So we can laugh at the over-anxious teenager who asks for the one best Beethoven recording, but we must also recognize the reality involved. First, though, we must ask "Best for what?" It is my task to assess this music, to suggest what its finest examples are, but it is also my task to ascertain the nature of assessment. The present article concludes this year's series on Franco-Flemish polyphony by discussing assessment in general, including some thoughts on composers. Next year, I intend to break from this general orientation to discuss works of individual composers in detail (much as I did for Ockeghem). The current article is partly an attempt to parallel the relevance portion of that series.

Contrapuntal momentum has already been discussed, and is frequently the most straightforward factor distinguishing greater & lesser works. There is nothing more basic in music (or anything) than the idea that one thing should lead to the next, and should do so while maintaining some palpable sense of momentum & anticipation. More complicated or rhetorical forms might play upon this expectation, even to create jokes in the classical period, but if later passages owe nothing to earlier passages, there is some formal deficiency (at least before deconstruction). Balancing tension and forward projection within a passage or melody can be even trickier, and the need can vary depending on where one is within the piece as a whole. Anticipation & momentum often revolve around symmetry relationships, and here I must also note that hidden agendas such as numerological symbolism play no role in my appreciation of music. Factors which do not resonate directly in the mind are secondary, at best. Symmetry & symbolism aside, one cannot necessarily leap to conclusions on whether music is lacking in internal logic. One simply may not be perceiving it, and that is doubly true when viewed through the lens of the ordinarily dubious recorded interpretations. It requires years of intensive study to build confidence on this point.

Much easier to judge is music with relatively simplistic logic, making it inferior on account of its lack of scope. Leaving aside the idea that one might be fooled into not noticing a more complex process at work, such music remains worthwhile. It becomes popular for a reason, and that is partly its role as a stepping stone to more abstract constructions (at least from the present perspective). Lack of scope can even be masked in a full program which combines short, individual pieces based upon compelling but small ideas. In some sense, such a "variation" sequence is the basis of much formal construction, including early mass cycles. Richness & variety of ideas were hallmarks of the best music in the late fifteenth century, and remain principles around which our appraisals can be constructed today. At the most basic level, music which is too repetitive seems overlong, and when discussing the almost symphonic form of the mass, that is a real concern. I look not only for the sense that the music is carrying me forward, but for a sense of wonder in what will subsequently occur. This is what makes more systematic treatments difficult for success, as the "system" must be disguised from the conscious mind to prevent tedium (and this is where later music, such as Bach's, often fails from the late medieval perspective). The idea of variety was often expressed in terms of subtlety, or the sense that a formal objective has been consummated without one having spent a period anticipating it. This "locus of anticipation," the more richly patterned the better, is nearly tantamount to appraising the work itself. Obviously, it varies with experience.

From the late medieval perspective, I reject the idea of service to text as an arbiter of quality, but I do look for richness of color via articulation. I also look for a real sense of excitement, of celebration, especially as writing truly uplifting music becomes a greater challenge. In this area, it is Obrecht who excels, as his largest forms always seem fully animated with breathtaking energy. For less outwardly spectacular music, I look instead for strength of conviction or depth of character. Superficial displays (as cultivated by the Monteverdi generation) have no place. For more subtle concerns, it is La Rue's music I find most convincing. His mass cycles contain the richest set of ideas, together with an integral melodic sense which yields a perspective on unity. La Rue consequently presents something of a consummation to Tinctoris' earlier ideas on formal variety, and so represents at least one end to the medieval aesthetic. Overall, of course, this generation presents no such sense of consummation, unless it is Josquin's, and his techniques were seen as definitive only later. (Certainly La Rue himself, writing most of his masses after Josquin's, did not see it that way.) The biggest barrier to appraisal from the current perspective is precisely this lack of consummation to the variety present, as the next generation rejected many of the late medieval ideals, and consequently left many avenues of inquiry partially explored. So many possibilities continue to present themselves that there is little one can identify as having been perfected. How one prioritizes different techniques yields a different direction, but in each case it leaves a sense of perfection just beyond the grasp of what was actually written.

From the contemporary perspective, it is precisely this lack of "completion" which seems most appealing, as so many ideas present themselves for further elaboration. A lack of consummation also fits with the religious ideals of the time, as a sort of bow to the almighty. This view is in sharp distinction to some subsequent appraisals based upon contrapuntal "tricks" or superficial stunts such as writing for more parts. Rather, a sense of striving is indicative of a quest for revelation, and judged ultimately by the depth of feeling one takes from the music. While Obrecht may have created the concept of work, it was not yet true that composers were writing primarily to satisfy their own or other earthly vanities. The religious orientation of the mass does not necessarily speak to me directly on the theological level, but the lack of personal vanity certainly does, and it is in inverting appraisal of works which seem most vain (or anticipatory, even) that one of my own idiosyncrasies lies. It is in the combination of technical variety and remaining humility that the "golden age" ideal of this music is most clearly expressed. My criteria for interpretations are exactly parallel: Clear technical presentation, and lack of personal indulgence. The biggest distinction is that whereas I seek subtlety in music, I seek stark clarity in performance, but otherwise one can see the same principles in all of my appraisals. While appropriate for a medieval music organization, this perspective of taking late medieval aesthetics and using it to look forward both to music slightly later in the past, as well as to music today, is distinctly ahistorical. My assessment is, then, different from that reflected by what actually occurred in the sixteenth century, not because what actually occurred was so terrible, but because it already occurred. Here the priority is on new musical ideas, distinct contemporary relevance, and that priority is to be continuously reflected.

Administrivia: Vacation time. Next column in five weeks. My Record of the Year writeup will appear in the interim.

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Todd M. McComb