Counterpoint & style, II

The preceding article established a vague framework for evaluating contrapuntal style. Here I intend to consider the stylistic traits of historical eras within this framework, and to explicitly revisit some controversial ideas on the purpose of music. The operative thesis is that, to some degree, contrapuntal style exhibits a structural basis for ascertaining underlying patterns of thought. The extent to which such judgements can legitimately be made will remain an open question leading into an extension of the Franco-Flemish series later this year (where I will examine the works of individual composers). The present thesis will provide some basis for an assessment of individuality per se, the musical expression of which was arguably established fully only with the c.1500 generation. A historical narrative will serve to place this contrapuntal orientation into a broader context.

If music affects us, a necessary supposition for my involvement, and if reasoning is founded on patterns, then the simplest possible connection between the two would be that musical patterns interact with thought patterns. The purpose of music is then, as succinctly as possible, to interact with our thoughts in such a way as to improve them. I leave open the possibility of differences of opinion on what constitutes improvement, but will immediately deem unsuccessful music which does not have a lasting impact on the mind (i.e. entertainment only). While the latter restriction is probably unnecessarily severe, it does reflect the religious orientation of early polyphony. Polyphony was derived from ritual music, and intended to be affective. Moreover, while I naturally work from a perspective which assumes that greater conscious investment in music produces a deeper affect, our thought patterns can also be conditioned on the subconscious level, a fact which is particularly appropriate to ritual function. Indeed, the idea that composers themselves had a specific goal in mind is not necessarily an applicable one, although to some extent such an implication is unavoidable. Composers often react to musical affects they are unable to articulate, and one might even consider the attempted enumeration of such affects in the Baroque era as the beginning of the eradication of directly affective ritual music. The more authoritative position of the composer serves as a source of misdirection, and distances musical creation from the act of hearing (or generally, reacting) itself.

Few phenomena in the history of music are as fascinating as the origin of polyphony. Clearly related to troping, polyphony began as a reaction to a preexisting chant. The trope as a gloss, or personal reaction or explanation, to a more standard text found a similar outlet in simultaneous musical responses to a standard chant. The earliest polyphony tends to be surprisingly egalitarian, mostly in note-against-note writing, and cadencing on the unison. One can hear its growth from unison singing as essentially heterophonic, with two singers singing similar melodies, and so one might wonder if its origin is inexorably linked to the beginning of concerted singing. The act of separating the gloss more clearly from the original melody had to wait for greater notational sophistication (at least for us to know it). By the Notre Dame era, in a style perhaps more closely resembling the earlier trope in spirit, the original chant moved at a different speed from the added melody. It served to frame the entire structure of organum, but not to be affected by it itself. The tenor chant had the position of a broad, unassailable foundation to which individual creation could react in a more fleeting way. This was also the high point of the Church's stability and institutional influence. Together with some of the conductus styles which preceded it, the motet returned to more equal interplay between voices. While the prototypical motet retains a few long notes of preexisting chant, other voices interact with each other more closely. They are conditioned, sometimes at some distance, by the underlying framework, but undertake a lively debate amongst themselves.

While contrapuntal technique in early motets shows a good deal of variety, it can be very difficult to deduce individual style. Indeed, the idea of individual style was likely foreign to these musicians, especially in music designed to incorporate such far-ranging interaction in such a small space. One can return to the "science" idea, and view Ars Antiqua motets as discoveries, as combinations which happened to work, perhaps akin to magic squares. For the most part, it is difficult to believe that their sonorities produced any pre-ordained affects, and of course this is the era during which composers began to give technical polyphony a life outside of the church. More than that, and especially with the emergence of the Ars Nova style, musical development began to move away from an emphasis on parallel intervals — rather, parallel reactions to an unassailable foundation. Isorhythmic constructions in Ars Nova style expressed a more willful emphasis in two ways: The greater independence of line naturally followed the greater independence of thought during this era of great scholastic debates and social criticism, while the more condensed and repetitive structural underpinning allowed for greater individual control of form as a whole. Not surprisingly, the texts themselves became willfully self-conscious, including openly political elements, and ultimately leading to fusion with courtly love preoccupations in the hands of Machaut and others. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also view Machaut as the earliest extant "individual" composer.

We can begin to ask the question: What about Machaut's technique allows us to hear his music as distinctively his? For one, it is the fluidity of his part-writing, and to some degree, I have discussed this. While individuality & distinctive harmonies found a very favorable reception with the subsequent Ars Subtilior generation, even to the point of such extravagantly personal — and even self-absorbed — creations as Zachara's Sumite, the most complicated music also became more insular. The extravagant sacred compositions of Avignon were alternately condemned by the Papacy, and even in modern times, there has been strong sentiment that this music was unperformable. The interior & self-referential gamesmanship of the Ars Subtilior composers reached the height of linear independence, while becoming increasingly distant from what had been the original devotional stance of polyphony. That these musicians were wonderfully creative as musicians serves to rehabilitate them in our eyes, but their sense of counterpoint must be seen as one of the most convoluted. In fact, the increasingly conjectured improvisational basis for this music serves to tie it to the origins of polyphony itself, and in that sense the Ars Subtilior musicians were remaking history. From the present perspective, while the quirkiness of their contrapuntal conceptions can be exhilarating in passing, they do not stand scrutiny as the traits of an individual style. At least to this point, interpretations of this music are more strongly marked by the performers' personalities than by the composers'. While Machaut's music is recognizable, theirs is not, except as single pieces or as an entire generation. By way of historical reaction to this fact, we turn next to thoughts of Renaissance.

The present narrative will continue in the next installment.

To TMM Editorial index.

Todd M. McComb