Composing without text

Although purely instrumental music was written as early as ancient Greece, it was only much later that it attained any sort of ascendance. For the classical music lover today, that position seems natural, but it must have seemed novel at one time. Of course, when that might have been is difficult to pin down. Surviving instrumental music from ancient Greece is of the "study" variety, and possibly didactic. With the break in medieval times, instrumental music becomes relatively scarce. Examples are almost overwhelmingly transcriptions of vocal works or dance music. Undoubtedly there was even more of it played, quite probably at a high level, but little was written down. With few exceptions, that distinction was reserved for vocal music, and such dominance suggests that copies of vocal works were frequently performed instrumentally, much as in Carnatic music today. When instrumental manuscripts did begin to survive in any number, they were primarily devoted to transcriptions, often with a few original works tacked on. Dance music was rather separate functionally, and did not survive in large quantity either. As instrumental publications appeared, dance was prominent among them, and soon the distinction between abstract music and simple dance tunes was blurred.

For a substantial surviving body of abstract instrumental music, we must wait for the sixteenth century. At that point, several styles burst upon the scene fully formed. This tends to indicate that they had been practiced for some time, but nonetheless we might continue to believe that the impetus of printing would lead to a more advanced elaboration. At the very least, this is true in the sense that these works were only then seen as worthy, and of course it is a pleasant deception, in that we need not bemoan our losses. There is another good reason for believing that abstract instrumental music did reach a new standard of development at that time. It was also a period during which the approach to writing music with text changed. Sensitivity to the text was widely hailed as of greater importance than abstract musical considerations, and of course composition changed accordingly. First there was the more careful syllabic approach of Josquin and contemporaries early in the century, and then the Church-mandated simplicity of Palestrina in later decades. By that time there was no outlet for some of the musical ideas which might have developed naturally from the earlier polyphonic practice, except in textless composition. While it was certainly still regarded as an inferior vehicle, it did find its distinguished practitioners. We must be doubly glad to have this music, as the phenomenon was necessarily brief. Those composers schooled in polyphony might have felt more inclined to take one direction over another, and could continue their tradition directly in the instrumental idiom as they chose. However, after a few generations, the earlier techniques were no longer current. Polyphony was changed radically and severely truncated, while instrumental music quickly adapted to that environment as it became more prominent. Later essays in the abstract style were frequently retrospective.

While one can certainly argue that the music on which I am focusing is transitional, the weight of the transition is perhaps understated much of the time. This repertory can be seen as the final flowering of the "medieval style," of music as science. Although the large body of Baroque instrumental music certainly continues to offer its points of interest, there is no match for the contrapuntal style of the Franco-Flemish masters. It is clearly subordinated to the voice, with even the finest works frequently deployed as interludes, and with the voice in turn subordinated to the text in a rather specifically limiting way. Many will hail this transition as an obvious good, even to the point of deprecating earlier music for its different style, so it should be noted matter-of-factly that e.g. Machaut's sensitivity to text is far from nonexistent. That is a future topic. For the younger classical music enthusiast, especially in America, there is in my experience a certain self-selection against voice. Popular music is overwhelming vocal, and for many people it first takes a rejection (perhaps partial) of that style to begin an interest in classical music, so singing has those associations. I can also freely confess to disliking the sound of operatic singing, particularly on account of its overwhelming loudness. By way of implication, such factors suggest that it is partly the abstract quality of medieval vocal writing which has resurrected the voice-as-instrument among a certain segment of the population, and consequently reinforces the bland articulation to which I frequently object. It is a twisted scenario, but the best instrumental publications of the 16th century play an important role toward unraveling it. Instrumental works have paradoxically given me a new appreciation for the vocal works of the same era, and an increased critical emphasis on articulation.

For those who haven't found it, there is a list of my favorite recordings in this medium. Part of the height to this repertory can be attributed to its sudden appearance, due to what must have been a tangible excitement by its practitioners. One likewise sees the earliest polyphony as more diverse than that which succeeded it. Doubling this effect is the English consort repertory, as English music only emerged from its cloistered isolation during the same 16th century. Those decades saw a shift in England from one of the most conservative idioms to one of the most modern, including a new emphasis on secular forms for the early emerging middle class. As such, the body of English consort music has its roots deeply in the abstract & austere idiom of monastic polyphony in a way that would be impossible elsewhere. Here the idea of textless composition must also have been appealing due to the particularly fierce nature of religious conflict. It is that sort of fortuitous combination which can yield history's great repertories. Of course, abstract instrumental composition has a long history elsewhere, especially in the Far East. By way of speculation, it is perhaps the more human orientation of Christianity, and the required overt confessions of faith, which united words so thoroughly with music in medieval Western thought. In contrast, the Gods themselves were supposed to speak between strokes of the old gamelans in Bali. Music without text was the greater vehicle there, because it was not limited by human articulation. The ascendance of textless composition in Western music can be linked to a similar idea, the sublime of the 19th century, but paradoxically with the opposite humanistic motivation. Here it is the tortured intricacy of human emotion which renders the text superfluous. The instrumental music of the late Renaissance manages to transcend this duality, and that is certainly one of its charms.

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Todd M. McComb