The Renaissance was not so much an event as a phenomenon, and so it must be viewed first as a combination of circumstances which spread to different places at different times. Indeed one might generalize the phenomenon and ask about a renaissance in other times and places. Although there are wide-ranging social and political implications to such a study, the focus here will be on the musical end, and specifically the circumstances which gave rise to Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin, et al. Particularly with regard to the latter, the pivotal event is the start of true music publishing with Petrucci in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Although national variations in style persist to this day, printing must be seen as the primary impetus for the unification of style which led to the pan-European classical tradition and its common forms. In that sense, one can view what turned out to be the epochal harmonic and textual developments of the later fifteenth century as accidentally coincident with the rise of publishing, but the renaissance-as-phenomenon suggests that there are indeed more significant connections at work.
Even if Josquin's specific preeminence can be traced to his professional decision to work in Italy, and the fact that he simply managed to live well into the era of publishing, the broader Franco-Flemish style of which he is one representative must be viewed as dominant for more particular reasons. The place to look is its architectural grandeur, where in the mid-to-late fifteenth century it simply dwarfed all other idioms in its ability to unify and motivate large forms. The Renaissance was driven by ideas of grandeur and mobilization in other endeavors too, from architecture and the plastic arts to the idea of the nation-state itself. Of course the latter eventually led to unifications on a broader scale, with the Franco-Flemish cantus firmus mass perhaps serving as a metaphor for combining those disparate strands in a harmonious way. One cannot take such a suggestion too seriously, but it is a fun flight of fancy. The Gothic period certainly had its share of grandeur, especially architecturally, and what we find in the Renaissance is an alloy of those structural ideas with the new humanist concerns. It is this thread of structural continuity which was wedded to the new concern for text to produce the Franco-Flemish syntheses. In this, perhaps we can see the other exploits of the time reflected, built upon the same combination of past rugged solidity and new priorities.
It was commerce which sparked the Renaissance, and it is commerce which continues to drive the major events of the world. The emphasis on human values among Erasmus and other scholars was echoed obliquely by a world whose horizons moved increasingly toward the dynamic concerns of material goods and world conquest over the static concerns of a simpler life. If one cannot rest content with an inner life, one simply must find an outlet in the human world. The various excesses of either approach to sanity are always evident, and so it is ultimately whatever one seizes upon and prioritizes which is convincing. We did not arrive at Erasmus' life of charity, but then we never do, human nature being what it is. Likewise, it was partly the humanist concern for text which paradoxically produced a more mechanical polyphony in the later sixteenth century. Of course it was also big-time publishing. Although the stage had been set for numerous technical innovations, the Renaissance provided the motivation to use them. What might be said about music on this point? Can the changing role of the interval of the third early in this period be said to foreshadow Da Vinci? It would be difficult to answer affirmatively in any concrete way. There was certainly a sense of "newness" about the changes in harmony, and an evident satisfaction with a feeling of superiority over the past. The Renaissance in general was marked by a particular juxtaposition of ideas regarding the past, more specifically a rejection of the immediate past and a desire to emulate the Ancients. We see this in endeavors as far removed from each other as sculpture and Empire building.
For music, supposed emulation of the distant past as a way to revoke the immediate past had to wait for the Florentine Camerata and the repertory usually designated as the end of the Renaissance idiom. The relative lateness of this development suggests that music lagged other undertakings, even if we are left with nagging questions about the significance of the shift to harmony emphasizing the third and then imitation as a wide-ranging structural property. For the latter, one might tentatively posit a desire to emulate human actions and concerns, rather than the more abstract constructions of divinity. Ultimately though, I must reach the conclusion that music was relatively old-fashioned in the period and that it did not lead the Renaissance. Instead, the massive achievements of the great masters, of Ockeghem and Obrecht and La Rue, represent the culmination of the medieval worldview and emphasize the nature of music as the most abstract of arts. The previous era's values could be retained in music, precisely because they were unspoken. It was then the material wealth and preoccupations of the age which allowed this last generation of medieval composers to flourish. It was a vacuum of spirituality into which these magnificent syntheses were drawn, and it was the fact that the Renaissance had moved on in its priorities which allowed them so much space to expand in structure. Even if the incorporation of the third from English descant heralds the cosmopolitan concerns of the later fifteenth century, it is still abstract values which dominate the masterpieces thus produced.
The idea of rebirth is marked deeply by the idea of death, by the idea of cycle, and specifically by the idea that the immediate past must be shunned in favor of the more distant past. I see this as the core paradigm of renaissance-as-phenomenon, and so it can be observed in other times and places, and especially in the present day. Not only is this the touchstone for the HIP movement, but it is reflected in other ways in other post-postmodern styles of art music, and is even a dominant trend in popular culture with the so-called "retro" styles. We are therefore in the Renaissance of the Renaissance, and it remains to be seen how the accompanying material improvements and shifting priorities will redefine art (especially through the moving image) while allowing some forms to undergo a magnificent final flowering. Indeed it may be music which again adds the closing punctuation to the movement, since its abstract nature gives it a special insularity. As a final thought, I cannot shake the notion that it will be text itself which is radically transformed, and carried forward only briefly in an apotheosis of the discursive style.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb