Reply To: Music

  • Encyclios

    April 24, 2023 at 9:29 AM

    Medieval music

    The medieval distinction of a mundane music (the purely intelligible harmony of the cosmos based on the balance of opposites), of a human music (with reference to its reflection on the human soul) and of a musica instrumentalis (i.e. physically resonant music, a purely contingent initiation to philosophical speculation) and the placement of music in the liberal arts grouped in the Quadrivium next to arithmetic, geometry and astronomy is linked to this vision. But beyond this aspect, in which it is also to be recognized the consequence of the low social consideration that, apart from sporadic exceptions, the practice of music had in the Roman culture (which did not bring in this sector substantial elements of novelty and originality compared to the Greek matrix), it is necessary to emphasize the revolutionary character of the powerful cultural synthesis through which the Christian liturgical chant took shape, in which elements of the Jewish musical tradition, Middle Eastern and, especially as regards the theory, of the Greek and Byzantine tradition converged.

    The movement towards the liturgical unity of Christianity, promoted by popes since the 4th century and culminating in the reform of Gregory the Great (590-604), while on the one hand decreed the disappearance of a vast patrimony of chants linked to local traditions (with the exception of Ambrosian chant, which Rome admitted as legitimate alongside Gregorian chant), on the other hand led to the integration of important elements already considered spurious into the repertoire of Roman chant. Moreover, the appearance of diastematic notation (perfected by Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century) constituted an event of exceptional historical importance, both for the preservation of the musical heritage and for the new technical possibilities offered to composition. The rigid prohibition to vary the repertoire imposed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy after the 7th century and the work of liturgical unification powerfully favored by the Frankish kings, and in particular by Charlemagne, would soon have led to a sclerotisation and a decadence of Christian liturgical singing if new demands had not renewed the musical heritage of the Church of Rome from within.

    Between the ninth and tenth centuries, in fact, the sequence and the trope became widespread (destined to flow, through the development of the dialogic trope, into the liturgical drama, into the sacred representation and into the mystery, constituting the premises for the development of the new European theater). Moreover, starting from the 9th century, the first attempts to structurally vary liturgical chant, traditionally homophonic, appeared through the application of polyphonic elaboration techniques. Originally configured in the forms of the organum parallelo, of the organum melismatico and of the discanto, these arrived between the 12th and 13th centuries at a notable degree of formal complexity, especially in the ambit of the school of Notre-Dame of Paris, in which the first definite personalities of composers of Western Europe were noted: Leoninus and Pérotin.

    The Magnus Liber Organi, an imposing monument of primitive polyphony, which both composers aspired to, contains organa, clausulae, conductus and motets for two, three and four voices, which present, among other things, the application of a revolutionary principle: a rhythm which, unlike the fluid elasticity of Gregorian chant, provides mathematical ratios of duration between the sounds. This new technique, to which the development of the mensural notation quickly opened new perspectives, was both a consequence and a singular element of stimulus of the new polyphonic forms which had in the motet the most typical structure of the Ars antiqua period (between the first decades of the XII century and about 1320). But, however full of future, the polyphonic forms are far from exhausting the panorama of the music of this period, rich in profound seeds of renewal: the movement of the troubadours in southern France and Italy, of the troubadours in northern France, of the Minnesingers in Germany, as well as the flowering of spiritual compositions such as the Italian lauds and the Iberian cantigas constituted as many sectors of development of the monodic style.

    With the Ars nova, which flourished between 1320 and the first decades of the fifteenth century, we see in France and Italy a singular development of profane polyphonic forms (rondeau, virelai, ballade; madrigals, hunts, ballads) and a powerful structural expansion of sacred forms, among which the Mass stands out (of which Guillaume de Machault, the greatest European musician of the fourteenth century, left a distinguished example with the Messe de Notre-Dame, the first polyphonic example of this genre conceived by a single author). While in the early fifteenth century the legacy of the Ars Nova was dispersed in manneristic intellectual subtleties, the first exponents of the Burgundian school (Dufay, Binchois, etc.) merged the concreteness of the English J. Dunstable with a vigorously rational structure that for the first time introduced into compositional practice the principle of imitated counterpoint: a technique that organized the form on the basis of rigorous laws, conceiving it as a profoundly organic construction.

    This compositional technique was to achieve universal diffusion throughout Europe through Franco-Flemish composers (from Ockegem and Obrecht to Orlando di Lasso) and was destined to constitute a sort of humus on which forms and styles with a more marked national imprint would germinate. Flemish musicians, and in particular Josquin Després, also deserve the merit of having given concrete implementation to the new ideals of Renaissance aesthetics, introducing into the abstract compositional structures the warmth of a new expressiveness that aimed to translate into meaningful musical gestures the semantic content of the texts. The fruits of this new aesthetics, which a theorist of the time, A. P. Coclico, summarized in the concept of reserved music, were applied to the somewhat canonical forms of the mass, motet and chanson. But the clarifying and simplifying action of the new Renaissance thought can also be seen in the slow disintegration of Gregorian modal structures, in the ever more decisive affirmation of the major and minor modes (which had their first theoretical justification in the treatise Dodekachordon, 1547, by H. Loris Glareano), in the determination of the natural scale and in the revolutionary theory of chords, which had its most complete and systematic formulation in the works of G. Zarlino.

    Profoundly progressive seeds, from the musical point of view, had meanwhile been introduced, with the Reformation, by Martin Luther, to whom we owe, among other things, the elimination of Gregorian chant from the liturgy and its replacement with the chorale, based on popular melodies or popular trend, discovered tonal structure. The meeting of the international Flemish style with the native forms that had flourished in the various nations (the frottola in Italy, the villancico in Spain, the polyphonic Lied in Germany) produced new genres, in which the contributions of the divergent traditions arrived at a new synthesis, at times extremely productive and fecund: this is the case of the Italian madrigal, cultivated by almost all the greatest musicians of the sixteenth century and a privileged means for the most subtle linguistic and expressive experiments, which reached a peak in the works of L. Marenzio, C. Gesualti, C. G. Marenzio and C. G. Marenti. Marenzio, C. Gesualdo, C. Monteverdi.

    Next to the profane vocal music, including not only the above mentioned forms but also the lighter ones of the canzonetta, the ballet, the villanella, and the sacred repertoire (in which Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Byrd, T. L. de Victoria in the contrapuntal polyphonic style, A. Willaert, Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli in the lively writing concertante for several choirs of voices or voices and instruments, typical of the Venetian school, imposed themselves as the greatest personalities of the XVI century), it is to point out the great flourishing that for the first time knew the instrumental music. Confined to the sphere of popular music or reduced to the execution of tablatures (transcriptions of pieces originally conceived for voices), instrumental music (with particular reference to the lute, the organ and the string instruments) elaborated in the sixteenth century a series of original compositional structures (forms of variation, succession of dance pieces ordered in suites, toccata, canzone, ricercare, etc.), many of which were destined to be very popular in the following centuries.