Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Sacred Choral Music of the Renaissance (Part 4) - The Fifteenth Century (Part 1)

Sacred Music in the 15th Century
"Kyrie" for three voices by Guillaume Dufay - A page from a manuscript created for Cambrai Cathedral.

     I first discovered the sacred choral music of the 15th century back in 1973. I was in Wichita, Kansas that summer, teaching classes in spirituality and using music in counseling seasons, where I was seeing first hand the wonderful results that uplifting music could bring to people with emotional and spiritual needs. 
     One young lady that I was working with was majoring in music at Wichita State University. I had just discovered the music of the great 15th-century composer Guillaume Dufay and we listened to a recording of one of his masses together. She was very surprised, as even as a music major, she had never before heard of 15th-century classical music. I made her a cassette tape of the mass and she began listening to Dufay's music in her home. Finding Dufay's music to be so beautiful, she soon told her college professor about it. She told me: "He just looked down his nose at me and with a scowl, he told me that this kind of music only belonged in a museum and should never be taken seriously, especially by a music student."
     Modern ears sometimes are quick to brand the music of this century to be too musty and cold. But after giving the music some full attention, it just might come alive, and new listeners may begin to realize its wealth of great beauty.
The Birth of the Renaissance
     The date that many writers give for the birth of the Renaissance period in European history to be around 1400. It is absolutely no coincidence that this is also the approximate date for the introduction of pure consonance in the sacred choral music of Europe. This introduction was courtesy of the English composer named John Dunstable (1390-1453), who added the consonant musical intervals of the 3rd and 6th to multi-voiced sacred music that during the previous century had been more restricted to the perfect forth and fifth intervals. Due to the tremendous resonant power that music has, adding the 3rd and 6th, which completed the harmony of the three-note chord called the triad, provided the basis for consonant harmony, resonating with the tremendous social change that accompanied the beginning of rebirth in Europe, already stimulated by the influence of the Islamic culture of Al Andalus (Spain) that I discussed in the first two articles in this series.

The Composers
John Dunstable (ca 1390 – 1453)

John Dunstable

     The polyphonic music style of the previous centuries had been based primarily on the root harmonic intervals of the perfect forth and fifth. What Dunstable did was provide his music with an abundance of what became known as the contenance angloise, balancing the interval of the perfect forth and fifth by adding the 3rd and sixth intervals. John Dunstable gave to European music the balance of music based on the musical triad (C E G). 
     John Dunstable was very famous, and his music very important. Most of his music has vanished, however, destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries that occurred during 1536-1541, when Henry the Eighth destroyed catholicism in Britain.
     Here is an example of a sacred composition from 14th century, before Dunstable's revolution:
Sacred Music from 14th-century England

    This is an example of Dunstable's music:
"Quam pulchra es" by John Dunstable

Guillaume Dufay (ca 1400 - 1474)

Guillaume Dufay

     It was music from the Netherlandish countries, the area of Northern Europe now known as Northern and Eastern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, that the most important 15th-century music arose. This was the music of the Franco-Flemish School of composers who were joined by the visual artists who help create the great cultural movement of that time, producing some of our greatest works of art
    The following two paintings are among the most famous from the Franco-Flemish world during this time of great cultural achievement:  
"The Arnolfini Portrait" by Jan Van Eyck

"The Descent from the Cross" by Rogier van der Weyden

    (A great experience for me was the day that I spent in the Old Masters Museum in Brussels, where so many of these old paintings are on display. Already familiar with the music that at one time was coexistent with this art, the visit to this museum was a very special treat). 
    The greatest composer of the Franco-Flemish school was Guillaume Dufay, who created a music with an original style that will dominate the century. Gustave Reese, who wrote the monumental treatise of Renaissance music Music in the Renaissance, had this to say about the composer:
"Dufay -- one of the great exponents of French music, regardless of period… dominated the art of composition unchallenged from 1425 to 1450, when, though still at the height of his powers, he was approached in eminence by Ockeghem, the leader of a new generation."
     Dufay was one of the most famous men of his generation. He created an entirely new musical style that would influence musical composition permanently, affecting every genre and sphere. 

     We don't know where or when he was born, but we do know that he was Flemish and that he began his musical career as a singer in the Burgundian court, and that he was associated with the town of Cambrai in Belgium, which at that time was under Burgundian rule. He moved to Italy in 1420, however. He was already famous by the 1420s, having written two wonderful works: the secular “Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys” (Goodbye to These Good Wines of Lannoys) and the sacred “Apostolo glorioso” (Glorious Apostle).
Secular song "Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys" by Guillaume Dufay

Sacred motet "Apostolo glorioso" by Guillaume Dufay

    Dufay filled various positions in Italy, including membership in the Papal choir in Rome. At some point, he returned to Cambrai where he supervised the music at the cathedral, writting new music for its repertory. He died in 1474.

Johannes Ockeghem (ca 1410 - 1497)

Johannes Ockegham

     Johannes Ockeghem was born in the French-speaking province of Hainaut, in the town of Saint-Ghislainor according to recent research. He was the first chaplain for three French kings, and he held the prestigious position of treasurer at the great cathedral and monastery of St. Martin de Tours.
     Ockeghem's surviving musical output is small, consisting of only a few motets, fourteen masses, and a couple of dozen chansons. Unfortunately, what was most likely a large output of music has been destroyed, perhaps in the over one-hundred conflicts and wars that plagued Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. Ockeghem was known as an accomplished master of compositional technique, famous for his complex lines and polyphonic structures. He wrote some very beautiful music.
The beautiful "Sanctus" section from Ockeghem's Missa Mi-Mi

The "Kyrie" from Missa Ecce ancilla Domini

This is an illuminated manuscript showing soprano and tenor parts for the "Kyrie" section of Ockeghem's Missa Ecce ancilla Domini featured in the video above.  The image of such a page of music shows not only the value that was placed on this composer's music, but also the important relationship between music and art during the 15th century. (Chigi codex housed in the Vatican library)

    I will concluded my presentation of the sacred choral music of the 15th century in the next article in this series.

 2016 by Don Robertson

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Sacred Choral Music of the Renaissance (Part 3) - Introduction to Renaissance Sacred Choral Music

     by Don Robertson

     This is Part Three of my series of articles titled "The Sacred Choral Music of the Renaissance," a 12-part series introducing the great tradition of sacred choral music that arose in Europe between the years 1400 and 1600 during a time of tremendous cultural development. It was music that was sung in Roman catholic cathedrals and monasteries, composed by the great composers of that time. A great deal of this great body of work has survived in the form of manuscripts and published part books that were housed in the libraries of the great cathedrals and monasteries of Europe (part books contain the melodic lines that choir singers performed to create the harmonic fabric of the sacred choral compositions). 
     Singing was generally unaccompanied, but in some cases, instruments were employed to double the choral parts of the part books, or to add an organ accompaniment. The music was written primarily for a cappella choir (unaccompanied by instruments). However, instruments began gaining their own footing in choral compositions beginning in the first decade of the 17th century.
A page from a part book printed in 1585 showing 3 of the 6 parts for Victoria's motet "Ardens est cor meum." This page contains the music that was sung by sopranos, altos and basses. The other 3 parts for this 6-part motet are on opposite page. 

     The Renaissance sacred music that we are describing is an harmonic extension of the plainsong melodies known as Gregorian chant. These melodies constituted the main parts of the mostly Latin-language liturgy that were sing by monks, nuns and clergy for hundreds of years in Roman catholic institutions and churches. The Gregorian melodies were then adopted by Renaissance composers who created music in an harmonic style, meaning that multiple voices sang music composed with more than one single simultaneous musical line, as had been the case for the chant melodies.
     These harmonic compositions constitute the classical music of the Renaissance period, just as the compositions of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Wagner and Franck belong to the body of classical music composed during the 19th century. 
     Harmonic music did not replace the extant melodies of Gregorian chant. Instead, they were sung alongside these melodies throughout the Renaissance period, the Gregorian melodies often woven into the fabric of the Renaissance choral compositions themselves. During the Renaissance period, two great traditions, the harmonic and the Gregorian, were the inseparable brother and sister companions.

Great Composers Abound
     The finest composers of the early Renaissance were Guillaume Dufay (c.1400-1474), Johannes Ockeghem (c.1410-1497), Jacob Obrecht (1457-1505) and Josquin des Prez  (c.1440-1521). Some glorious masses and liturgical compositions, called motets, have come down to us from these great composers.
     The greatest composers of the late renaissance were Orlando di Lasso (his church-latin name was Orlande de Lassus) (1532-1594), Jacob Handl (Jacobus Gallus) (1550-1591), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), William Byrd (1540-1623), Cristobol Morales (1500-1553) and Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611). Because of the spiritual purity of the music, the late Renaissance witnessed the golden age of choral music, and perhaps even the golden age of all classical music.
     These composers, among others that I will cover, created a great body of work that is truly one of the greatest treasures of Western civilization: a civilization, however, that has not yet fully realized this important fact. That is why there are only a few books in English and a few web links related to Gregorian chant and her sister, Renaissance sacred music. There have been a number of fine recordings produced, however, and in the final analysis, this, along with the great dedicated choirs in England and Europe who specialize in this music, is the most important tribute that has been made to a great music treasure, keeping it alive.

The End of an Era... 
     About 1600, what is known as the "Baroque Era" began, and the style of music that was sung in the catholic churches and institutions changed dramatically. Hence, the classical music changed also. Left behind was the "a cappella" style with its music designated for voices, as unique parts for instruments were now being added. Along with this, the new music of the 1600s blossomed in the secular arena, and thus we see the introduction of the first opera in 1600 in Florence, Italy. The so-called Baroque Era terminated in what is called the Classical Era of Mozart and Haydn, and this was followed by the Romantic Era of the 19th Century. 
     Today, Renaissance sacred music is not generally recognized as being an integral part of the mainstream classical music tradition that is dominated by the music of the era of Mozart and the music of the 19th and 20th centuries. For many classical music lovers, classical music only begins in the 18th century with J.S. Bach, and yet it seems that few mainstream concert-goers have the slightest comprehension of the music of this great master. It takes serious listening to begin to grasp the music of any of the deeper classical composers, be they Beethoven, Wagner, Bruckner and Bach from the 18th and 19th centuries, or Palestrina, Lassus and Obrecht from the 15th and 16th. The rewards of this kind of concentrated listening, however, are great. 
     In fact, here in America, I find few people who know anything about classical music at all. Added to this is the deplorable situation existing in many concert halls across our unfortunately deteriorating country, and an almost complete lack of any kind of education concerning the great treasures of classical music from any of the world's traditions being offered in educational institutions, where sporting games are apparently considered more important.  
     During the 19th century, the music from before the time of Bach and Vivaldi, unlike the paintings from the same era that could be viewed in art books and museums, required live performances to be heard. A near silencing of Renaissance music therefore prevailed until radio and recording technology became available in the 20th century, and it wasn't until the 1960s that a very few long-playing recordings began to show up in record shops in America. By 1980, I had managed find only about thirty record albums of Renaissance sacred music, the result of an intense nine-year search. That is not a lot of recordings to represent a 200-year period of time, especially when some compositions were represented by multiple recordings.

...And the Beginning of a New Era
     Now, however, the great masterworks of Gregorian chant and Renaissance sacred music are available for almost every person to experience through 21st-century technology. But today's culture has deteriorated to the point where the style of the great Renaissance sacred music repertory is tremendously out of sync with so-called "modern" tastes. For today's listener, unaccompanied choral music may at first appear to be no match for the electronically enhanced sounds of contemporary music. Again, deep listening will prove otherwise. 
     There is very little contemporary music that can match the quality, beauty and spirituality that Renaissance sacred music has to offer, a boon to those who have realized the limitations of so much of today's music and are ready to move on. Once one has become intimately familiar with the sacred music of the Renaissance, it becomes painfully obvious that this is a musical culture that should never have been forgotten, and should not continue to be neglected by contemporary society: a society desperately in need of the calming and healing effects offered by a purely consonant music composed by great masters from a nearly forgotten time. When this music is finally accepted by spiritually minded souls of all nationalities and cultures, it will be a great day. What a treasure we have awaiting us!
     My discovery of Renaissance choral music and Gregorian chant in 1971 initiated a project that I would passionately pursue for decades, researching, studying and listening to Gregorian chant and the harmonic sacred music of the Renaissance period for over thirty years, ultimately creating a collection of carefully chosen music that I will be publishing for study and education, to enable composers, singers, and musicians to discover the riches and beauties of two of the world's greatest music traditions: Gregorian chant and Renaissance sacred choral music. A preview of my publication efforts is available on my DoveSong.com website.
     In the next article in this series, I will introduce the four types of sacred choral music employed during the Renaissance period.
     Stay tuned. I'm Don Robertson...
© 2016 by Don Robertson