About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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When we say: "The people like this" we regard them as unable to develop, as animals rather than human beings, and we simply neglect our duties in helping them towards a true human existence — indeed, in this case, to truly Christian existence.
— Professor László Dobszay (2003)

"Look Beyond The Bread You Eat" (Part 1)
published 18 November 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

ERTAIN THINGS SEEM self-evident to me, yet other people have a completely different view. For example, observing our children I see a million daily miracles: the way their brains develop, the way their bodies grow perfectly, the way their tiny teeth come in, and so forth. Such things could not be the result of “blind luck.” God even “spaces” children naturally, allowing us to practice our parenting skills without being overwhelmed. To me, God’s perfect designs couldn’t be more obvious. Yet, some believe everything was caused by “dumb luck.”

I’ll never forget being in graduate school and hearing one of the professors (whose field was Renaissance polyphony) explain that the singers in those days “probably couldn’t sing in tune.” In this condemnation were included the masters themselves — Marenzio, Victoria, Palestrina, etc. — who were often hired as singers (not composers), although this might strike us as odd. Recalling this statement (even so many years later) makes my brain explode with rage. After all, those who study Renaissance polyphony realize the intricate, nay, delicate way the music is constructed. The chordal structure * is carefully built following certain sonic rules — don’t double the third, avoid certain inversions, etc. — which is partially why their music sounds so magnificent. Would such attention have been paid to detail if the singers at that time couldn’t sing in tune? That would be like some historian 400 years from now explaining our culture (which puts such effort into building the most perfect vehicles) and declaring, “Well, nobody back then actually drove those vehicles.”

I am reminded of an interview with a modern pianist (I believe it was Murray Perahia). The interviewer said, “If you could go back in time and meet one composer, and hear him play, who would it be?” The pianist said, “Johannes Brahms.” Really? Brahms? I mean, Brahms was certainly a wonderful composer … but what an odd choice and what a sad testimony to our modern musicians. After all, we can more or less surmise what Brahms sounded like — and we even have a faint recording of his playing. Why not J.S. Bach? Or, even better, why not Palestrina, Victoria, or Lassus? Or why not Morales? Wouldn’t that be something? To hear what those choirs really sounded like!

*   Musicologists are liable to blow a blood vessel if they read this, because it’s forbidden to mention “chords” in the same sentence as Renaissance music. However, when it comes to music of the High Renaissance (more or less after 1550), the evidence of a “chordal sense” is there for all to see, and incredibly inconvenient for certain “accepted” theories.

This article is part of a series:

Part 1   •   Part 2