ICHARD J. CLARK once said to me, perhaps in jest: “The more time you invest in an article, the less attention it will garner.” The reverse has proven true in this instance! I recently posted a few brief thoughts about English polyphony, and it seems to have stirred up a bit of up a hornets’ nest. In terms of the “anti-Jeff responses” (for lack of a better term), I’ve already posted two interesting emails. If you scroll down, you can read a “pro-Jeff” response from Uganda.
What Politicians Love • Because I wrote the initial article in haste, let me briefly attempt to ‘clarify’ (as a politician would say) the point I was trying to make. The compositions of different composers—as I explicitly stated—of course display characteristics (“propensities”). For instance, Father Guerrero had a particular affinity for strict canons. Lassus & Hándl—broadly speaking—were slightly more inclined to thick chordal writing as opposed to, say, Victoria. Utendal was more likely to favor chromaticism than, say, Palestrina. Lassus & Hándl were also more likely to write ‘middle sections’ for 2 voices, whereas someone like Marenzio would hesitate to go below 3 voices. Those are characteristics. My article made an explicit distinction between ‘characteristics’ and style.
Some Things Are Easy • When someone has transcribed, studied, sung, and directed Renaissance polyphony in a professional setting for decades, certain ‘feats’ become child’s play. It’s not difficult to tell the difference between Josquin and Victoria, for example, because they wrote in different styles; that is to say, they followed different rules. Those who have extensively studied the early Renaissance—and I have not—could easily distinguish between Nicolas Gombert (d. 1560) and Johannes Ockeghem (d. 1497) because they have a different style. Ludwig van Beethoven (d. 1827) composed in different styles at various times throughout his life. Even a novice could instantly tell the difference between a piece by Guillaume de Machaut (d. 1377) and Lodovico Viadana (d. 1627). Because of the amount of time I have spent studying Renaissance music, I can easily tell the difference between Cristóbal de Morales and his student, Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599). Such things are not difficult.
Not Even One Example • But no living musicologist can distinguish, when hearing an unknown piece, between composers of the High Renaissance (roughly 1550-1595), because they wrote in a “pan-European style.” Needless to say, we here exclude British composers. In all the emails I have received, not one person has been able to point to a single difference in contrapuntal technique between, for example, Father Victoria and Father Guerrero—because they basically wrote in the same style. Perhaps someone like Robert Stevenson (d. 2012) could tell the difference—but we will never know for two reasons. (1) He’s dead. (2) He basically had all the works of Guerrero & Victoria memorized, so it would be impossible to let him hear something he didn’t already know. I challenge anyone to enumerate major differences in style when it comes to composers of the High Renaissance.
Who Exactly? • My article explicitly referenced “composers of the High Renaissance.” A partial list would include: early works of Alexander Utendal (d. 1581), Giovanni Maria Nanino (d. 1607), Annibale Zoilo (d. 1592), Jacobus Hándl (d. 1591), Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599), Orlando de Lassus (d. 1594), Tomás Luis de Victoria (d. 1611), early works of Gregor Aichinger (d. 1628), early works of Ruggiero Giovannelli (d. 1625), Luca Marenzio (d. 1599), Francesco Soriano (d. 1621), Felice Anerio (d. 1614), Caesar de Zaccariis (d. 1597), and Giovanni Palestrina (d. 1594). Those are all brilliant composers whom I love. I try never to speak about composers who are unfamiliar to me. On the other hand, there are some composers—such as J.S. Bach—whom I’ve studied for hours each week going back to the 1990s, yet many of Bach’s compositions still remain a closed book to me (pardon the pun). The point is, there’s always more to learn—and I desperately hope someone will take up the challenge I have issued.
An email from Uganda:
I have also read through the article of Mr. Jeff Ostrowski concerning the English Renaissance composers Taverner, Tye and Tallis and others. I personally believe it was for the most part a look into the history of sacred music as we know it. As for the subject of whether the music of Tallis, Taverner and Tye was tainted by the reformation, I would really agree with Mr. Ostrowski. This would not at all mean that the music itself was bad. For all we know, sacred music in the Renaissance period is something that was actively promoted by the Church, but also by statesmen. The involvement of statesmen in this had many practical implications. Music speaks, but not all speech is music to the ears of everyone. It is really possible to validate the claim that the music composed by the protestant composers was tainted by the reformation, and this restricted their audience or its reception. The same has been said of Hans Leo Hassler whom I believe is the first Renaissance era composer to attempt a rupture in the practice of composing masses by creating the so called “kyrie-leis Masses.” Does this mean his music was tainted by the so called reformation? In all probability, yes. History shows that the success of these composers was restricted by the wave of protestantism, just like we would say for the Catholic composers. Even up to recent times, it is known that the music of Catholic composers in predominantly protestant nations has been received poorly, such that great compositions like “The dream of Gerontius the elder” by Edward Elgar could never be performed in protestant cathedrals. Do we really do ourselves justice by turning a blind eye to the effects of protestantism on the reach, nature, etc of sacred music and keep this matter out of the discussion on sacred music? I think not. Finally, I would agree that though there was variety in the different music schools of the Renaissance era, it is possible that one will find much similarity of style in composition, since we know that Catholic composers usually followed the principles adopted by many Catholic composers concerning the dignity of expression, declamation of text, etc. Certain techniques or forms of expression cut across different schools, especially by composers who based their music on plain chant rhythm. Here, it is not necessary to prolong a discussion, but I agree with Mr. Jeff on almost every point in the article under discussion. Unless we really analyze the melodic tendencies of each and every work of every Renaissance era composer, we must agree that there is little divergence in style and the variety comes perhaps from the creativity and talent of every individual composer. That would mean we must say it is possible to listen for the first time to three pieces by for example Lassus, Palestrina and Thomas Luiz de Victoria and think they were composed by one person, which would have been possible anyway! I must thank Mr. Jeff Ostrowski and the entire team of ccwatershed for the work you do in promoting sacred music. We are eternally grateful and you have our prayers!
Yours in Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
A Ugandan lover of sacred music and reader of ccwatershed blog.