What I Like About...
Tuesday, March 30, 2004
  Full Anthem: Sing joyfully unto God
William Byrd
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 47-50

We should thank William, our keyboard-type improviser, for sharing his good humor. There does not seem to be enough happy music. Especially when one is spending so much time with religious composers. The impressiveness of crucifixion laments must have been hard to pass up. Fortunately, no one piece of music or theme is ever enough for the endless pairs of ears that enjoy harmonious sounds. And composers, at some time, must face the challenge of not trying to be profound.

Byrd's ensemble piece does not strive for a climax or repeat a memorable tune. Mostly, we enjoy the festive echoes that abound as the text is clearly presented. The few bars that sing about blowing a trumpet are vital to the composition. These provide the most staid moment of the piece and an important contrast precisely at the moment the listener may be tiring of the festivity. Byrd knew how much of a good thing is good.

What I like about this piece is that Bill works with short phrases. This allows the attention of the work to be focused on sound. There is an enjoyable quickness when these six voices are repeating a few words at different times. Byrd's anthem is not an exploration of the ensemble's range. It is simply a joyful sound. 
Monday, March 29, 2004
  Motet: Tristis est anima mea
Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 43-46

Orlando knew how to pick text. The biblical excerpt used here had a musical sound before it was set to music. For instance, the way the opening few words move from a frequent use of the st consonance to the rounded vowels of anima mea is very appealing. In addition to the richness of sound, the statement is profound. To me, this part of the story of Christ is difficult to understand. I am not sure how Christ came to accept this fate or why Christ would express it in this way. Reading these words I am left to wonder what they imply. And, perhaps because of this difficulty, I find the words ascribed to Christ at this moment mysterious and powerful.

Lasso, like any good madrigalist, is able to musically paint the meaning of each word. As we have heard, madrigals can have wide shifts of mood because of this attention. However, unlike the madrigal composers (good and bad) Lasso's final product has a consistent mood. The serenity of the opening is maintained throughout. Presenting a glow or aura around the many voices. A sound, perhaps, descriptive of a multifoliate rose.

What I like about this motet is the way he has set the words vos fugam capietis. Not to break the mood, the music takes flight in a somber, downward motion. The ensemble momentarily and gracefully falls apart as it moves toward its final, inevitable cadence. 
Sunday, March 28, 2004
  Mass: Kyrie
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 41-42

Though tempted, Tomas showed restraint. The inspired opening theme of his O magnum mysterium is one that any worthwhile composer would use more than once. It is a theme, in spite of its simplicity, that invites a composer to create a maze of counterpoint. Encountering the theme in this mass, the listener finds the pious Luis de Victoria writing a fugue genuinely, that is to say, not for the sake of being clever.

For Victoria, it was another inspired notion that coupled this theme with a second, similar theme. Since the original blended two voices so well, placing it in a double fugue reinforced the idea. For the critical, this should justify our composer's yielding to the temptation to recycle. Impressively, with this increased complexity Victoria was able to hold onto a clear, uncomplicated style. Perhaps this is due, in someway, to the man's pious outlook. At any rate, this Kyrie is a meaningful reworking of the motet and a beautiful work in itself.

What I like about this Kyrie is to imagine how, as a member of the congregation, one might have encountered it for the first time. I am sure that members of the Victoria's church would have been aware of the motet. When this excerpt appeared in the service there must have been a few smiles of recognition and appreciation. 
Saturday, March 27, 2004
  Motet: O magnum mysterium
Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 38-39

Victoria presents truth. Even the most well-grounded atheist is a believer for the duration of this motet. If the idea is not true, it has still motivated our composer into writing a great work of art and convincing us, if only for a time, of an idea that was beautiful to him. And because of this, fans of Tomas, believers and atheists alike, enjoy an awareness of miracle.

The opening four bars of this piece are able to transfix a listener with mystery and yet employ no more than four pitches. The unusual contour of the theme presents an altus who is, at the same time, imitating and continuing a line started by the cantus. This introduction is so captivating that Victoria's accomplishment appears to have been his ability to continue the piece effectively. In fact, his move to triple meter and back for the concluding Alleluia is a vital contrast. It takes us just far enough away from where we started. If the contrast were stronger, we would be confused and possibly disengaged. If the contrast were less, tragically, the mystery might become mundane.

What I like about this motet is a feature it shares with Palestrina's writing. Though the phrase endings are more apparent with Victoria, he also encourages hangers-on. He has learned from the master that when one phrase is ending, it sometimes helps to sustain a little sound into the next. 
Friday, March 26, 2004
  Pope Marcellus Mass, Agnus Dei
Giovanni da Palestrina (1525/26-1594)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Track 37

Palestrina’s mass is enough to make one yearn to convert. Sadly, I feel safe from that temptation. I know this is an unfair comparison. One should not compare music from the Midwestern churches near me to the historical performances of the most famous cathedrals in Italy. Yet, I find it painful to think that the inheritors of Palestrina’s efforts are the guitar-strumming singers frequently accompanied by tambourine.

It is because of the conservatism of the Marcellus Mass that this music is able to effect such beautiful pain. Palestrina’s choices, though not resulting in adventuresome harmonies, are never symmetrical or dull. As a result, the conservatism is expressed not by adhering to logic and structure but by consistently pulling against them. The story that is being told here, benefits from this type of understatement.

What I like about Palestrina’s writing is the way each voice moves independently. Except for significant moments in the text, Palestrina is careful to see that when one sound event is ending another continues and overlaps into the next. In this way the voices take turns carrying the listener through the text. These details, especially these transitions, are breathtaking. 
Thursday, March 25, 2004
  Pope Marcellus Mass, Credo
Giovanni da Palestrina (1525/26-1594)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 32-36

Our understanding is helped by Palestrina's remembrance of Marcellus' difficult career and short tenure as pope. In the vast sea of human history, Palestrina's piece is a buoy marking a character in an uncomfortable story of reformation. Looking back we might ignore this story or the short appearance of Pope Marcellus. Yet, listening to Palestrina's music we are given access to the interior life of a person who lived in that time. Hopefully, inspired by this experience we investigate our history and ponder the profound relationship of the individual to the passage of time.

Palestrina's division of the Credo into three sections does more than provide contrast. He explores the range of this ensemble before presenting the full impact of a six part choir. In the first section, which groups the choir in flexible teams of three, the listener is impressed with the width of the ensemble. The second section, track 33, by starting in the lowest register and working upward, our composer impresses the listener with the height of the ensemble. So that, in the final amen, the listener is aware of the awesome completeness of the Credo.

What I like about this Credo is the tension that opens the second section. The words Crucifixus etiam pro nobis ascend slowly and painfully. Then, we are almost blinded by Et resurrexit
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
  Pavana Lachrymae
William Byrd (1543-1623)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 29-31

Byrd played for an educated crowd. Music is shaped by the audience as much by the composer or performer. This piece is good evidence for that claim because, in addition to relying on the audiences familiarity with Dowland's weepy tune, it is entertainment for those lovers of virginals, spinets, and other harpsichord types. That is to say that the substance of the work is how is takes advantage of keyboard technique. Dowland's tune is well enough (and perhaps better of without Byrd). What we are listening for here is how the keyboard player takes that tune to town.

Each of the variations is not much unlike the other. What does happen is that the tune is sometimes just barely present. Or that a detail of the tune spins out an enjoyable aside. As we listen to theses flourishes, the memory of Downland's melody begins to resonates underneath our hearing. While we watch our performer accomplish scales that our own hands have spent time trying to untangle, we feel some sadness for this accomplished performer whose weary days of all joys have deprived. It is because of the economical elegance of Flow, my tears that this is possible. As I have said before, Dowland did not waste a note. And to Byrd's credit, listening to one sound event that reminds us of another can be a potent music experience.

What I like about this addition to the esteemed Fitzwilliam book, is the way the scales run through one hand to the other seamlessly. 
Monday, March 22, 2004
  Danseries a 4 Parties, Second Livre, a. Basse danse (no. 1), b. Branle gay: Que je chatoulle ta fossette (no. 36)
Pierre Attaingnant (1562-1626)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 27-28

Pierre, our musical Gutenberg, was printing music books before the daughter of Anne Boleyn took up the lute. The impact that printing has on music at this time is impressive. Most significantly, music books best convey how to build and play instruments. After a long tradition of vocal music, a unified instrumental effort was the foundation of extending those achievements into the unsingable.

I do not think that it is incidental that our early instrumental music includes dances. I am sure there has always been dance music. Birds have to sing, after all. I am reminded, again, that there must have been a myriad of European music traditions that were not documented and vanished with the performers and dancers that enjoyed them. I imagine a group of isolated Scots with drums exploring poly rhythmic essays beyond the comprehension of even the distant, fateful Krell.

What I like about Mr. Attaingnant's publication is the use of meter. The attention of the audience is not intended to be focused on the music, of course. So the rhythmic language is of primary importance. It cannot afford to be too complex or too mundane. The asymmetrical groove of the basse danse goes well with the solid triplet meter of the branle gay. 
Sunday, March 21, 2004
  Air: Flow, my tears
John Dowland (1562-1626)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 24-26

John's Elizabethan hit is a good study in line. Every note of the voice part is essential and creates meaning through direction and distance. It is because most of the directions are downward that the overall attitude is despondent. Upward motions here create fleeting moments of faint optimism. The degree of despondency fluctuates and seems to peak at moments when the distance between consecutive notes is the smallest. Large distances, large leaps are always upward and are followed by a slow, sobbing descent.

Now is a good time to move toward more instrumental music. Contemporary of Mr. Dowland's achievement, music books are being printed and instruments, like the lute, are becoming standardized. And, happily, musical line has acquired this ability to convey meaning more sharply than text.

What I like about this tune is the pitch selection for the words, "Hark! You shadows that in darkness dwell, Learn to contemn light." This is the moment that the piece moves from its main content to the dramatic conclusion. Mr. Dowland created this turn effectively by setting these words to two overlapping palindromes. 
Saturday, March 20, 2004
  Madrigal: O Care, thou wilt despatch me
Thomas Weelkes (ca. 1575-1623)

Thomas may remind you of David. That is to say that, like the story of David in the court of Kind Saul, Thomas' madrigal deals with the ability music has to distract one from depression. With no evidence of what his music was like, I have always assumed that David's music was effective because, like Saul's mood, it was moody. I would guess, putting myself in Saul's position, that if David attempted to cheer Saul with an uplifting dance number his performance would have been cut short. Though Weelkes' madrigal has plenty of long droopy chords, the reoccurring "Fa, la, las" suggest that, in addition to a lover's catharsis, Weelkes may have been looking for a few dance steps.

This adventuresome attitude may be the result of Mr. Weelkes' confidence in his audience. This piece, an almost bipolar avowal, relies on the listener's experience with previous madrigals. It contrasts with the relentlessness of many of these pieces.

What I like about this composition is the use of scales. It is impressive how much is accomplished in stepwise motion. For instance, with scales it is easy to move voices in and out of the foreground. Because each voice is easy to follow throughout, Mr. Weelkes accomplishes a wonderful depth of field in this piece. 
Thursday, March 18, 2004
  Chanson: Revecy venir du printans
Claude Le Jeune (1528-1600)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 3 Tracks 11-19

Le Jeune's riotous rondo-like chanson is built for speed. The groove, familiar to us from Cara's frottola on CD 2 (the one with the really long note) is well used in this springtime romp. It is a rhythm that is able to present text clearly without slowing down. The text is and is not important. The language, of course, is beautiful regardless of how well you know French (I do not). However, with just a few words, like L'amoureuz, Printans, Animaus, and semant, a listener has what they need to know. Beyond that, the impact of the text is the sound of the language.

Moving on, the form carries the listener straight to the end without surprise or climax. As a result, the listener is compelled to hop up and down, clapping hands, cheering, "Again, again!" It is the strophes that create the most momentum. In this performance, we never hear the instrumental support during the strophes. Thus these events have an exciting solo quality. Also, these events become increasingly and predictably more complex as they accumulate voices. In contrast, the refrain serves as a home base for the ensemble and listener. We hear the refrain twice at the beginning (not twice at the end as it is in the score) so that we learn it well. Then, each time we hear it between the strophes, we are able to regroup and face each new challenge with fresh ears.

What I like about this chanson are the melismas that run throughout the tenor part. Because these melismas are so short and fast, they never upstage the tune. They provide an energizing background to an already rousing set. 
  Chanson: Tant que vivray
Claudin de Sermisy (ca. 1490-1562)

None of Claudin's repeats are regrettable. One must balance a diet of madrigals with an occasional chanson. This simple tune, appropriate for the text, makes no attempt to move the listener's emotions. You can take it or not. It appears the purpose of the chanson is to give the listener a tune to remember. After hearing this easy melody several times, the listener walks away armed against the weighty darkness of life with the lightness of Sermisy's chanson.

Without difficult music, the text has a chance to shine. In fact, hearing the French in the performance is worth the effort of playing the CD. I am not sure that it is Marot's poem that I am responding to or simply the beauty of the French language. But the poem is enjoyable. Even without understanding French too well, the rhythms of the poem are memorable. The charm of the poem is the contrast between long and short lines.

What I like about this piece is the way Sermisy has taken advantage of that contrast. For example, the way he starts the B section with the same rhythm that starts the A section, only twice as fast. It is because the contrast is so enjoyable that we are eager to hear the repeats. 
Tuesday, March 16, 2004
  Madrigal: "Io parto" e non piu dissi
Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613)

It is difficult to write about Mr. Gesualdo without first mentioning his Wagneresk style or his sense of domestic justice. Those points aside, the high quality of this madrigal is enough to make any musician nostalgic for centuries past. The achievement here is not Mr. Gesualdo's alone. This piece is the result of centuries of singing. First singing single lines, then lines together, then chords, then expressive chords. From the examples we have in this survey, much of the credit for this tradition (starting with the early prejudice of instrumental music) goes to Christianity. Although I have no answers, I do wonder what else Mr. Gesualdo and his well trained performers heard.

For its day, this piece seems unique in the use of dynamics. I think, at this point in history, composers are not writing dynamic indications to the performers. However, Mr. Gesualdo has clearly shaped his piece with loud and soft motions in mind. Affecting the labored breathing of one suffering under the yoke of love, this piece frequently pauses in silence. Between these pauses the singers are given musical phrases that are unmistakably swells of sound.

What I like about this piece is the variety of ways that these swells are accomplished. Sometimes they are accomplished through a long sustained pitch, sometimes staggered entrances, sometimes the counterpoint, and often they are accomplished by a combination of techniques. The variety is such that we are surprised by the brevity of this deep expression. 
Monday, March 15, 2004
  Madrigal: Solo e penoso
Luca Marenzio (1553-1599)

Luca was not interested in a tune you could hum. Even though this piece has no event that might scare a fragile listener, there is little enough repetition to give anyone a melody to take home. This is typical, I think, of this style. But it is a sharp feature of this masterpiece because this madrigal never settles down. From the incredibly serene opening to the chatty conclusion, Mr. Marenzio has explored the potential of five voices with an ear focused on mood.

The mood changes more frequently in Marenzio's music than it does in Petrarca's poem. For instance, the narrator is moving steadily, ready to split at the first sign of company. From the text we have one mood: tense. Mr. Marenzio, however, takes advantage of what our narrator might do and we have two moods: tense as well as running away. The madrigal continues through the text elaborating each memory and thought . As a result, the poem is filled with abstractions of our narrator's past as well as his fear of the future.

What I like about the madrigal is the way Mr. Marenzio is able to move from one mood to the other seamlessly. He takes full advantage of the five voices, at times using one group to finish a mood while a different group starts a contrasting section. This piece covers a remarkable range of emotions in a short time. And it moves from one issue to the other like the unsettled mind of one alone and pensive. 
Sunday, March 14, 2004
  Madrigal: Da le belle contrade d'oriente
Cipriano de Rore (ca. 1416-ca. 1565)

Her tears, every syllable, provided Cipriano the inspiration of pain tightly held by pleasure. Here we have everything we need. We have the ability to craft musical lines. Not that we must use them, but we have long experience in form, of using minutia to craft large scale pieces. Tonality, the dominance of the triad, is established as a symbol of stability. We have the opposite of stability in moments of strange or strained tonality. We have good poetry and follow every word. Inspired by her, Mr. Rore offers us this thoroughly modern Italian indulgence.

I must say again, these sixteenth century madrigals are pretty but nothing compared to what they are when the listener follows the text closely. Mr. Palisca's literal translations of the text do not make for good poetry (not his intention anyway) but are ideal for those of us who are linguistically limited. With his translation side by side with the original we can follow along and even pick up a few words. Every syllable is a gem. For example, the hard consonance in "Ahi crud' amor!"

What I like about this madrigal is the opening. We hear the middle voices first, as if they were far away, perhaps in the East. Light follows them as the other voices enter and ascend to a beautiful height. Da le belle contrade d'oriente / Chiar' e lieta s'ergea Ciprigna. 
Saturday, March 13, 2004
  Madrigal: Aspro core e selvaggio
Adrian Willaert (ca. 1490-ca. 1562)

Adrian knew the love of detail. This piece shows Mr. Willaert a master of six-voice counterpoint. We can learn from him that as the aggregate of a piece becomes more complex the smaller parts become simpler. That is to say, when one voice is singing alone its part is more complicated than when it is contributing to the effort of a group. Each voice here sings concise phrases allowing the other voices equal opportunity to shine. Thus the aggregate is a musical kaleidoscope.

In visual arts, the beginning of the Renaissance is particularly exciting because of the development of perspective. I think, in music, there is a similar development of foreground and background. The most salient example in this anthology must be Mr. Isaac's Lied about leaving Innsbruck. When the voices in an ensemble either have discrete jobs (as in Isaac's tune) or (as in Willaert's example) take turns, the listener is able to prioritize his or her attention. The singers in this tune move in and out of the foreground beautifully.

What I like about this piece is that in spite of the presence of so many voices, the climax of the work is subtle. The kaleidoscopic nature continues throughout and we feel the emotional shifts as we glide into various sonorities. The music carries us through the turn in the poem; the moment our poet starts to describe how he lives by hope alone knowing that even small drops of water can bring about significant transformation. 
Friday, March 12, 2004
  Madrigal: Il bianco e dolce cigno
Jacob Arcadelt (ca. 1505-ca. 1568)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 51-52

Attentive listeners of Mr. Arcadelt’s madrigal will die a thousand deaths in forty-six bars. Incidentally, most of these deaths will occur in the last twelve bars. Madrigals like this one are carefully constructed around the text, using all of the meanings the poet implies to guide the music. And thus, every sonority, imitation, and rest potentially points to the meaning of a word.

What Gregorian Chant did for musical line, we find the sixteenth century motet does for musical symbolism. It is a delicate symbolism, almost more for the performers than the listeners. Without knowing the poem a listener will only hear pretty music. This madrigal is easy to overlook. But when we hear it a second time, after considering the text, we realize that the understated character of the piece allows the text to carry more than one meaning. And the impact of those meanings is greater since they have been presented so artfully.

What I like about this piece is the way the voices gradually become less homophonic. Because the voices are so blended initially, when they start to take small solos we are able to appreciate the sensuousness of those moments. When the voices reach the last twelve bars, well…. 
Thursday, March 11, 2004
  Frottola: Io non compro piu speranza
Marco Cara (ca. 1470-ca. 1525)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 44-46

Mr. Cara contradicts his text to great effect. Words that could discourage physical activity are set to dance music. There is no elegant ascent or climatic high note to sit and listen to. The memorable feature is the driving, syncopated six-beat pulse. Hearing his declamation of sour love, we are aware that, in spite of what the ladies may have said, our narrator's self-worth is undiminished.

This aggressive tune is helped by the two dueling viols. In this frottola, there is almost a cathartic violence as the singer seems to dance around these voices in conflict. The repetitive form is also helpful in that with each repeat we are increasingly able to anticipate the rhythms. We become more practiced and involved.

What I like about this frivolous frottola is the singer's final note. The almost absurd length of this last syllable breaks the established rhythm of the piece creating a coda section for the instrumental contingent. Most importantly, this sustained tone is our narrator's final assurance to us that he has not lost the ability to continue to dance. 
Tuesday, March 09, 2004
  Lied: Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen
Heinrich Isaac (ca. 1450-1517)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 43

Mr. Isaac's six-note tune has charmed generations without ever leaping more than a third. For centuries, the chorales that followed Innsbruck's husband have served as point of departure to thousands of composers. As contemporary composers seem keenly aware, in the world of classical music, the modern ear (at least the modern radio station) is most comfortable with this type of sound. The harmonies are unsurprising, the tune is uneventful, and we repeat it all for the length of three verses.

Except for the open opening sonority and an E-flat chord that reappears a few times, there is nothing about this piece to challenge the listener. Furthermore, because so much of this short piece is so much the same, our ears learn to accept both the opening fifth and the out-of-key chord quickly. The ensemble, discreetly organized into four parts, presents short phrases that have clear endings and build to a most genteel climax.

What I like about this tune is its lack of presumption. I do want to hear pieces that challenge the listener with strange harmonies and distant leaps. But I also want to hear pieces, like this one, that encourage me to hum along. 
Monday, March 08, 2004
  Motet: De profundis clamavi ad te
Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450s-1521)

That Josquin groove is going to work every time. It is the Ars Nova of his past and the common time of his future. In a slow progression of radiant steps Josquin teaches us the hierarchy of quarter time (though he knew it by another name). And, as happens in hierarchies, the strong (beats one and two) are separated from the weak (beats three and four). Triple time, its handy symbolism yielding less than our antique patriarchs had hoped, will find a better home in secular life.

The uniqueness of this piece is not apparent in the look of the score. For us, there are a lot of pieces that look like this one. The chorales that were written some two hundred years after Josquin's career provide us with an overabundance of four-voice part writing in quarter time. But the sound of this piece, when performed as well as it is here, is enough to make the listener regret that it can only be heard for the first time once. This is accomplished with a very bland harmonic pallet. But the chords simply do not matter. In fact, their blandness helps keep them out of the way. The passion of this piece is found in the clarity of the voice writing, the uniqueness of each voice, and the rhythm of the text.

What I like about this motet is the way Josquin explores the range of this ensemble. Though the voices blend without a fault, the listener is aware of their distinct registers. With such voices, Josquin is able to take the listener to each register or wider range gradually, each step radient. 
Sunday, March 07, 2004
  Missa Pange lingua: Kyrie
Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450s-1521)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 33-36

Says des Prez, even the most conservative harmony should be a consequence of melodic line. To my ear, the clash of uncompromising voices is a great deal of good listening. However, with this Kyrie, Josquin gives us uncompromising voices without the clash. Each voice is distinct and yet able to blend with the ensemble. The distinction is accomplished by separating the starting point each voice. And because of this canonic treatment, the voices are able to take turns blending into the background or sharing the foreground.

The initial voice is significant. For example, when we start with the tenor we are starting with the voice most often buried in a four-voice texture. By giving this ungainly viola-player a moment to shine, we have a chance to learn that the least conspicuous of the group is as talent as the rest. As we then continue, our appreciation for the group as a whole is enhanced. Starting with the lowest or highest voice will also carry a specific experience for the listener. In all these beginnings, the listener's awareness of the individual voices and their melodies is focused.

What I like about this Kyrie is the rhythm. It may be a result of the symmetrical tune Mr. Josquin borrowed from the Liber usualis, but the concise structure of the sections seems to demand a directness overall that may be untypical for this style. Consequently, the work has a clear pulse. And the exception that proves the pulse is found at the end of track 34, where there is one beautiful deviation. 
Thursday, March 04, 2004
  Missa De plus en plus: Agnus Dei
Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-1497)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 31-32

Mr. Ockeghem's generation knew how to write well organized music without sounding well organized. This, to my ears, is where good music can be found. The art of writing music, a step taken after improvisation, presents the challenge of musical structure. The trick, of course, is to find a way to put things together that encourages the listener to hear the piece more than once. If the musical structure is obvious the piece runs the risk of being plebeian. If it is obtuse the listener may become disengaged. The solution employed here, the use of cantus firmus, is a likable solution because it provides a wealth of form and contour without being obvious.

If Mr. Ockeghem had chosen the cantus instead of the tenor from Binchois' rondeau, the admirable and memorable contour of that line would have shaped this piece differently. The cantus firmus of this mass has an unremarkable contour. And this unremarkable charateristic is taken advantage of, particularly in this Agnus Dei. Because the cantus firmus does not exploit any register more than another, the result, when set in the four-voiced texture of the mass, is the large, square sonorities that are so appealing in religious efforts.

What I like about this Agnus Dei is the use of rests. Because of the rests, we do enjoy some contrast of register in this piece. More importantly, the rests create a foreground and background. Simply by taking turns, the voices can guide the listener's ear through these elegantly tangled lines. 
Tuesday, March 02, 2004
  Missa De plus en plus: Kyrie
Johannes Ockeghem (ca. 1420-1497)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 28-30

Ockeghem's mass gives evidence that an affection for loud music is not a recent development. The four equal voices, tangled though they sometimes may be, come together in the type of large square harmonies that must seem very appealing to brass players.

The harmonies are the salient difference this type of piece has from its pre-renaissance grandparents. In fact, individually, the voices are not so different. Generally, each voice carries well crafted musical lines without concern for voice crossing. Often the lowest voice will have the longest notes, but other than that the each part requires the same skills from the performers. To my ears, the preference for the triad seems a bit of a loss. However, with this discrimination comes a more consistent sound capable of filling a cathedral.

What I like about Ockeghem's effort is his attention to the bass line. Although the sound of the piece is wonderful, it does not change. It is with the bass line that Ockeghem creates a sense of form. The best example is the section recorded on track 29. Here, the bottom voice drops out for several bars. This absence gives the other three voices room to convey the feeling of ascension unique to these measures. 
Monday, March 01, 2004
  Rondeau: De plus en plus
Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400-1460)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 26 and 27

More and more the themes of Binchois' rondeau renew. Sharing the gentle contenance angloise heard in the preceding Du Fay pieces, Mr. Binchois is kind to his listeners. As these pieces give evidence, the development into the Renaissance was a move away from music with less cooperative parts. Yet, the consideration toward easy listening did not go so far as to make the music predictable. It is the curious harmonic language of this piece that makes the repetitions engaging.

Although curious, the chords do not seem ungrounded or change quickly. In fact, the harmony seems firmly established. Somehow, it simply ends up somewhere other than expected. And, though we hear it often enough in the course of the poem, we are never sure how we end up where we do.

What I like about Mr. Binchois' contribution is his use of register. As the lines develop they have less contour, they flatten out, and move to a low register for this voice. This is effective for a rondeau in that, when we return to the start, our affection for arches is renewed. 
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

Read Also...
Music Reference Links
Links to Composers and Collaborations
Miscellaneous Links
What I Said About...