Wednesday, 3 November 2010

1400-1500 Renaissance and Rich Harmony

We saw how in the last century new music was to be distinguished from the music of previous centuries by the shift to the secular, lyrical, rhythmical Ars Nova style.  The last century also saw the seeds of the renaissance sown in literature with Petrarch and art with Giotto. Well in this century, by about the 1430s to be more precise, the renaissance can truly be said to have begun in music.

Renaissance means 'rebirth' but the term is far more appropriate to the artists trying to recapture the three dimensional form of the Roman and Greek statues in their paintings and Petrarch’s rediscovery of classical texts than to the change that was to take place in music. The Renaissance was much more though than just a case of rehashing ideas that the ancient Greek and Roman civilisations had come up with. It was about using the ideas of the past as inspiration to create something new. So for renaissance don’t think ‘rebirth’, think ‘birth of something new’. It was also really about the Italians wanting to remind themselves, in the face of France’s status as the most wealthy nation with all their Gothic cathedrals, that out of Italy had come the greatest western civilisation ever. As well as brand new ideas in the arts, technology was further to spur the renaissance on in revolutionary ways.

What characterised renaissance art was the shift to the focus on human experience, that is trying to represent feeling, though still mostly in a religious context, and also accurate three dimensional depictions of what we see in nature. Well music at this time was still growing from the roots of the Gregorian chant. If the plainchant was the root we were now coming into the era of full flowering of chant, hardly a rebirth, more a coming of age. In a way it was the baroque period yet to come, representing passion and feeling in music, that would more closely fit with renaissance art and the concept of rebirth. So in terms of human expression one could say, as in the last century with Giotto, that art is one significant step ahead of music at this time.

Read on though and you will see why this is said to be the start of renaissance music.

It has really been the French who have lead the way for music so far but the composer who is credited with the key development that distinguishes the new sound is that rare thing – a great English composer and his name is John Dunstable (c.1390-1453).  In this century and the preceding century it was pretty much all mass, motets and chansons – no instruments yet really. Instruments at this time did not have the same status to be used too creatively. They would occasionally be used but mainly just to play a single line that would otherwise have been sung. Music too up to this point had been composed more for the enjoyment of the singer than for the listener. This is evident by the way 13th century Motets of Machaut would often have different words being sung at the same time. In the churches they were singing to praise God and in the castles they were singing to tell stories and have fun.

In England and thanks to Dunstable in particular, the enjoyment of the listener would now take prime position because music is made very pleasing to listen to by the introduction of that ingredient I referred to at the end of my last post which I can now reveal was………(drum roll)………..‘the 3rd note'. Before the singers had always sung a fourth or fifth or eight note above the bottom or base (bass) note. Now singing the third instead of the fourth really enriched the sound and tuned it to a harmony we are more used to hearing in baroque, classical, much romantic era music as well as modern pop music. The reason nobody had used thirds in their music before was down to the intonation. This got adjusted somewhere along the line, probably by accident, to make the 3rd become a really enriching harmony. That is why, like the 3rd dimension found in painting by Giotto suddenly made it possible for artists to depict the whole image we see in nature, the 3rd note above the root note made music and harmony whole. What by comparison sounds two dimensional with Machaut and his predecessors who used a 1 and a 4 (4 notes above) or a 1 and a 5 simultaneously now becomes truly 3 dimensional with the 1st, 3rd and 5th combination of notes to create the triad chords we know today. This enriching harmony made for a wholesome sound in just the way that the painters were able to create wholesome images with their newfound linear perspective. So that is why it can be said that this single development ushered in the new era for music – the renaissance era.

This new sound allowed the composers very much to keep in with the mood of the renaissance times. That is that anything created in art, literature and music between the Roman times and the renaissance was no good. A composer of the next generation called Tinctoris (c1435-1511) in 1477 wrote ‘there is not a single piece of music not composed in the last 40 years that is regarded by the learned as worth hearing’.

In a way it is quite right that this should be called the renaissance era in music. We associate renaissance with the greatest quality paintings in art and in music whilst the greatest composers were still to come, some compositions of this century and the next reach a level of quality rarely to be surpassed in future years and they are a massive improvement on what had gone before.  I cannot possibly imagine that the Sumerians, Egyptians Greeks or Romans would have come close to the brilliance of some of the music I am about to tell you about.

Begin with Dunstable’s  Veni Sancte Spiritus et emitte/Veni Sancte Spiritus et infunde/Veni Creator Spiritus mentes tu (but make sure you listen to Machaut first - no disrespect meant to that composer, whose music from about 80 years earlier has endured for a reason) and you will immediately be struck by the improvement in harmony. You will also notice the smooth, flowing way the parts interweave that distinguishes it from the music of the last century.

During the late 1420s and most of the 1430s Dunstable was composing in Paris and that is probably how he was more influential than his English contemporaries in bringing the new sound to the greatest composer of his generation - Guillame Dufay 1400-1474. Composing mostly from the 1420s through to the 1460s Dufay, originally from Cambrai which at the time had an important cathedral, is the first in a long line of leading composers over the next 150 years or so from the Northern France, Belgium, Netherlands region. If you liked Dunstable’s piece you will love Dufay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi: I. Introit. This brilliant piece will hook you right from the start and there is no need for more comment than that here as you really just need to listen to it.

There had been a fascination with mathematical patterns in music. Machaut had a piece called ‘Ma fin est mon commencement et mon commencement ma fin’ (my end is my beginning and my beginning my end). It had three parts. The top part sang the melody through to the end. The middle part sang it half way and then backwards back to the beginning. The Lower part sang the melody backwards from the beginning. Perfect symmetry and it was quite an achievement for Machaut to make this work.

Dufay too liked his maths as evidenced by Nuper Rosarum Flores. This piece he wrote for the dedication by the pope of Florence cathedral in 1436. Its melody repeated itself at different speeds in the proportions 2:3:6:4 corresponding to the architectural proportions of Brunelleschi’s dome at the cathedral. The revolutionary architect would have been present with Dufay and the pope when this was first performed at that grand occasion.

Dufay had spent time in Italy but the leading composer of the next generation was another Franco-Netherlandish, named Johannes de Ockeghem 1410-1497. His surviving works date from 1450s to 1490s. Ockeghem was from Flanders but he went to visit Dufay in Cambrai at least twice and he must have been familiar with that composer’s work. His was an individual style though it was one that many coming later would try to mimic. Ockeghem’s work is a little more complex than Dufay but if you are new to this music like me you will find him not too dissimilar. The best piece I have heard from him, and I cannot imagine I will hear anything that I will like any more than this because it is so good, is Missa De Plus en Plus- Agnus Dei .

Following Ockeghem comes Josquin Des Prez (1450-1521) another Franco-Flemish composer composing from the 1470s through to the 1510s but like Dufay he spent most of his time in Italy returning to France in 1504. Des Prez was the most highly renowned composer of his day and some even say one of the very greatest composers of all time. He was a huge fan of Ockeghem and may have even been his pupil. Following Ockeghem’s death he wrote the excellent tribute La d├ęploration de Johannes Ockeghem: Nymphes des bois to Ockeghem in which he names contemporaries of his who had been influenced by Ockeghem, including himself at the top of the list.

With Dufay’s generation the standard composition usually had four parts sung at the same time. Ockeghem occasionally wrote music with five parts. With Des Prez and his contemporaries five or six parts is quite normal and the music really becomes quite epic. Choir boys were used much more to give these works a wide range in which the five or six parts could fit in, from baritone to soprano and everything in between. Des Prez was the first to match lyrical expression with melodic expression, that is putting for example sad words to sad music or up lifting words with uplifting music. The best I have heard from Des Prez is Stabat Mater Dolorosa. It took me a while to find something from him that could equal Dufay and Ockeghem because they had set the bar so high, but this music scales those same heights.

Dufay had written masses, motets and chansons like Machaut before him. Ockeghem stuck only to church music, mainly masses. Des Prez was much more versatile. He wrote in all these forms but also composed Chansons to be performed by instruments alone and a new type of Motet-Chanson which was basically a religious chanson. As well as that between 1490 and 1493 he composed a little bit in a completely new form called the Frottola which later evolved into the Madrigal and that would then much later evolve into opera. The Frottola was basically a 15th century pop song and his most famous example is an excellent and memorable tune called El Grillo in which he impersonates a cricket. This type of music pointed very much towards the future not only because the most famous composer of the next generation would take up a similar style but because pretty soon, like the final remnants of the gothic architecture, the masses and motets would get to the point where they could not surpass previous achievements - but not just yet.

And basically what else was happening? Well this was the century when the nation states begin to emerge. England and France finally manage to finish off the hundred years war in 1453 and establish their borders that they have pretty much stuck to since then. There was then the civil War of the Roses in England but Henry VII put a stop to all that and made England a peaceful and wealthy kingdom at last from 1485. Spain became a unified country and emerged as a formidable new power. Switzerland was formed. Poland joined together with Lithuania to make the biggest country in all of Europe.  Italy still consisted of many different city states under their own rule. Netherlands and Belgium begin to find their own identity under the Duke of Burgundy in 1433 so the Holy Roman Empire now consisted basically just of Germany and Austria.

Then came the start of the great age of voyage and discovery. There was also a need to find new trade routes to the East as Constantinople got taken over by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Portuguese had the superior seafaring skills to lead the way when in 1487 Bartholomew Dias sailed all the way down the West African coast to the southern tip of Africa. Another Portuguese Vasca Da Gama went further in 1497, making it around to the southern tip of India. Christopher Columbus, an Italian working for the Spanish crown discovered the West Indies in 1492 which led to the discovery of America shortly thereafter. John Cabot, an Italian found Newfoundland in Canada for the English in 1497. Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian this time working for the Portuguse, set off in 1499 to discover South America the following year.

And in Art? (Note - pretty much all of this is summarising, Gombrich's reliable book 'The Story of Art') The renaissance kicked off in 1401 with the sculpture competition for the bronze doors at Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi (more architect than painter) and Donatello (more sculpter than painter) and a number of others entered that. After the achievements in this city of Dante in literature and Giotto in painting, these young artists were supremely confident and set out to create a brand new art. This hope gathered steam in the 1420s with Brunelleschi who, using his architectural skills, painted the first paintings with geometrically perfect linear perspective - another revolution in art. The young painter Masaccio took this up and improved on Giotto by creating works that had the true optical illusion, by use of Brunelleschi’s mathematical means, of three dimensional space. See his ‘The Holy Trinity, The Virgin, St John and donors’ from 1427 below.

Giotto was one thing but this new perfection would have astonished those who viewed these paintings back in the 1420s. In sculpture, another friend and follower of Brunelleschi, Donatello too took a much keener observation of nature by getting models to pose for him which, as with Masaccio’s paintings, would help to make his sculptures look so much more convincing than anything that had been created before. It was all happening in Florence.

Well in fact not all, because great strides were being taken in the north too with Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441) who like Dufay in music, enjoyed the patronage of the Duke of Burgundy. Van Eyck was also obsessed with capturing an image true to nature but he did it in a completely different way. He did not know the mathematical rules the Florentines were using with their linear perspective. Instead he invented oil paints which did not dry so quickly. The Italians were still using ground up plants and minerals to create their paints. With oil paint Van Eyck could paint slowly and more carefully allowing him to focus on minute detail. The effect of his paintings was almost like holding up a mirror to the image they portrayed they were so accurate. It seems like he is trying to emphasise that same point by putting a mirror in the background of his 'The betrothal of the Arnolfini' from 1434 below. 

There would generally remain a difference between the art of the north and the south in Italy. The art from the Dutch masters gave a perfect representation of the surface of objects, things like flowers, fur and fabric while the Italians with their bold outlines and linear perspective had mastered the dimension of space and in particular the dimensions of the human body.

In Switzerland this new desire to represent what we see in nature led Conrad Witz in 1444 to paint probably the first portrait of a real landscape ever in his painting ‘the miraculous draught of the fishes’.

Back in Italy after Masaccio came Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) who painted some of the greatest art ever on the walls of a Paduan church which was unfortunately destroyed in the second world war. In these paintings he used the techniques creating perspective best seen with Masaccio but depicted historic scenes just as they may have happened while capturing moments brimming full of life in classical Rome. See his ‘St James on the way to his Execution’ from 1455 below.

A contemporary of Mantegna was Piero della Francesca (1416-1492) whose great contribution was to use light and shade to create the illusion of depth as well as Brunelleschi’s mathematical worked out linear perspective. See his ‘Constantine’s Dream’ from 1460.

This new expertise in creating images of the surface of objects in the Netherlands and perfect linear perspective in Italy created a new problem for the artists. As the images contained in their painting looked so true to life, so the composition of their paintings would now have to be believable but still achieve the art of painting’s new standard of aesthetic excellence (as opposed to the pre-renaissance primary requirement of just conveying a message form the bible). Figures had to be grouped in a way that was both believable and of as perfect design as possible and the artist could no longer get away with leaving any part of the canvas empty and meaningless. Artists really struggled with this problem in the latter half of the century.

A new generation of artists would soon emerge to master the art. the first of these was Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519). He painted 'the Last Supper' between 1495 and 1498 on the wall of the dining hall in the Santa Maria Delle Grazie monastory in Milan. Those monks must have felt like they were dining with JC, the picture was so lifelike and believable, sitting at their tables which ran parallel with the table in the painting. With all the clamour and gesticulating of the disciples, such an important biblical scene had never before been brought to life in such a dramatic and exciting way and all captured with uncontrived, perfect design.

And in architecture? In the 1420s Brunelleschi began work on the dome of Florence cathedral (see picture below) and in one stroke scrapped the traditional gothic style. He had visited Rome to study the ruins and used these ancient forms to create architecture for a brand new era. The use of classical forms, such as columns and pediments, found in Rome and Greece would last for 500 more years. When it was finished in 1436, under Dufay’s direction at the ceremonial dedication of the cathedral to the pope, the choir sang his Nuper Rosarum Flores, music based on the dimensions of the dome. You could say that the completion of this building is the most symbolic event of the new renaissance era – another revolution from Brunelleschi.

After Brunelleschi came another Florentine architect Leone Battista Albertini (1404-1472)who took the classical forms and applied them not just to churches, but to ordinary houses. You could not build ordinary houses and unimportant buildings like this in such a grand way, and nor would the Romans have done so Albertini used the classical forms in a decorative rather than structural way and again that would endure for centuries to come.

In the north, mainly France, where Gothic architecture had flourished the most they were not quite ready to leave it behind just yet. The final stage of Gothic style came though with Flamboyant Gothic in such buildings as the palace of Justice in Rouen (see below). The tracery and ornamentation had gradually been getting more detailed during the last century until now it got to a point where it had not the merest pretence of pertaining to the structure of the building and gave the buildings a fairy-tale like quality. There was not much further the Gothic style could go and the architectural revolution in Italy would soon spread throughout the rest of Europe.

Technology? In 1420 Oil painting helped make Van Eyck’s create his extremely realistic masterpieces. In 1455 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the Germany. This is a massively important invention because it meant ideas could now be circulated rapidly and widely across Europe. This was the age of exploration and the earliest globes were made in 1492. Guns and rifles were invented in 1400.

In Philosophy? The humanist thinking begun by Petrarch continued. The Humanists looked back to ancient  Greece and Rome for moral lessons in how to live life and their ideal was to write well and read well. In doing so they basically founded modern history writing and archaeology.

And in literature? Nothing too dramatic happened in literature in this century. There do not seem to be any writers that stand out like Chaucer, Petrarch and others in the last century.

So the tunes from this century that make my Greatest Hitstory are:

John Dunstable - Veni Sancte Spiritus et emitte/Veni Sancte Spiritus et infunde/Veni Creator Spiritus mentes tu from Dunstable - Motets by Paul Hillier Hilliard Ensemble -  Spotify

Guillame Dufay - Missa Sancti Jacobi: I. Introit from Dufay: Music for St. James the Greater -  itunes

Johannes Ockeghem - Missa 'De Plus en Plus' - Agnus Dei
- from  The Essential Ockeghem - itunes

Josquin Des Prez - Stabat Mater Dolorosa -  from Desprez: Stabat Mater, Motets - itunes

Josquin Des Prez - El Grillo - from Josquin: Motets & Chansons - The Hilliard Ensemble  - itunes


1 comment:

  1. If you have Spotify click on GREATEST HITSTORY and you should get to my playlist to hear the music I am talking about. It's a shame the really good versions of the Dufay and Ockeghem pieces are not on Spotify as they are a bit special. Hopefully you will track them down.