The Art of Imitatio: Elaborations and re-workings by master composers
Alleluia, Pascha nostrum à 2 Leoninus? (fl. ca. 1150-ca. 1201)
Alleluia, Pascha nostrum à 3 Perotinus (fl. ca. 1200)
Impudenter circumivi / Virtutibus laudabilis / Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
[Contratenor] / [Tenor]
Christe qui lux es / Veni Creator Spiritus / Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377)
Tribulatio proxima est / [Tenor]
Reveillez vous à 3 Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
Missa Sine Nomine à 3 Du Fay
Ave Maria…virgo serena à 4 Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450-1521)
Ave Maria…virgo serena à 6 Ludwig Senfl (ca. 1486-1542/3)
Mille regrets à 4 Josquin
Mille regrets à 6 Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495-ca. 1560)
Frere Thibault à 4 Pierre Certon (ca. 1512-1572)
Missa Frere Thibault à 4 Orlande de Lassus (ca. 1530-1594)
Cara la vita mia à 5 Giaches de Wert (1535-1596)
Missa Cara la vita mia à 8 Claudio Merulo (1533-1604)
Shannon Canavin & Teresa Wakim, soprano
Thea Lobo & Aaron Russo, alto
Jason McStoots & Eric Rice, tenor
Brian Church & Aaron Ingersoll, bass
Friday, March 2, 2007 at 8pm
First Lutheran Church of Boston, 299 Berkeley Street, Boston, MA
Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 3pm
Cochran Chapel at Philips Academy Andover, 1 Chapel Avenue, Andover, MA
Notes on the Program
“It is from authors worthy of our study that we must draw our stock of words, the variety and figures and our methods of composition, while we must form our minds on the model of every excellence. For there can be no doubt that in art no small portion of our task lies in imitation.” — Quintilian, Insitutio oratoria, Book X, Chapter II
The ideas behind these words, written by the first-century Roman rhetorician Quintilian, were well known to artists of all kinds during the Renaissance. In our own time, originality is valued above all, and words like “inspiration” or “emulation” are favored over “imitation” when discussing artistic influence. But the principal purpose of art in Antiquity, perhaps more than at any other time in history, was to persuade and to move the emotions, and success in this was of greater value than uniqueness. When the new intellectual current of Humanism, a search for truth and morality through human means rather than through the will of God alone, began to emerge in the cultural centers of Europe in the late Middle Ages, it did so as part of an increasing awareness of the humanistic culture of Antiquity transmitted through the literary and visual arts. The power of these works of art was not lost on medieval and Renaissance observers, who sought to recover the artistic means through which their art would become just as powerful as the ancient works they observed. As they researched ancient modes of learning and thought, they were undoubtedly pleased to come upon directives such as Quintilian’s. “Imitate us,” the ancient rhetoricians said, in effect, “and you will be as persuasive as we are.”
While this strategy worked well in the literary and visual arts, which survived in relative abundance in much of Europe and particularly in Rome, there was a problem with music. Despite abundant images of music-making in the Ancient world, there are few surviving notated examples. Humanists marveled at descriptions of ancient music’s power over the emotions and yearned to recreate these experiences for themselves. Unlike their literary and visual counterparts, however, practitioners of the musical arts needed to engage the rhetorical strategy of imitatio by other means. Having read about the nature of music’s power and of music theory in the ancient world (in writings that circulated ever more widely following the advent of the printing press in 1455), composers sought to apply what principles they could to their works. The concept of imitatio as a pedagogical foundation persisted, and since ancient Greek and Roman works could not be emulated, composers took the work of their elders — those that had been deemed particularly effective, perhaps even to the same degree as ancients — as models. Our concert surveys this practice from its origins through the Renaissance, exploring the emulative and sometimes competitive ways in which composers honored one another through imitation.
Not only did such imitative practices represent an accordance with pedagogical principles of the ancient world, in some cases they represented continuity with pedagogical practices already in use. Under Scholasticism, a late-medieval intellectual movement that sought to reconcile the philosophy of Antiquity with Christianity, it was common to read an authoritative commentary on a sacrosanct text with as much interest — if not more — in the commentary as the in text itself. Such commentary, which is known today as gloss, was often in turn commented upon, with the result that the pages of some late medieval Bibles are a complicated patchwork of texts within texts. Textual accretions of this kind have an analogue in medieval organum, early polyphonic music in which a composer added a newly-composed voice to an existing plainchant — liturgical music that was every bit as sacrosanct as the text of the Bible.
Such musical commentary on existing plainchant was cultivated systematically in late twelfth-century Paris at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, where one Leoninus (fl. ca. 1150 – 1201) created a large volume of such pieces called the Magnus liber organi (“the great book of organum”). The first work on our program, a setting of Alleluia Pascha nostrum for Easter Sunday, is probably by Leoninus. Like all Parisian organum, it involves two basic textures: organum purum, a substantial lengthening of notes of a portion of plainchant while an added voice (or voices) moves at a much faster pace; and discant, portions in which the original plainchant and added voice move virtually together. Since the two-voice texture of Leoninus’s organum was notated with the added voice above the original plainchant, organum purum passages could have been performed without recourse to specific rhythms in the added voice; those singing the plainchant melody would simply have known when to change pitches by following the progress of the added voice in the score. In discant passages, however, the notes of both parts must fit together in specific rhythms. These passages of increased rhythmic coordination ultimately led to a way of interpreting plainchant notation according to fixed patterns known as rhythmic modes.
Leoninus’s successor, who may have been his student, was Perotinus (fl. ca. 1200); he added an additional voice, and sometimes two, to many of Leoninus’s two-voice pieces. In a way, his work represents musical commentary on musical commentary on the original plainchant. Rhythmic coordination of two or three active added voices required specific rhythms in both organum purum and discant passages. Perotinus’s innovation was taking advantage of the system of rhythmic modes to coordinate his additional voices. Portions of Perotinus’s three-voice recasting of Alleluia Pascha nostrum, the second piece on the program, are derived from Leoninus’s discant passages, but much of the music is new. The sense in which Perotinus emulated his apparent master is clear, but so too is the sense that three-voice polyphony sounds much more elaborate and expansive than two-voice music. In other words, the student may well have outshone the master while also honoring his memory — a common theme of imitatio.
Early in the thirteenth century, the purely musical gloss in which these Parisian masters had been engaged was joined with textual gloss. The upper voice or voices of existing discant passages were fitted with new texts, and these sometimes commented upon the text of the plainchant. These passages, divorced from their original context in organum, were now performed as separate works. The sudden presence of a great deal of fast-moving text almost certainly contributed to the name of the new genre, the motet, from the French mot (“word”). Passages of discant that became motets often featured rhythmic patterns in the tenor, and as notational signs became more rhythmically precise, composers began to create patterns of increasing length and complexity. By the fourteenth century, these patterns came to dominate the compositional process of the motet, and modern scholars have given a name to the technique of using a repeating rhythmic pattern in the tenor voice or voices of a polyphonic composition: isorhythm. Melodic patterning is also employed in the tenors of many of these works, and it became relatively common for composers to create entirely new tenors as well as fashioning existing plainchant melodies into them. Equally common was the practice of affixing love poetry (often in French) to the added voice in place of theological discourse.
New notational possibilities and compositional techniques led composers in the early fourteenth century to view their music as substantially different from that of the thirteenth. One such composer, Philippe de Vitry (1291 – 1361), wrote a theoretical treatise in about 1322 describing these advances. He called the treatise Ars nova, a name that is now applied to nearly all fourteenth-century French repertory. Vitry’s Impudenter circumivi / Virtutibus laudabilis is one of the few motets attributed to him with absolute certainty. The text of the triplum, the fast-moving voice that begins the work with a solo introitus, is a lengthy poem in praise of the Virgin that nonetheless employs rhetoric and imagery reminiscent of a fourteenth-century love lyric. The text of the motetus is a more conventional Marian poem. The two slow-moving isorhythmic tenors appear to be newly composed, though one quotes the opening of the Marian antiphon Alma redemptoris mater, an entirely appropriate chant to serve as the basis for a Marian motet.
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300 – 1377), the most important poet and composer of fourteenth-century France, also employed isorhythm as a structuring device in his motets. Though Machaut and Vitry were active in different regions (Machaut primarily in Reims, Vitry in Avignon and Paris), they almost certainly knew one another; both held prebends at Saint Quentin. Vitry’s influence on Machaut is plainly heard in Christe qui lux es / Veni Creator Spiritus / Tribulatio proxima est, which begins with an introitus that has a rhythmic and melodic profile similar to Vitry’s. The subject of Machaut’s motet is substantially darker, however: the text of the triplum speaks of those “Who tear us to pieces in wars / That have now sprung up,” while that of the motetus cries, “Our enemies surround us.” The enemies are in fact the English, and the wars are the beginning skirmishes (including a siege of Machaut’s native Reims) of what has become known as the Hundred Years War (1337 – 1453). These texts appeal for peace by quoting and paraphrasing hymns; they also serve as gloss to the text of one of the isorhythmic tenors (“Tribulatio proxima est”), a portion of a responsory for Passion Sunday that evokes Jesus’ isolation during the crucifixion.
While the convention of such elaboration or borrowing usually involved an elder and younger composer, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it occasionally involved a single composer who borrowed from himself, often fashioning musical material from one genre into another. Such is the case with a composition by the fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397 – 1474). Du Fay’s first patron, Carlo Malatesta da Pesaro, was married in Rimini on 18 July 1423, and the wedding is celebrated in a virtuosic three-voice ballade, Resvellies vous, that Du Fay composed for the occasion. A three-voice mass by the same composer called Missa sine nomine or “mass without a name” bears a striking resemblance — in overall formal structure and harmony, if not in surface details — to the chanson. One can only speculate on Du Fay’s motives for creating a mass that cites his earlier chanson. Perhaps Carlo commissioned the mass as way to remember his wedding during services at his chapel, or perhaps Du Fay was simply being expedient, recycling good music for a new context. Whatever the case, the procedure Du Fay employed in this work was used for more than two hundred years: composers imitated secular works — either those from their own pens or from that of another — in the composition of masses. Good music was valued above and beyond its associations: as we shall see later in the program, the practice occasionally brought melodies associated with lascivious texts into the context of a church service, much to the consternation of church authorities.
No musician was venerated more as an “ancient” worthy of imitation than Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450 – 1521), another Franco-Flemish composer whose influence in the sixteenth century is often compared with that of Beethoven in the nineteenth. Josquin’s music had circulated widely in manuscript before 1501, when Ottaviano Petrucci perfected the printing of polyphonic music; afterwards, there was a veritable explosion of printed sources containing music attributed to him. Some of this music is not his — unscrupulous printers often appended his name to pieces to aid in the sale of their prints. No less a figure than Martin Luther was reported to have said, after singing through one of the composer’s works with some companions, “Josquin is the master of the notes, which must do as he wishes, while other composers must follow what the notes dictate.” In his 1567 work Raggionamenti academici, Cosimo Bartoli compared Josquin to a famous visual artist: “Just as Josquin has so far had no one who could surpass him in composition, so Michelangelo, among all those who have cultivated these arts, stands alone and without peer. Both of them have opened the eyes of all who take delight in these arts, or who will enjoy them in the future.” In his 1547 treatise Dodechacordon, the humanist music theorist Heirich Glarean claimed that no other composer had succeeded to the same degree in expressing the full gamut of human emotions, and that Josquin’s accomplishment put him on a par with Virgil.
One of Josquin’s most celebrated works is his Ave Maria…virgo serena, a four-voice motet probably written in Milan in the 1480s, when Josquin was still a relatively unknown composer. The work became so famous that when Petrucci brought out the first printed collection of motets in 1502, it received pride of place at the opening of the volume. Among the piece’s many virtues, it celebrates five events in the life of the Virgin Mary, so that it can be sung at any one of the feasts commemorating these events throughout the liturgical year. Each of the five stanzas referring to an event in the Virgin’s life receives a slightly different musical treatment, and Josquin’s approach to texture is surprisingly reserved. The opening of the work, for example, begins by quoting a German plainchant melody in imitation: it is heard in the soprano, then the alto, then the tenor, and finally the bass. Paired imitation — that is, soprano and alto, singing together, subsequently imitated by tenor and bass — soon follows, but it is not until we get to the text “Solemni plena gaudio” that we hear all four voices together. It is Josquin’s restraint — his holding back the full power of the available texture until the moment is right — that won him such high praise, particularly among rhetoricians. The text “Solemni plena gaudio / Celestia, terrrestria, / Nova replet laetitia” (“Full of solemn joy, / Fills the heaven, the earth / With new rejoicing”) reveals one of the fullest textures in the piece, and the idea of “fullness” — full of solemn joy, filling heaven and earth — is matched by a full and active texture that contrasts substantially with what came before.
The Swiss-German composer Ludwig Senfl (ca. 1486 – 1542/3) produced an expansive, six-voice elaboration of Josquin’s famous motet. Senfl was not among Josquin’s students, though there is no doubt that the younger composer studied the elder’s works extensively. Senfl’s Ave Maria abounds with imitation, contrasting substantially with Josquin’s textural reserve. Gone is the spareness of the opening, which incorporates the initial rise of a fourth at a new pitch level, so that we hear the word “Ave” set not only to the rising fourth G – C, but also to D – G. The counterpoint is supple, with voices singing fast, almost virtuosic passages at times, another contrast with Josquin’s polyphony. Senfl’s elaboration is so extensive that more than twice as much time is required to sing his motet. The effect is grander and more elaborate than that of Josquin’s Ave Maria, yet there is also a clear affinity for the elder composer’s music, as if Senfl is immersed in Josquin’s motet and simply wants us to hear the possibilities in it that he does.
Though many composers claimed to be students of Josquin, we are fairly certain that the sixteenth-century south Netherlander Nicolas Gombert (ca. 1495 – ca. 1560) actually was. The German theorist Heinrich Finck noted the relationship between the two composers in his Practica musica of 1556, citing Josquin’s music as somewhat “bare,” owing to frequent rests and duet textures, while he felt that Gombert created a fuller texture based on pervading imitation. This contrast can be plainly heard by comparing Josquin’s Mille regres, an enormously popular chanson, with Gombert’s elaboration of it. While Josquin’s setting of this sorrowful poem is understated, it declaims the text clearly and audibly. Its emotional impact stems from its harmonies and the repetitions of phrases of text for rhetorical emphasis. Though freely borrowing melodies from Josquin’s work, Gombert’s setting is dominated by complex imitative texture in which the interweaving musical lines create a grand effect. Gombert’s work is longer and more imposing — one might even call it less accessible — but it is clearly more elaborate as well. Is this an homàge to Josquin, or is it one-upmanship, the student exceeding the teacher? As is often the case when preexistent material forms the basis for a new work, it is a little of both.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, the technique of converting secular works into masses was sufficiently widespread that it was addressed briefly at the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), which had been convened to clarify doctrinal beliefs and legislate for disciplinary and musical reforms within the Church as a result of the Protestant Reformation. The reformers banned the use of secular material as the basis for masses, though the practice persisted in many parts of Europe. Orlande de Lassus (ca. 1530 – 1594), one of the most celebrated composers of the late sixteenth century, excelled at these missae ad imitationem. A particularly egregious example of the practice the Council sought to ban is Lassus’s Missa Frere Thibault. The chanson that served as the mass’s model is a raucous setting by the Paris-based Pierre Certon (ca. 1512 – 1572) of an anticlerical text depicting a monk engaged in prostitution. Upon hearing the Kyrie and Gloria of Lassus’s mass after a performance of Certon’s chanson, even a modern listener might be reminded of the text with which this music was originally associated. Yet Lassus also adroitly reworks Certon’s counterpoint in interesting and effective ways, shaping it to conform to the rhetoric of the mass ordinary’s text.
The madrigal, arguably the most important secular genre of the Renaissance, was also frequently subjected to reworking in the creation of new masses. Giaches de Wert (1535 – 1596), a Flemish-born composer active in Mantua, was one of the last northern composers engaged in the setting of Petrarchan poetry. His five-voice Cara la vita mia, from his first book of madrigals (1558), is stylistically indebted to his elder compatriot Cipriano de Rore (1515/16 – 1565). Claudio Merulo (1533 – 1604) employed it as a model for a mass for two four-voice choirs. Such masses were standard fare for Merulo, who became Maestro di cappella at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, an institution known for its impressive use of multiple choirs. Though the melody and harmony of the model is generally audible, the largely chordal texture of Wert’s madrigal is completely abandoned in the opening of the Merulo’s Sanctus, which is awash in imitative counterpoint. Homophonic texture reminiscent of the madrigal is heard once again starting at “Pleni sunt caeli” and in the Agnus. Perhaps because of the space in which the work was to be sung, Merulo’s transformation of Wert’s counterpoint into something larger and more impressive seems more a matter of practicality than one-upmanship.
Though the Renaissance idea of imitatio, in which highly revered works of art are imitated, emulated, and elaborated, started out as a pedagogical concept, it quickly evolved into a rhetorical strategy that was in some ways an update of the medieval concept of gloss. An original composition could be reworked by expanding and celebrating its best passages — elaborating the melodies, extending the harmonies, etc. — thereby celebrating the original composer. But there is no question that in many cases, later composers sought to push the craft of composition and of course their own reputations farther by exceeding the accomplishments of the celebrated masters they initially set out to emulate. Generalizing, one could say that this tension between master and student, between authority and subject, is one characteristic of the cultural shift away from medieval scholasticism and toward Renaissance humanism. In truth, of course, the reasons for the homage, emulation, and competition heard here are as varied and complex as the wonderful pieces of music they produced.