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"Renaissance" Music?

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"Renaissance" Music?

One of the most radical things about Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music is the titles of the volumes. The first is Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. To people who grew up with the excellent set of histories from Norton, like the one titled Music in the Renaissance by Gustave Reese first published in 1959, something seems to be missing. There were also, of course, volumes devoted to the Middle Ages and the Baroque Era. I especially enjoyed a little quote in the Medieval music volume which has an introductory chapter on ancient music from a scholar of classics who advised the musicologist not to study ancient Greek music theory because "that way lies madness."

So what is missing? The, as Taruskin calls it, "periodization" of music history into stylistic epochs derived from the histories of literature and visual art. While acknowledging that "artificial conceptual structures" are necessary simply to enable the processing of the wealth of information that presents itself. But there is always the risk of these structures become mental habits, hardening into fixed categories. This is the fallacy of essentialism, or the idea that there are certain inherent or immanent qualities that define an age or style when these are often no more than intellectual conveniences. This is the fallacy that Ted Gioia was implicitly falling into in his recent post that I discussed the other day. The "Renaissance" has no more essential essence than does "Classical music" in general.

One way in which these mental habits lead us astray is in referring to certain stylistic traits as "progressive" if they turn up in advance of their assigned period and "regressive" if they show up afterward. History does not come with a big teleological arrow pointing "this way forward!" The idea of a Zeitgeist is one that we impose on history. He points out that this periodizing tendency also comes into play in the analysis of the work of individual composers who always seem to have early, middle and late periods even if they die at age 35!

He drives the final nail in the coffin by looking at how art historians place the beginning of the "Renaissance"--with Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266 - ca. 1337) for his realism, and with Dante (1265 - 1321) in literature for his use of the Italian vernacular. This is far earlier than where the "Renaissance" in music is judged to begin. Another aspect characteristic of the Renaissance is the use of the classical models of antiquity, an option not available to musicians. In fact, the first operas, which were an attempt to reinvent classical drama with musical accompaniment, don't come until around 1600.

Taruskin concludes:

As already hinted, the fifteenth-century watershed came about as the result of the internationalization of musical practices--what might be called the musical unification of Europe. But it was not a "Renaissance," and there is no point in calling it that. We may as well admit that the term serves no purpose for music history except to keep music in an artificial lockstep with the other arts--a lockstep for which there is a need only insofar as one needs to construct a Zeitgeist, an "essential spirit of the age." So as far as this book is concerned, then, the answer is no: there was no musical Renaissance and therefore no "Renaissance music." [op. cit. pp. 384-5]

I hope no-one feels unjustly deprived of anything! Let's listen to some Francesco Landini (c. 1325 - 1397) to ease the hurt:

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