Music in the Renaissance, by Richard Freedman

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2014.54.rev.10671
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574380

RFreemanRenaissanceRFreemanRenaissanceAntho Music in the Renaissance, Richard Freedman  (ISBN: 0393929167)
 Anthology for Music in the Renaissance, Richard Freedman (ISBN: 0393920194)
 From the series Western Music in Context: A Norton History (New York and London: Norton, 2013).


What kind of music history textbook is best suited for students with an unprecedented—and endlessly searchable—    amount of information at their fingertips? What kind of book will draw in today’s music student? For authors of textbooks,  questions that used to be restricted to comprehensiveness and scope now extend to the navigation of the terrain itself. The questions they face are not so much “Can Composer X be left out?” or even “How do we justify  our periodization?” so much as “What will this textbook offer a student that a Google search or Oxford Music Online  will not?”

Norton’s new six-volume Western Music in Context series, issued under the general editorship of Walter Frisch (Columbia University), offers an innovative response to this challenge. Richard Freedman’s Music in the Renaissance illustrates the approach of the series: the authors of these textbooks do not provide denser or more complete accounts of the music-historical periods they take on. Nor do they adopt the approach of recent survey textbooks, in which physical pages emulate the look of webpages, supplementing information-rich text with color illustrations and sidebars with Twitter-length quotations. Whether viewed next to these glossy tomes, or to the volumes of the Norton Introduction to Music History (e.g., Allan Atlas’s Renaissance Music--the most obvious comparison), there is no denying that these latest entries into the textbook arena are slight, and their appearance spartan.

Instead of repackaging the traditional music history textbook, this series reconceives its function. The textbook is envisioned not as a repository of information, but rather as an engaging access-point. In this respect, Freedman’s contribution is exemplary. The Bosch-like image reproduced on the covers of the textbook and the accompanying anthology gives a good sense of what lies inside: a gaggle of earnest individuals—unconcerned by the birds and, in one case, a birdhouse, perched on their heads—sing and play instruments…in an egg. The familiar is defamiliarized, in other words, and we find ourselves wanting to know more. The musical practices we encounter over the course of Freedman’s fourteen chapters are by turns familiar and alien, divine and mundane, exalted and crude, beautiful and grotesque. We meet the usual suspects—Du Fay, Ockeghem, Josquin, Palestrina—but narratives of stylistic evolution take the back seat to explorations of music’s place in a variety of cultural contexts: magic and medicine, civic ceremonial, cultural encounter.

This response to information saturation is, in part, a fortuitous side effect of an effort to assimilate the disciplinary shifts—from texts to contexts—of the last twenty-five years. In the Series Editor’s Preface, Frisch explains that the volumes move away from composer’s lives and works to focus on how musical sounds and music-making individuals shaped, and were shaped by, the cultures in which they were embedded. Freedman, a professor at Haverford College and a leading expert on the sixteenth-century chanson, is ideally suited to writing this sort of history: his own research (e.g., The Chansons of Orlando di Lasso and their Protestant Listeners, University of Rochester Press, 2001) stresses the creative role of listeners as well as composers. In his textbook, composers and their music, along with patrons, theorists, and eyewitnesses, become prisms through which we can refract the past and, indeed, our understanding of “the Renaissance.” As Freedman puts it (p. 15), “We will…pause to consider what musicians and musical thinkers of the day had to say about their art, even as we reflect on what it might mean for us today.” The result is a highly readable textbook suitable for a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. For most undergraduate classes, readings taken from the textbook will be sufficient to stimulate discussion; for graduate classes, each chapter can serve as a point of departure for an exploration of primary sources and the scholarly literature.

By way of illustration, when Freedman discusses Du Fay’s Par le regart in Chapter 3 (“Music at Court and a Songbook for a Princess”), he begins by noting its presence in the famous Mellon Chansonnier—the songbook referred to in the chapter’s title. Set up in this way, the chanson does more than illustrate characteristics of the Burgundian style, or stand in for Du Fay’s secular output. Rather, it becomes a window onto the courtly world in which such songs circulated. The chansonnier’s owner, Beatrice of Aragon, and its editor (and her tutor), Johannes Tinctoris, enter the scene alongside Du Fay, and their presence informs the subsequent discussion of form, literary register, and counterpoint. References to Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History (also published by Norton) invite students to further investigate Tinctoris’s pronouncements on style and Du Fay’s negotiations with prospective patrons. At the same time, the bibliography (“For Further Reading”) at the end of the chapter identifies articles that shaped current understandings of the issues touched on in the chapter, from Paula Higgins’s 1991 study of Busnoys and female creativity to Rob Wegman’s 2003 interrogation of Tinctoris’s “New Art.”

Freedman’s textbook inspires students to engage with original sources while introducing them to the many online resources that are now available to researchers. In the case of Par le regart, for example, he includes full-page photographs of the chanson as it appears in the Mellon Chansonnier (pp. 48–49). At the companion website (which, happily, is not hidden behind a paywall), users can click on the tab for Chapter 3 to access a link to the Beinecke Library’s high-resolution digital reproduction of the Chansonnier, as well as to the description and contents provided at the Digital Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM). Such supplementary content is available for each chapter, and links to further resources (e.g., Early Modern Web) are accessible via the “Digital Portals and Resources for Early Music” tab. Freedman’s judicious reference to digital resources will come as no surprise to those familiar with his recent work: in collaboration with Philippe Vendrix (University of Tours), Freedman has overseen the digitization of the chansonniers issued by Nicholas DuChemin from 1549 to 1568, developing student-friendly websites that provide tools for transcription, a vocabulary for analysis, and guidelines for the reconstruction of missing voice parts.

Music in the Renaissance is divided into four parts oriented around the year 1500. The first part (“Beginnings”) takes a synoptic view of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century musical practices in order to establish a sense of scope and lay historiographic foundations. The following three parts (Part II, “Before 1500; Part III, “Around 1500,” and Part IV, “After 1500”) are organized chronologically, but only loosely. There are drawbacks and benefits to this non-linear organization. On the one hand, it places the onus on the instructor to ensure students come out with an understanding of large-scale stylistic changes. On the other, the topics covered in the fourteen chapters do the hard work of moving students from passive learning to active engagement: each chapter offers a stimulating frame for the discussion of pieces, people, and facts, and acts as a catalyst for further conversation. Chapter Study Sheets listing important names and concepts are available as PDFs at the companion website, and will help undergraduates organize their notes.

In Chapter 1, “Music and the Cultures of the Renaissance,” two pieces from the edges of the Renaissance—a motet by Johannes Ciconia and a madrigal by Luca Marenzio—establish the range of sounds and practices covered in the book, and illustrate the difficulties of using stylistic characteristics to periodize the Renaissance. Chapter 2, “Learning to be a Musician,” uses a discussion of Renaissance music education to give present-day students the vocabulary and skills to navigate Renaissance pitch-space with historical sensitivity. Noting the didactic role of two-voice duets, Freedman demonstrates hexachordal solmization by adding solmization syllables to Miraculous love’s wounding (p. 25) from Thomas Morley’s First Booke of Canzonets to Two Voyces. His emphasis on pedagogy demystifies these potentially alienating concepts by reminding college students that modes and hexachords were things schoolboys could master.

Part II cover the major genres cultivated before 1500, showing how chansons, motets, and masses answered the needs of individuals (Chapter 3, discussed above) and institutions (Chapter 4, “Piety, Devotion, and Ceremony”), and participated in a culture of competition and homage (“Chapter 5, “Structures and Symbols in Cantus Firmus and Canon”). In Chapter 3, Freedman connects the continued cultivation of the formes fixes and the creation of deluxe chansonniers in the fifteenth century to the persistence of Aristotelian ideals of munificent patronage. The potential of sacred genres to give voice to private devotion and add splendor to civic and religious ceremonial is explored in Chapter 4: Obrecht’s Missa de Sancto Donatiano offers an instance of a tenor mass doing spiritual work for a private donor, while Du Fay’s Supremum est mortalibus is a test case for how the sounds and structures of the isorhythmic motet might “[anoint] a political event with a persuasive musical force” (p. 75). Chapter 5’s treatment of cyclic masses brings dragons and knights into the picture, drawing on research by Craig Wright and Anne Walters Robertson, among others, concerning the connections of the L’Homme armé and Caput Mass traditions to popular devotion.

The first three chapters of Part III address Renaissance ideals: ideals of number and proportion, ideals of behavior, and the ideal composer. Chapter 6 (“Number, Medicine, and Magic”) addresses the many ways in which harmonious sound was understood to affect its listeners. Freedman’s accessible overviews of Ficino’s Neo-Platonism and the creative possibilities of melancolia open up new ways of listening to pieces ranging from Du Fay’s Ce moys de may to Dowland’s Lachrimae antiquae. Chapter 7 (“Music and the Ideal Courtier”) connects the sprezzatura ideal celebrated in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier to the career of Serafino d’Aquila, as well as the many collections of frottole that appeared around 1500. In a move that raises the stakes for classroom discussion, Freedman also considers how the “courtier aesthetic” stigmatized virtuosity and marginalized the musical inclinations of female courtiers. Josquin gets Chapter 8 (“Josquin de Prez and the Perfect Art”) to himself, not because he was the greatest of Renaissance composers, but because he was understood as such. Students are invited to reflect both on the Josquin “brand” in the sixteenth century, and the significance he was assigned by musicologists on the prowl for “genius.” Josquin’s pride of place in music prints nicely sets up Chapter 9 (“Scribes, Prints, and Owners”).

Part IV takes up the religious and intellectual movements that transformed sixteenth-century Europe, as well as the rise of the vernacular as a literary ideal in Italy, but also elsewhere in Europe. Chapter 10 (“Music and the Literary Imagination”) considers French and Italian genres at their most exalted and most crude—from an exuberantly bawdy Janequin chanson (Martin menoit) to Willaert’s elevated Musica nova madrigals, with their Petrarchan pretensions. I was struck reading Chapter 11 (“Music and the Crisis of Belief”) by the emphasis on music’s potential not just to articulate religious identity but also to bridge different belief systems. This leads to interesting questions about how the same sounds—a Byrd motet, a Lassus chanson “purified” by a Calvinist printer with a flair for re-texting—could be understood differently depending on where they were sung, how they were used, and who was listening.

Chapter 12 (“The Arts of Improvisation, Embellishment, and Variation”) wisely considers instrumental improvisation alongside vocal performance practices. Those teaching classes with performance majors would do well to note that the treatises Freedman discusses are available on IMSLP (e.g., Giovanni Luca Conforti, Breve et facile maniera d’essercitarsi a far passaggi, 1593). I can think of no more immediate way to get students thinking about notated music not as an Urtext, but as a starting point for improvisation, than to have them peruse the dozens of ways a descending second could be ornamented.

Chapter 13 (“Empire, Exploration, and Encounter”) is perhaps the most innovative chapter in the book. Students and teachers will be used to considering ethnocentrism and exoticism in Classical and Romantic music. Here, Freedman uses thought-provoking examples (e.g., Andrea Gabrieli’s Asia felice and Orazio Vecchi’s horrific parody of Jewish worship in L’Amfiparnaso) to show that in the Renaissance, too, music was a means for Europeans to imagine Others, whether they were Aztecs in the New World, or the Jewish communities in their midst. It is in this context that students encounter genres such as the gregesche and moresca, whose appeal partly depended on sonic stereotypes.

The concluding chapter, “Tradition and Innovation around 1600,” is brief—good for the end of semester, when students are working on final projects. Its focus on a trio of innovators, Monteverdi, Gesualdo, and Claude le Jeune, creates an opportunity for students to reexamine the novelty of the various “new musics” that emerged around 1600, and consider how compositional innovations could be motivated by decidedly sixteenth-century ideals.

With only 27 selections, the Music in the Renaissance anthology is slight, particularly when compared with Allan Atlas’s comprehensive Anthology of Renaissance Music. Gaps are inevitable, of course, but a few did give me pause. There are no pieces by female composers, although women figure prominently in the textbook. The absence of German-language music is also a missed opportunity given the rich Lutheran repertory and the raucous Lieder that animated the sixteenth-century Central European soundscape.

Several of the anthology’s unfamiliar items (e.g., Diego Ortiz, Recercada ottava) were transcribed by Freedman himself expressly for the anthology. That there are no pieces by such influential figures as Binchois and Lassus is surprising but understandable, as they are widely available in modern editions. Still, given the ubiquity of certain selections (e.g., Arcadelt, Il bianco e dolce cigno, Dunstable, Quam pulchra es, Josquin, Ave Maria…Virgo serena) in existing anthologies, I couldn’t help but wish their slots had been freed up for a motet by Morales or Gombert, or a spiritual madrigal by Lassus. Most teachers will want to supplement the anthology, either with the Atlas Anthology or by doing some careful mining of IMSLP or the Choral Public Domain Library (CPDL) for good-quality, copyright-free editions and linking to them on class websites. Indeed, the decision (whether it came from the publisher, series editor or author) to keep the anthology small may have been a response to the profusion of scores now available online.

The paucity of recordings has always been one of the drawbacks of the Atlas Anthology, and I note in this regard that one of the features of Freedman’s carefully curated selection is that every item has been recorded and is available online. The section “Sound Recordings to Accompany the Anthology” on the companion website makes it easy to track things down by providing iTunes links, Naxos Library catalog numbers, and WorldCat records for physical CDs. Students are guided in their listening by the substantive discussions that follow each piece in the anthology. Here, as in the textbook, Freedman fruitfully incorporates the pattern-based vocabulary developed in part by Julie Cummings and Peter Schubert to help explain how the music works. Students will be able to spot these patterns (e.g., parallel sixths leading to a syncopated cadence) easily and appreciate the choices a composer had available when confronted with particular melodic contours.

I used Music in the Renaissance and the accompanying anthology this past spring with MM and DMA students, and I will do so again. I look forward to using it with advanced undergraduates as well. My students often brought their textbooks to class even though it was not required, and specific lines or paragraphs often became springboards for discussion. They also responded positively to the text in anonymous feedback, expressing in particular their appreciation for the book’s casting of sophisticated concepts in language accessible even to those whose first language is not English. Students were thus primed to interrogate the basic historical facts with questions of “Why?” and “How?” and “For whom?” Instructors considering adopting Freedman’s text must be prepared to answer these questions, of course, and to clarify the answers in terms of large-scale stylistic developments. But today’s students, who can access such information with ever- greater ease, are only burdened by texts that seek to provide all the potentially relevant facts. A prime virtue of Freedman’s book—and what makes it an answer to the question of what kind of text is best suited to an information-saturated world—is that it persuades them to ask in the first place.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Erika Honisch

Erika Supria Honisch is Assistant Professor of Music History and Theory at Stony Brook University, where she teaches classes on the history and culture of Renaissance and Baroque music, historical sound studies, and performance practice. Her research focuses on experiences of musical sound in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with a focus on music heard in sacred contexts.

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