The Renaissance music of the 16th century is easily associated with sexual dramas. Susan McClary, the most eminent scholar of feminist musicology, wrote a whole book, “Modal Subjectivities,” to describe the various sexual scenes she found in late Renaissance music during the final decades of the 16th century. To understand such drama, it is necessary to trace the footprints of such music, which was born out of a confusing and chaotic time.
The 16th century started as a Golden Age of musical creation. At the very beginning, Ottaviano Petrucci and Pierre Attaignant introduced movable type to music-printing. Prior to that, making music scores and part-books had been a slow, expensive and painstaking process that relied on manual copying, which resulted in the many inevitable mistakes made in different copies by the poor scribes. Such mistakes have definitely helped to create more jobs in academia, as scholars are hired to spend their lives trying to decide which copy is more “authentic.” With the introduction of printing, however, the production and dissemination of music had never been cheaper and faster, as the newest compositions and part-books were floating around Western Europe amongst not only the nobles and the bourgeoisie, but even well-off city dwellers.
Thanks to this invention, Josquin DesPrez became the “godfather” of Renaissance music, since composers everywhere could study how ingeniously, through points of imitation, he shattered the old tenor-oriented structure and established a sense of equity among voices in the polyphonic texture. His cunning use of musical parody and paraphrase, the “arranging” of pre-existing melodies (such as Thomas Aquinas’ “Pange Lingua Gloriosi”) and polyphonic pieces (such as his own chanson “Mille Regretz”) into full masses, almost became “the way” of mass composition in the following century. His careful declamation of liturgical words also led to what modern historians call ars perfecta (“the perfect art”).
DesPrez was the “leading star” of the Franco-Flemish school, a group of composers that not only shared DesPrez’s composition techniques and visions, but also part of his biography: they were born in Flanders and northern France, and flourished under the patronage of the Italian city-states and the German court of the Holy Roman Emperor. Loyset Compère served the Strozzi in Milan, DesPrez and Obrecht the Este in Ferrara, Agricola the Medici in Florence, and Heinrich Isaac and Pierre de la Rue the emperors.
With the death of the “godfather” in 1521, however, 16th-century music became rather chaotic. In the same way composers such as Brahms struggled throughout their lives under the light and shadow of Beethoven, the “post-Josquin” generation of composers such as Willaert, Gombert and Clemens non Papa seemed unable to break new ground in the composition that DesPrez and his contemporaries had redefined. The only apparent “contribution” they had made was the increased interests in the parody technique. In the Renaissance, “parody” implied not sarcasm but noble imitation and elevation — of course, what else could you do besides “parody” the composer that always made you feel impotent?
Meanwhile, as the composers found themselves unable to innovate, traditional music theories, poetics and aesthetics were under fierce attack from the now humanist-minded theorists. In 1547, Heinrich Glarean published his Dodecachordon, (the “Twelve-Strings,” not to be confused with dodecaphone, the Schoenbergian “twelve-tone”), in which he claimed that, based on the musical practices of the ancient Greeks, there were 12 musical modes instead of eight as prescribed by the Catholic Church, and thus attacked Pietro Aaron, who adhered to the later system (imagine modern theorists arguing with each other over how many major keys there are). Gioseffo Zarlino, a later theorist and pupil of Willaert, agreed with the 12-mode system but disagreed with Glarean in nomenclature and numbering (imagine modern theorists disagreeing about which note “C major” starts on).
Thus, modern musicologists are often confused with a collection of pieces carefully ordered by their composers according to their modes: before they can celebrate the discovery of this precious source to study how each mode behaved musically, they have to figure out which modal system the composer used. Such “modal chaos” led some modern theorists such as Harold Powers to abandon all historical modal systems and embrace modern analytical methods, which seems like a sin among the current waves of “historically informed performance practices.”
The humanists invaded even further. Nicola Vicentino, a pupil of Willaert, constructed his “Archicembalo” (the “big keyboard”) that divided the octave into 31 equal parts (modern pianos only go down to 12). Vicentino claimed that such microtonal division of the octave was a restoration of the musical practice of the ancient Greeks, who used three genera: diatonic (the normal one), chromatic (the frequent use of unnecessary “accidentals”) and enharmonic (microtonal). Not arguing for a return to Greek music per se, Vicentino advocated for wider use of the latter two genera in contemporary polyphonic music for expressing the “passions” of the words, just as the title of his book indicated (“Ancient Music Restored to Modern Practice”).
Vincenzo Galilei, father of the more famous Galileo, and his Camerata, a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence, laid a humanist siege on contemporary music from a totally different direction. They also appealed to the Greeks and the need to express the words. They argued that the contemporary vocal polyphony was inferior to ancient Greek monody. They believed that the art of polyphony, which was but to please the senses of the ears, circumscribed the expression of the words and this should have been ended. They progressively called for a monadic style, where a soloist, instead of a group of singers, is supported by instrumental accompanies and can thus freely bring “passions” to the audience.
Indeed, one of the most important arguments of the radical humanism-influenced side — besides its varied “Grecophilia” — is that word should be the mistress of music, and should have the musical license to transgress certain harmonic, formal and textural conventions. It is really a humanist attack into music making — one that favors the expression of words and their passions over actual music, which is but an expressive vehicle.
Humanists claimed a clear-cut triumph in the real musical world as composers started to focus on madrigals. A secular genre from Italy, a madrigal is a polyphonic musical interpretation and “sing-out” of serious Italian literature (definitely not onomatopoeic fanfares) such as the Petrarchian sonnets. Certain professional musical groups, namely the King’s Singers, would like to call every 16th century secular piece a “madrigal,” whereas every serious scholar knows “La Guerre” by Janequin and “Il est bel et bon” by Passereau are actually French chansons. Even Palestrina, mainly famous for his mass settings, had a series of madrigals. Such madrigals are a forum to explore text-painting possibilities, and composers such as Willaert, Arcadelt, Cipriano de Rore, Wert, Marenzio, Gesualdo and Monteverdi developed a shared toolkit of text-painting devices, which, varying between composers, could feature outrageous chromaticism and obnoxious ignorance of contrapuntal rules (the all too cliché A-F leap in Monteverdi’s Cruda Amarilli). Because it interprets a literary style distinguished by endless antitheses of “joy in pain” and “love in death” the text-painting art of madrigals developed its own “mannerism,” where you would expect certain “clichéd specialties” to happen at certain characteristic words.
Eventually, more radical humanism took over. As the madrigalists subjected their polyphonic music to the expression of the word, the progressive monodists from the Camerata got rid of everything. Fifteen ninety-seven witnessed Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, the first opera in music history, where virtuosic soloists instead of grouped singers came to the center of the musical scene. Music historians marked it as the start of the “Baroque” style, which is defined by instrument-accompanied monody, and by the new humanist aesthetics that “expression” should always come first — an ideal that would have a long term musical influence.