As Promised: Gorgeous Renaissance Music

The other night, I was saying how the world is so full of beautiful things that one could hardly spare the time to be interested in all of them. (It was really my over-stated reason for not having managed to read any of Kelly Link’s stories yet; the real reason is just there are too many books, and SF pushes my buttons more than fantasy, even good fantasy.) I made some comment on how Renaissance music is utterly beautiful but almost nobody listens to it, and ended up promising to play some for the people who were over at my place. But as always happens when I’m hosting a party, after a bunch of cooking my wits were not so much about me, and I forgot.

(Maybe the bunch of hearty food didn’t hurt… homemade sauerkraut, perogies, sour cream, cabbage rolls, kvass, goulash, plus some sausages from Chef Meili’s didn’t hurt.)

In any case, I said I’d post  some “Renaissance Music” but here, too, what I said requires a little clarification. A lot of people think of the Renaissance at something that arrived in Italy, and hit England very roughly around the lifetime of Shakespeare. The funny thing about music is that, at least as far as I understand the history of “Renaissance Music” (and it’s been a while, I must admit, since I read much about it) the hottest place for music was not in Italy, not in England, but rather in the Duchy of Burgundy, which depending on when you’re talking about included a lot of what is now Belgium and the Netherlands.

So the thing I was thinking about when I said “Renaissance” is really the music of Burgundy in the 14th century, that magical time in music–especially among the Franco-Flemish composers–where the art form was shifting from the no-rules, insane chaos of what came out of Gregorian chant, and into something that is recognizable to us as choral music of the Renaissance.

That is, I was thinking of one of my favorite composers, Johannes Ockeghem, a kindred spirit of Bach’s but who lived in what is now Belgium at some point in the 15th century… that is, in the late Middle Ages. And whose music I can listen to all damned day long. Witness:

I said that I didn’t really like stories involving magic, but I think maybe I misspoke there, too: for me, certain kinds of magic are seven different kinds of wonderful. For example, brewing–the magic of what yeast does to wort to turn it into beer; there’s a magic like this at work in Missa Prolationum, because Ockeghem actually does something for the first time we know about in history–he wrote a series of canons at each interval from the second to the octave. The note-lengths are all mathematically proportions of one another, too, if I remember right–this is called a “mensuration canon” but what that means is just that one singer’s part and another singer’s part are mathematically exactly proportional, by some mathematical multiplication or division. It’s been a while since I studied the piece, but I do remember finding it a baffling work of mathematical wonder.

Study or not, mass or not, though, the biggest impression one gets is simply how it’s utterly gorgeous, but when you peer behind the curtain and see what he’s up to, all that crazy mathematics he’s playing with, it just blows your mind. There’s a reason musicians like Webern were so obsessed with him. But I assure you, when I put on a little Ockeghem, I’m not usually looking at the score. The sound he creates is simply unearthly, and beautiful. Even when he’s working with a drinking song, for example in this Kyrie from Missa l’Homme Armé (The Armed Man Mass). Like other late Medieval composers, Ockeghem worked with folksongs like this one about a highwayman, to create his church music. It was sort of a display of virtuosity, among other things:

This, of course, brings back memories of other early-Renaissance music, some of which I can’t remember the names of, or more than a vague impression in some cases. One piece I’ll probably have floating in the back of my mind for the rest of my days, though, is the bizarre little piece Fumer Fume par fume by Solage, which is really more like bizarre late-medieval, but it’s somewhere out of which the atuff above grew in only a generation or two:

(The version on the compilation I had back in school was bouncier and weirder, maybe more like this one, but I like the above recording better. And no, it’s not a song about smoking: it’s about bad tempers, as the translation here reveals.)

And while I haven’t got much Machaut on hand, I liked his work well enough to write an homage to him back in undegrad. My own homage (which is linked somewhere on this page) is terrible, but the rondeaus are always interesting, and finely constructed:

And Dufay, who is French, mind (for which he cannot be blamed, after all), but listen to this gorgeousness:

And Dowland–over a century later, and across the English Channel, but, finally, something in the English tongue, that we canne recognize, and understande when we heare it sung aloude:

I was going to follow up with a little Medieval music I’ve been listening to lately–it’s been troubadours by the kilogram, of late–but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow.

One last thought: I think it’s very, very interesting that I should be so interested in Belgian beer, and so interested in all this Renaissance Burgundian music. My mother would say something about reincarnation here, but I have to wonder if it’s not more to do with a certain sort of sensibility that has been preserved in the beers, and can be found in that music, too? I don’t know. It’s a funny little resonance, though.

And yeah, I know, all of this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t read Link. I’ll get around to it eventually.

One thought on “As Promised: Gorgeous Renaissance Music

  1. This may be one of the most beautiful posts you’ve ever written. ;)

    The magic of beer and the magic of the Missa prolationum .. wonderful indeed ..

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