The Century Of Perfection, 1650-1750.
( Originally Published 1923 )
IN travelling quickly along the course of the development of music, what have we so far seen ?
I. Unison song (church song and folk song) developing into choral song on contrapuntal lines.
II. Contrapuntal choral song reaching its highest point of development about the turn of the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries.
III. Then, as the harmonic principle came more and more into light, a partial and temporary decay of the contrapuntal principle and the invention of a form of solo song modelled on speech (Recitative) with a simple chordal accompaniment and the addition of . choruses similarly conceived and of rough-and-ready orchestral passages, all with a dramatic intention behind them—a turn over from the more or less impersonal style of the Mass and the Madrigal to the direct dramatic utterance of the early Opera and Oratorio.
IV. Keyboard music brought to its first early stage of coherence, but orchestral music still left incoherent.
Nothing New but nearly Everything Better
The period we are now to enter is a period which offers us, in a sense, nothing new, but instead a gradual perfecting of every style (dramatic, devotional, solo vocal, choral, instrumental) developed previously. The greatest works of the end of this period (say, 1700-50) are immeasurably beyond those of the greatest works of the previous period (the operas, oratorios, &c. of; say, 1600-50). Instrumental music takes a leap forward far in advance of anything it has previously attained. Solo vocal music does the same. The Choral Music alone cannot be said to be greater than the greatest previously written ; it is not finer than that written just before and after the year i600, but only different—in its more direct mode of expression and its bigger scale. In Choral Music we have climbed the second great peak on the journey ; in Instrumental Music the first great peak has been reached.
And not only is this the period of a gathering up and perfecting of all that has gone before : it is the period of their final gathering up. After this period (or rather overlapping it, as everything does overlap in the history of art) there comes into musical composition a new outlook. In Bach and Handel we see the culmination of centuries of musical development ; in Haydn and Mozart, who are immediately to follow them, we see the foundations laid of the musical development of the century that is to follow.'
The Period of Fugue
Typically, this is the period of the Fugue. You have seen a good deal of both the spirit of the Fugue and the body of the Fugue in such pieces as that Mass of Palestrina, some of the Madrigals, and the keyboard piece of Gibbons (p. z6), which, as was pointed out earlier, was nothing but an instrumental adaptation of the mass-madrigal style.
In all these things we had
I. A strict adherence to a fixed number of ` voices' or `parts', all of equal importance
II. A tendency (particularly noticeable in the Palestrina Mass) to `grow' a long piece out of a short melodic subject ;
III. An incipient tendency to obtain variety by moving from the main key to some nearly related key or keys, returning, at intervals or at any rate finally, to the main key.
An Understanding of Keys
The close study and consequent greater understanding of Harmony qua Harmony that came about as a result of the Florentine experiments of i 600, had an enormous influence upon the ' incipient tendency' mentioned under (iii). Effective ways of relating chord to chord and key to key came to light. Harmony and key relationship began to codify and, it may be said, to conventionalize. It became realized that keys had natural relationships, in a sort of family system, each key having closely connected with it in aural effect five other keys, as for instance
Key G Key F
(i. e. one sharp added) (i. e. one flat added)
and the ` relative minors' of these (i. e. those with the same `key signatures ')
Bach and Palestrina Compared
Now, roughly speaking, a Bach fugue is, in form and style, much the same as a Palestrina movement, such as one of those we have been examining, but with more definite `point' about every detail of its construction.
It has one main ` Subject' (a snatch of melody like that which we found to be the chief `Subject' of the Palestrina Mass).
This subject appears at the opening in all the 'Voices' (which may be real voices, but which even in an instrumental Fugue still retain this name).
Key A minor
Key E minor Key D minor
Look back at the Kyrie of the Mass and you will see that the Subject there enters at different pitches, beginning on F in the Tenor, then five notes higher on C in the Alto, then on F in the Soprano, and on F in the Bass. Were this a Bach fugue it would open in much the same way, but instead of the second (Alto) entry opening on the note C, it would most probably be actually and definitely in the Key of C, the Soprano entry then bringing the composition back to the Key of F, and the Bass taking it again to the Key of C.
Keys of five notes apart, like these, are in the closest possible relationship, and alternation between them at the opening of the Fugue gives us the sense of variety without disturbing us by taking us far afield.
Stages in the Fugue's Evolution
The Fugue, as we find it in Bach, represents the climax of a process of development, stretching over the period of about eight hundred years that had elapsed since some churchman was struck with the idea that Providence had not given all monks tenor voices or all of them bass voices (page to). The stages in the development are represented by
I. The Churchmen of the ninth and tenth centuries, who devised the plan of singing their Plainsong in parallel 5ths and 8ves instead of in merely unison or octaves. (Older Organum.)
II. The Churchmen of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, who varied from parallelism in the voice parts that accompanied their Plainsong. (Newer Organum.)
III. The Churchmen of the twelfth century, who wove quite florid choral accompaniments in quicker notes around their Plainsong, strongly held in slower notes. (Descant.)
IV. The Churchmen of the fourteenth century, who sang their Plainsong accompaniment at the gentler intervals of parallel 3rds and 6ths. (Early Faburden.)
V. The Churchmen of a little later, who reverted to an unparallel accompaniment, now (in the light of all the experiments previously made) of a fairly free character.
VI. The Englishman, John of Dunstable (fifteenth century), who revolutionized musical composition by devising more artistic methods for the movement of the voice parts, often departing from the practice of using Plain-song continuously throughout the composition:
VII. The sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Church Music and Madrigal writers, who carried this style of pure Contrapuntal art to perfection, and some of whom developed it in Instrumental as well as in Choral compositions—Palestrina in Italy, Byrd and Gibbons in England, Vittoria in Spain, &c.
VIII. The early seventeenth-century writers in many countries (Monteverde and others), who emphasized the Harmonic idea.
IX. The later seventeenth-century writers (e. g. Purcell in England), who combined the Harmonic and Contrapuntal aspects.
X. Bach and Handel, who, in their great choruses and their instrumental works, brought to perfection this combined Harmonic-Contrapuntal art (with the emphasis again on the Contrapuntal).