Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Oxford Histroy of Western Music, Pt. 10

The Madrigal (music set to secular poetry) became the hotbed for music experimentation in the sixteenth century. With Ars Perfecta composers such as Josquin streamlining composition to as perfectly express holy texts as clearly as possible (although not without incredible craftsmanship and feats of "composition"), composers used secular texts to create links between the expression in text and music.

Hence the representation of text became the challenge for many composers, and resulted in many different forms of radical experimentation in terms of texture, melody and harmony. Luca Marenzio's Solo e penso. Is the first example of the entire chromatic scale in a piece of music; it begins on F-above-middle-C and proceeds, by semitone, to cover the range of a major 9th, before descending again. Some semitone steps were diatonic, that is, between the 3rd and 4th or 7th and 8th degree of an ionian scale, or were chromatic, that, spelt using a different accidental on the same letter name. The text (Alone and thoughtful I pace the most deserted fields/with slow and heavy steps) is expressed through this mono-rhythmic and mono-intervallic soprano melody. The resulting harmony, if we were to use a system of harmonic analysis based on the 18th and 19th century, is unconventional. The fact of the matter is, however, that this harmony arises out of Marenzio's want to give life to text, rather than experiment with harmony for its own sake.

The use of the complete chromatic scale also suggested a refinement of the tuning system to equally space the 12 semitones through the octave while maintaining the 2:1 ratio of frequencies between octaves.


  1. Hi Marc, nice to see someone mentioning madrigals, and scale systems. It's certainly a very interesting area of music that we often talk about (as musicians), but in general know less about.

    I'm studying musicology at university to diversify a little in my musical activities and job possibilities. One of the courses is .. polyphonic harmony, and of course madrigals fall into that. I can thoroughly recommend (if you're interested) that you look into Orlando/Roland de Lassus (1532-94), probably 'the' greatest polyphonic composer - you'll find plenty in the Oxford History I imagine, or in the Grove Online. His work 'Psalmi Davidis poenitentiales', is mind-blowing. In fact I guess much of his work is very interesting.

    Best - Joe

  2. I forgot to add that I thought of 'de Lassus' as you speak about 'Josquin de Prez' another incredibly gifted franco-flemish school composer.

    To be quite honest you should listen to the other franco-flemish composers also, Ockeghem (1410-97) being one of my favourites.

    Anyhow, you've probably already looked into all of this via the Oxfod History I guess.

    Best (again) - Joe