Music – Harmony At Last, And The Introduction Of Opera And Oratorio

CONTINUING the thought of the last chapter, one may ask –

‘ Why were the Modes in general, which had had so long and successful a career as the basis of melodic music, found at last to be unsuitable for choral writing ? ‘

The reason is probably this. Choral writing, at first looked at purely as Counterpoint (as a weaving of melodies), was gradually tending more and more to be looked at as Harmony (as a building of chords side by side). And music which is thus felt harmonically seems to call-for very definite points of repose interspersed with its passages of activity. Such points of repose we call Cadences. And the growing fashion for dance rhythms in choral music would emphasize the need of such Cadences, for, as already pointed out, a dance piece is necessarily cut up into equal sections (`phrases’ and `sentences’), and, to mark this, Cadences, more definite or less so, are demanded.

The Cadence Feeling

Now the note in any scale which makes the most definite cadence is the Tonic (= key-note, or central note of the piece, or ` Doh ‘). And the Tonic sounds much more final if approached by a semitone, thus than if approached by a tone.

I have earlier in this book made the assertion that all music, even the most complex, has grown out of the simple Folk Song (and Plain Song) and the equally simple Folk Dance. You have gathered that both these influences were active in the sixteenth-century Choral Music, and have now realized that the Dance element, especially, was pushing composers out of their old almost purely Contrapuntal way of looking at things into a more Harmonic way of looking at them. Other factors which tended in the same direction were these :

(a) The development of music meant for a keyboard—a medium for evoking tone that inevitably suggests lumps or handfuls, i. e. chords considered as chords and not as by- products of interwoven voices’ or ‘ parts ‘.

(b) The popularity of the Lute, a plucked string instrument something like the Mandoline of to-day, and the composition of songs for this, the melody of which was held by the voice of the performer and supported by chords which he played on his instrument. A good deal of simple counterpoint often came into a Lute accompaniment, but the very nature of the instrument suggested the harmonic way of considering music.

The Influence of Drama

About 1600 another and decisive factor entered. The idea of writing upon dramatic themes began strongly to seize composers. Now the old contrapuntal music could express long-drawn moods, such as joy or sorrow, but was necessarily too formal in its construction to express very rapid and dramatic changes of thought, to give point to particular words, and so on. And it was obviously unsuitable as a musical setting for dialogue.

The Renascence takes Effect in Music

This rather sudden plunge into definite Music Drama had an historical cause behind it. The Renascence, which for a century and a half had urged men to the study of Greek thought and the expression of it in painting and sculpture, and which had for some time also influenced architecture, now began to exert its power upon music. Up to this time it had done little more than supply composers with some new literary subjects for their composition, and they had written many Madrigals and Lute Songs the words of which were treatments of classical subjects (Venus and Cupid, and Phoebus and Philomel, are common enough names in their verses), and had also set to music spectacular Masques and Pastorals upon classical subjects. But they had never seriously tackled Greek Drama, and now they began to want to do so.

A little group at Florence, that was in the habit of meeting regularly in a palace there, especially set the fashion. They studied the ancient Greek Drama, and came to the conclusion that it was chanted by solo voices with some simple instrumental support, such as that of the lyre, and they saw that it made provision for occasional chorus passages. So they devised an entertainment on these lines, setting such stories as that of Orpheus and Eurydice. Similarly they applied their ideas to sacred subjects, and so produced ` Oratorios’. The examples that follow (from an Oratorio, Cavaliere’s Soul and Body) will give an idea of their methods, and will show how thoroughly Harmonic (rather than Contrapuntal) they were in their conceptions, the change of view, indeed, being so great as to give the compositions of the school the name of `The New Music’.

An Intermediate Type

I do not propose to dwell upon the music of this period, because it is music which can practically never be heard to-day and the avowed purpose of this book is to explain and place in proper relation such types of music as the ordinary listener can find opportunities of hearing, merely touching upon previous and intermediate types sufficiently to draw from them the necessary explanations of the genesis of the music that can be heard. The `New Music’ is an intermediate type. Today you can hear Palestrina and the English Elizabethan composers, and you can hear Purcell, Bach, and Handel. These New Music’ people, Peri, Caccini, Cavaliere, Monteverde and Company, you cannot hear. So they are in this book quickly passed over. But note the following :

1. There is a curious analogy between the change from Gothic Architecture to Renascence Architecture, on the one hand, and from the Contrapuntal, Madrigal, and Mass style to the new Dramma per Musica style on the other. The first in each case was a weaving of lines, the second a placing in juxtaposition of masses. Both came about from the same dual cause, (a) the exhaustion of the resources of the previous type, and (b) the introduction of Greek models.

II. An overlapping, of course, occurred. In architecture the quadrangle of St. John’s College, Oxford, in a Renascence style, dates from 1630; and Inigo Jones’s purely classical gateway to the Botanic Gardens at Oxford from 1633. Yet the chapel of Brasenose College, with mixed Gothic and Renascence features, dates from 1656. There are such overlappings in the history of every art. They are bound to occur, for as long as Providence continues to ordain that every little girl or boy that ‘s born into this world alive is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative, some people will dearly cherish the old and some wish violently to break with it—sometimes with an intention of reverting to a still further past, as here in the case of both architecture and music.

The point to remember, then, is that the break between the contrapuntal and the harmonic was not so clear cut as is sometimes supposed by those who read concise histories and records of date and facts. Madrigals in the old style were still written up to about 162o, and the contrapuntal never died out of church music, although the harmonic came in.

III. The declamatory style for solo voices was called ` Recitative’. The aim was to imitate more or less closely the natural inflexions of the speaking voice, supporting it with mere chords. In Oratorio and Opera, both of them forms which grew up out of the Dramma per Musica, Recitative has always continued to form a very important ingredient. Purcell, Handel, and Bach made good use of this means of securing dramatic expression in solo song ; so did Gluck, Mozart, and the Opera writers who followed them ; so did Wagner, who, however, modified it, making it more continuous and giving it a very elaborate (and some-times contrapuntal) accompaniment. And Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Merlisande is entirely written in a type of Recitative. With those examples in mind, the innovations of the early seventeenth-century Opera and Oratorio composers cannot be thought of lightly. We do not hear their work nowadays, but we profit by it.

IV. The Orchestra, which had been in a chaotic condition through the previous century, remained in such a condition. But the desire of the Opera writers for direct expression and varied ` colour’ caused experiments from which good was later to come.

V. An important social change in relation to music came about through the invention of Opera. There were as yet no public concerts anywhere, but in 1637 an Opera House was opened at Venice, and others followed elsewhere (London, 1656 ; Paris, 1669 ; Rome, 1671 ; Hamburg, 1678). For good and ill the initiation and continuous multiplication of opportunities for the aristocrat, the merchant, and the trades-man and his wife to hear a musical dramatic entertainment, `at prices to suit all pockets’, has been a great influence in musical development. And the wide popularity of Oratorio from the end of the sixteenth century downwards has been another great influence.