The Development Of Vocal Polyphony

IN our consideration of popular music in the Middle Ages, we dealt of course only with secular song, the unconscious art-expression of the folk-spirit. During the same period, the nurture of music as a conscious art remained in the hands of cloistered monks, organists and church musicians, and to them we must return for a further investigation of its development.

In previous study of the music of the Church we have observed the oscillations between rhythmical and melodious expression arising from differing conceptions of the best musical and religious interpretation of the sacred text.

We shall now trace the growth of this new art of vocal polyphony, born and nourished in the monasteries of Flanders and fostered in the churches of Paris; we shall follow its peregrinations from country to country, shall see it cast aside the habiliments of childhood and grow slowly into the strength and venturesomeness of youth, gradually losing its monastic habits of thought and convention until at last it appears in full maturity, invigorated rather than weakened by the training of its foster-mother.

In its search for expression, musical art now travels side by side with the art of the painter, and together they enter upon a new life, each adding, to the already existing delineation of outline and form, the contrasts of light and shade and refinements in color-effect.

Both arts during this period present, as in a mirror, the reflections of contemporaneous thought, development, habit and expression. This is readily perceived on examining the paintings of the time, which depict scenes of actual life. Since the Italians, like all southern nations, loved musical sound per se, for its sensuous effect, instrumental music found among them is most propitious environment for growth. The works of Italian painters of the period depict various contemporaneous musical instruments, as well as the manner in which they were played, thus affording us a glimpse of what was then of general interest.

In the allegorical painting of “The Triumph of Death,” by Orcagna, there is a panel depicting “The Dream of Life,” which presents a group of ladies and gentlemen, one of whom is playing upon a beautifully inlaid instrument of the violin family, while another accompanies upon the psaltery. The ecstatic joy of the performer who loves the sound of his instrument is visible upon their faces, while those of the listeners exhibit either an intensely thoughtful interest in the players, or the dreamy expression of deep emotion engendered by the music. The whole scene is one that must have been familiar to the painter, and it is quite possible that the faces in the groups are portraits of his patron and friends.

In Flanders and the Netherlands the paintings of the time indicate that the vocal art was the one most commonly practised. One of the altar-pictures by the brothers Ten Eyck depicts a chorus of angels grouped around a reading-desk on which is placed the book from which all are singing. The desk forms the back of a small portable pipe-organ, whose player acts as director of the choir. As the number of instrumental players represented in this picture is quite small, and they are placed far in the background, we may conclude that they were deemed of minor importance. That the artists have endeavored to portray that which they had often actually seen, rather than the fruit of their imagination, is proved by the fact that the faces of the angels are typically Dutch and that their mouths are opened in what is deemed the proper manner for the correct emission of tone.

The practice and love of singing being common in the Netherlands during the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was but natural that that country should be-come the training-school for masters of the grand polyphonic vocal art, whose pupils were to carry its ideas and teachings into other lands.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, this art had begun to decline in importance in France, but had taken on new life in the Netherlands. This migration was due partly to political and social conditions, and partly to the fact that the wealthy and prosperous burghers of Holland, Flanders, Hainault and Brabant fostered all the arts and therefore attracted their exponents from everywhere. In addition to this, the politico-religious disturbances which caused the removal of the Papal See from Rome to Avignon in 1305, brought from Italy the very best composers, who aided in the advancement of musical culture in the new center of the arts. Thus there came to be established what is now called the Gallo-Belgic school (1350-1430), the connecting-link between the early French school and that of the Netherlands.

The first master of importance in this new school was Hermann de Zeelandia, who lived in the first half of the fourteenth century. His chief claim to recognition above his contemporaries lies in his efforts to eliminate the parallel fourths and fifths of his French predecessors, whose ears had undoubtedly rebelled against the euphony (?) of the inherited Hucbaldian organum and diaphony — witness the invention of the device of contrary motion. In Zeelandia’s works these intervals have almost entirely disappeared, and in their place we find a free use of thirds and sixths, giving his part-songs a more agreeable character. A native of Holland, he was quite celebrated as a teacher and as a composer of four-part chansons whose texts were in his native tongue. In these he assigns the melody to the highest voice, the soprano, herein departing from the time-honored custom of the Church composers, in whose works the tenor carried the cantus firmus.

The most brilliant exponent and master of the Gallo-Belgic school was Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474). He was a chorister in the Papal choir at Rome from 1428 to 1437; thereafter he held a canonry both in Mons and in Cambrai, in which latter town he died.

He was the first master to formulate rules (canons) for the “imitations” so timidly introduced by the masters of the French school. Such imitation was then called fuga (a flight), because, as was naïvely explained in the writings of the time, “one voice seems to fly away from the other and is pursued in a pleasant way.” Strict imitation was exemplified in the canon, in which only one voice-part needed to be written out, as each singer, guided by signs or written directions, knew when and where and how to enter with his part.

Dufay, who was not only a musician but a close observer of the musical trend of his time, soon realized the vital difference between the music of the people and that of the Church, and in his desire to bring these together, conceived the idea of introducing the folk-song as cantus firmus in the Mass. He chose for his first effort in this direction the song “L’omme armé,” which was very popular at that time, and used it as a melodic basis for a Mass, which became known under the title of the popular song.

This endeavor to produce popular sympathy with and appreciation of the music of the Church brought together the two elements which form the basis of our modern musical art. Had Dufay stopped at the simple use of the secular melody, it is not likely that much criticism would have been made of this procedure; but in his attempt to imbue the scholasticism of the monastery with the spirit of the people, he permitted the use of the secular text, so that we hear in the Mass, at one and the same time, the solemn “Kyrie eleison” and the “L’omme armé,” as may be seen from the following example.

To detail all the improvements which Dufay made in musical art would require too much time and space; but we must mention (1) his introduction of interrupted canonic part-writing, the imitation not being continuous, and (2) the entire elimination of the obnoxious parallel fourths and fifths of his predecessors. By him, in fact, the pure four-part style of vocal writing was inaugurated.

In his labors for the improvement of musical art, Dufay had the hearty cooperation of Gilles de Binche, or Binchois (1400-1460), who was “Chapelain-chantre” to Philip the Good. But few of this master’s compositions have been preserved; but he was highly esteemed by his contemporaries, not only as a musician, but as a courtly, honorable gentleman.

The last great master of the Gallo-Belgic school was Antoine de Busnois (1440-1482). To him, as well as to Dufay, we owe recognition of the principle that euphony in music is more desirable than mathematically calculated construction. That Busnois was bolder in his harmonies than Dufay, is evident from his upward resolutions of -the half-steps of the scale, still carefully avoided by Dufay because of his adherence to Church music customs, in which such progressions were shunned.

Dufay, Binchois and Busnois, with their following, form a bridge between the French school and that of the Netherlands, which latter we are now to consider. It comprises the Dutch and the Belgian composers through whose efforts was developed that great school of vocal polyphony which finds its culmination on the one hand in Palestrina, and on the other in Handel and Bach. Their efforts seem to be the first that were directed toward making counterpoint subservient to idea, in distinction to those of their predecessors, who wrote much counterpoint for its own sake. They sought for euphony and beauty of expression in the canonic forms in which the voices were related.

The two hundred years from 1425-1625, during which the influence of this school was predominant, we shall, for the sake of convenience, divide into four overlapping periods, in each of which some great master is supreme.

In the first of these periods the name of Johannes Okeghem (1425-1513), a pupil of Binchois, stands out above those of his contemporaries. He is considered the founder of the Netherlandic school, and is called the father of artistic counter-point because he developed the canonic style, the style of strict imitation, to its greatest ingenuity. That he carried his contrapuntal subtleties to an extreme can be seen in the minute but labored workmanship of his compositions.

As an example of this we need but mention a Motet for thirty-six voices, of which only six were written out, each of the six forming the theme of a canon for six voices which could be sung as such, while finally the thirty-six parts could be sung simultaneously. In keeping with the spirit of the age, when (especially in the Netherlands) all sorts of artisans as well as artists and musicians were members of guilds whose secret signs were known only to the initiated, Okeghem wrote a number of so-called “enigmatical” canons for the singers of his day. Of such canons the theme alone was written down, while Latin directions, couched in mystic phrases, revealed to the initiated the manner of their performance. The following are some of these enigmatical directions: “He that followeth me, walketh not in darkness “; “Ad medium referas in repetitione”; “Pausas relinque prioris.”

To appreciate his compositions, and others of the great contrapuntal vocal school, one must hear them sung, for to play them on the piano gives no idea of their real character. Okeghem has been aptly called the Bach of the fifteenth century. His skill led to a general adoption of the free contrapuntal style, which gradually became less florid and more simple, so that all the ingenious devices fell into their proper places as means of expression.

His influence was greatest as a teacher, for his pupils, whose labors form the second period of the Netherland school, came from everywhere and carried their knowledge into distant lands. Among those pupils must be mentioned (the dates are only approximate) Jacob Hobrecht (1450–1505), Antonius Brumel (1470-1518), Johannes Tinctor (1446-1511), Josquin de Près (1450-1521) and Agricola (1446-1506). Of these, Tinctor spent most of his life in Italy, whither we shall follow him at another time; Agricola labored in Spain and Portugal; Hobrecht, who lived in Antwerp, is noted for a beauty of expression in his compositions far beyond the practices of his time. He was so highly esteemed as a learned musician and director, that not only did the great choir from the Brussels cathedral often come to do him honor, but the director of the Papal church at Rome journeyed to Antwerp to learn and get ideas from him.

The compositions of Antonius Brumel exhibit a fine harmony quite surprising for that period, as he delights in full sustained chords.

The great luminary of the second period of the Nether-lands schools (1455—1525) was that most distinguished of Okeghem’s pupils, Josquin de Près. After finishing his studies with his famous master, he went to Milan and thence to Rome, where from 1484 to 1494 he was a singer in the Papal Chapel. His genius attracted the attention of Pope Sixtus IV, with the result that his life was made very unpleasant by his fellow-musicians; so he went to Cambrai, Modena, Paris and Ferrara (1503), where he made a great impression upon his more liberal-minded colleagues. Re-turning to France, he ended his days as a provost at Condé — a preferment probably due to Emperor Maximilian I. While at first he followed closely in his master’s footsteps, he soon surpassed him in boldness and freedom of style. He is the first of the great Netherland school whose works exhibit real geniality and appreciation of the aesthetic value of a dissonance in the expression of emotion as depicted in the text. As he was a genius, a law unto himself, and a master of the musical devices then in use, he was not strictly obedient to the academic rules laid down by his predecessors, although very exacting with his pupils in this respect. Luther, one of his greatest admirers, wrote of him: “Josquin de Près is a master of the notes. They do as he wills. Other composers must do as the notes will. His compositions are joyous, gentle and lovely; not forced, nor con-strained, nor slavishly tied to the rules, but free as the song of the finch.”

That he was a man of wit is evident from some of his motets written for special occasions. In these he at times reminded his royal patrons of their promises of increased salary or distinctions by selecting appropriate texts, such as “Portio mea non est in terra viventium,” or “Memor esti verbi tui.” His name on a composition was considered sufficient proof of its excellence. His genius enabled him to break through the strict forms of his time, without abandoning them, and his motets and psalms are still effective as sacred music.

The Italian traveler and historian, Baini, speaking of the universal popularity of the Belgian master’s works, says;

“They sing only Josquin in Italy, France and Germany, Flanders, Hungary, Bohemia and Spain.” It was, there-fore, difficult for other composers to obtain recognition, how-ever excellent their work.

Nevertheless, he still shows the influence of the scholasticism of his age by his two musical settings of the genealogy of Christ according to Matthew and Luke. Although he also practised the custom of uniting sacred and secular melodies and texts in his church compositions, he evidently realized that, in order to be at all appropriate to each other, they should at least express the same general mood; for in his commemorative Mass on the death of his revered teacher, he sets against the tenor’s solemn “Requiem aeternam,” a song of lamentation which was very popular at that time:

Nymphes des bois, déesses des fontaines, Chantres experts de toutes nations, Changez vos voix fortes, claires et hautaines En cris tranchants et lamentations.

The universal approval received by the works of Josquin de Près, and the great honors bestowed upon him, led to the emigration of some of his countrymen and many of his pupils to various countries. While some were perhaps actuated by the hope of acquiring wealth or honors, many undoubtedly went because they were filled with the genuine art-spirit which seeks the conversion of the world to its ideals.

Almost every church musician of the period, at some time during his career, went to Italy, the home of the Mother Church. Many remained in the land of sunny skies; and some founded great music-schools which in later years were to produce numerous eminent musicians.

Among famous contemporaries of Josquin must be mentioned Mouton and Arcadelt. Jean Mouton, who died in 1522, was so musically gifted and so thoroughly imbued with his master’s principles, that some of his works were credited to Josquin. His fame rests on his Motets and Masses, but still more so on that of his famous pupil, Adrian Willaert, of whom more anon.

Jacob Arcadelt (1492–1556) in middle life went to Rome and was admitted as a singer to the Papal choir, where he remained from 1540 to 1549. In 1555 we find him in the service of the Duke of Guise, at Paris, where he died. As a composer of madrigals he attained world-wide celebrity. Most of his serious compositions were written for the Church; his “Ave Maria” is even now sung quite frequently.

The leading masters of the third period of the Netherland school were largely the best pupils of Josquin, such as Gombert, Goudimel, de Rore, Willaert, Ducis, Hollander and Jannequin.

Nicholas Gombert, born in Bruggen (Bruges) in 1495, is the only one of these who spent most of his life in his native land. Although a priest, he performed the functions of chapel-master during the greater part of his life. The hope of fame and ecclesiastical preferment tempted him to leave his native land to act as imperial music-master at Madrid from 1530 to 1534. Even in that short time his teachings undoubtedly exercised a considerable influence on the Spanish and Portuguese composers, although some of them had studied for a while in the Netherlands, while others had received instruction from his predecessor, Agricola. Upon his return he was given a nominal office which enabled him to spend the remainder of his life in peace and comfort. In his works he exhibits an even greater freedom and flow of melody than his teacher. Most of his fellow-musicians acknowledged him as the greatest master of his time, and historians agree that he was the direct precursor of the Palestrina style.

Two of his contemporaries, Ducis and Hollander, deserve more than a passing notice. Benedictus Ducis, or Hertogs (his Dutch name), born at Bruges in 1480, a pupil of Josquin, in early life removed to Antwerp, where he was so esteemed that he was chosen master of the guild of musicians, the highest honor in the gift of his colleagues. At the age of 40 he went into retirement, and died about 1540. His Passion music and his Cantiones sacroe justify his fame.

Christian Jans, or, as he is generally known, Christian Hollander, was born in Holland about 1519. He served for a number of years as chapel-master at Oudenaarde in Dutch-Belgium, and later entered the service of Maximilian II. His Motets are among the most brilliant works of the Dutch-Netherland school, and are especially noteworthy for originality of rhythm, declamatory phrases, effective tone-coloring and animated movement. The date of his death is unknown (before 1570).

One of the most talented and original pupils of Josquin de Près was Clément Jannequin or Janneken, — the endearing name given him by his countrymen. His early compositions were for the Catholic Church, but he became a convert to the Protestant faith and as such made a splendid setting of a number of Marot’s poems and of his versified translation of the Psalms. It is as a secular composer, however, that he shines most brilliantly. He may well be considered the first composer of “program-music,” and as such we shall meet him again. Goudimel, de Rore and Willaert will also be considered later.

While the fourth period of the Netherland school presents a number of excellent musicians, one name stands out brilliantly above all others, that of Orlandus Lassus, the greatest of all the Netherland masters. According to his sojourn in different lands he is variously known by the name just given, or as Roland van Lattre, Roland Delattre, or Orlando di Lasso. He was born at Mons in Belgium in 1520. As a boy he became famous as a soprano soloist, and, in the suite of Ferdinand of Gonzaga, went to Milan, Palermo and Naples. During early life he traveled through England and France, occasionally residing for short periods in Antwerp, where his great abilities stimulated musical enthusiasm to a high pitch.

During the fourth period of the Netherland school, there lived in Holland a musician, Jan Pieters Sweelinck, who attracted the notice of all the musical world. He was born at Deventer in Holland in 1562, and is said by some to have been a pupil of Zarlino in Venice (though this is improbable on account of his youth) ; in his nineteenth year he was appointed organist of the “Old Church” at Amsterdam, a position held years before by his father, and in which he himself remained till his death in 1621. He soon attained the reputation of being the greatest organist of his time, and so many young musicians came to study with him from all over Europe that he became the founder of a great organ school. Among his pupils were Samuel Scheidt, Heinrich Scheidemann, Adam Reinken, and the Dane, Dietrich Buxtehude, whose works deserve to be in the repertoire of every organist. It was the fame of Reinken that caused Bach to make several journeys on foot from Luneburg to Hamburg, to hear that great artist.

The high reputation enjoyed by Sweelinck’s pupils reflected upon him, and was so well appreciated by his countrymen, that the merchants of Amsterdam presented him with a splendid fortune, in order to preserve him from the anxieties which too often attend an artist in old age. His vocal compositions deserve a place in the repertoire of ambitious choral-societies as superb examples of the a cappella style, and direct precursors of the great vocal works of Bach. His chief title to lasting fame rests upon his development of the organ-fugue, a branch of composition wherein his first worthy successor was J. S. Bach.

In our consideration of the French school it was stated that its masters never left their native lands to spread the practice of their art, but were content to have young musicians come to them for study. In contradistinction to this we have noticed that most of the masters of the Gallo-Belgic and Netherland schools, filled with zeal for their art, at one time or another in their lives journeyed abroad to spread the new gospel of music, a mission which they considered almost as a sacred duty.

The names of most of these are to be found in the records of famous singers and musicians connected at various periods with the Papal Chapel, where their services were much in demand, not only as composers but also as professional singers, many of whom went abroad to seek their fortune. As early as 1467 the Duke of Milan sent to the Netherlands for a choir of thirty singers, whom he paid handsomely for their services. These cantori ultramontani, as the Flemish singers were called, were in a measure responsible for the improvements in church singing and for the founding, in Naples, Rome, Venice, Munich and Vienna, of choral societies which became favorites of the dilettanti and the general public. There are still extant many written invitations from princes and reigning monarchs requesting the presence of schooled vocalists, who were thus enabled to select their positions and impose their own terms. Time and space for-bid further mention of their work, and we shall now turn our attention to those composers and teachers who went abroad as missionaries to preach their art to willing and sympathetic ears. Among them we have already mentioned Dufay and Okeghem, who labored in France; Josquin de Près, who practised his art in Rome and Ferrara as well as at home; and Tinctor, who was the first of those missionaries to make a prolonged stay (1475–1487) in Southern Italy. He was a very learned and scholarly musician, whose works, “Terminorum musicae diffinatorium,” the earliest musical dictionary (printed about 1475), and “Liber de arte contrapuncti,” a text-book on counterpoint, both written in classical Latin, did much to unify and classify musical knowledge.

A majority of these musical missionaries settled in Italy, the Holy Empire of the Mother Church, and while some labored quietly, sometimes in obscure places, others showed such strong individuality in their work that they attracted old and young musicians, and thus became the founders of distinct schools of music.

Among the many able Netherlanders who selected Northern Italy for their home stands out the commanding figure of Adrian Willaert, the star-pupil of Jean Mouton. After a thorough schooling in the methods and learning of Josquin de Près, he went to Rome, where he became a chorister in the Papal Choir in 1516. When the authorship of one of his compositions was doubted by his fellow-singers and derisively ascribed to Josquin de Près, he abandoned his position and went to Ferrara; later acting as chapel-master (Kapellmeister) to Ludwig, King of Hungary and Bavaria, until 1526, when, attracted by the fame of the gorgeous life of Venice, he set his face toward that city. Within a year he was made director of the music in the church of San Marco, and there began the most glorious and effective part of his career, which we shall consider at another time. His successor as musical director at San Marco was his countryman and pupil, Cypriano de Rore, who had been the master’s assistant during his lifetime.

Other disciples of the Netherland school who labored for a while in Venice were Verdelot and de Buus.

Philip Verdelot (It. Verdelotte) was born in Belgium about 1490, and at the age of thirty followed Willaert (or Master Adrian, as his name appears on the roll of choristers at San Marco) to Venice. In 1530 he went to Florence and continued the work of Hobrecht in the domain of sacred music, making a reputation for himself that extended not only throughout Italy, but the whole of Catholic Europe.

Jacob de Buus (van Boes) was born in North Belgium about 1505. As a student he was attracted by the possibilities of music-printing, which, having been invented by the Italian Petrucci about the year 1500, had proved a boon to the musical world. After much travel through Italy, he settled in Venice, where he established his own music-printing establishment. That he was an excellent musician is evident from the fact that, in 1541, he was appointed organist at San Marco, being chosen in preference to many native candidates for the office. Later he went to Vienna, where he remained the rest of his life as organist to the Court choir.

Among the musical missionaries who wended their way into Central Italy, to Rome, we have already noted Arcadelt, whose style was almost as colorful as that of Willaert, and who after several years of fruitful labor for the Church, went to Paris, where he died.

Another Netherland master already mentioned was Claude Goudimel, a man of high intellectual and musical attainments, who spent many years in Rome and then emigrated to Paris, where he became a Huguenot and made splendid musical settings of some of the Psalms. While in Rome he is said to have been the instructor of Palestrina, whose works, while in many respects surpassing those of his teacher, show the strict training of the Netherland school. In addition to those. who practised their art in various parts of Italy, quite a number of the Dutch and Belgian masters went to Germany and Austria, Christian Hollander spending the greater part of his life in Vienna, where he joined in the musical labors of his countrymen.

We have also spoken of the last and greatest master of the Netherland school, Orlandus Lassus, who, after travels in Italy, France and England, returned in 1555 to Antwerp. In the year following he received a munificent offer from Albert, Duke of Bavaria, who invited him to bring a choir of the best singers from among his countrymen, and to be-come chapel-master at the Bavarian court. Lassus accepted the offer with alacrity and traveled with his chosen singers to Munich, where he shortly afterward married a maid of honor to the Duchess.

In his new position he also had charge of a number of instrumentalists, who, however, rarely united with the singers, as the purely vocal a cappella style was still preferred. While in Munich, he wrote his celebrated Penitential Psalms, as well as a large number of Masses, Motets and Magnificats for the Church. Although a contemporary of the famous Palestrina, it was Lassus who was universally regarded as the “Prince of Musicians.” A man of amiable temper, a wit, a superb musician, master of all the then known art, he was universally honored by prince and burgher, who vied with each other to do him honor, so that he was knighted and deco-rated with the highest orders.

In spite of the demands of courtly society, of which he was a shining star, he gave much time to the gratification of his innate desire for creative work, but the combination proved too much for him in the end, and his last years were marked by depression of spirits and a morbid fear of death, the consequence of overwork. His genius was strikingly manifested in his versatility, which enabled him to write equally well in all contemporary musical forms, in which his innate sense of the beautiful is predominant. With him closes the period of musical development known as the Netherland school, whose art, disseminated over the whole of Europe, furnished the foundations for the upbuilding of a still greater art.

In this era, polyphonic music reached its highest development as vocal musical expression in the impersonal manner. It was the natural expression of a collective churchly relation to God, and therefore gave no utterance to the personal, individual human relationship to the Divine Being which was the moving impulse of the Reformation. This human note appears in the works of Palestrina and some of his successors, through whom was inaugurated the “Golden Age of Catholic Church Music.”