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The MHS Review 399 VOL. 12, NO.3 • 1988

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Frank Cooper


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As your eyes scan the opposite page, do you wonder why people living near the end of the 20th century would devote years of research and study to music that is over 400 years old, and spend countless hours rehearsing, performing, and recor­ding it? Do you know why, in this day of extremes such as, say, Krzysztof Penderecki and the Beastie Boys, people. like yourself--not just history buffs or experts--are moved deeply by this kind of music? The answers lie in a few highlights from the history of Christianity.

After its first thousand years, Christian church architecture began a radical change from the Romanesque to the Gothic. The new system of rib vaulting, pointed arches, and flying buttresses permitted, even en­couraged, marvels of engineering previous­ly unknown. Mankind's aspirations toward God in Heaven could now be (and were!) made apparent through cathedrals which reached mountainous heights, their spires--to everyone's wonder--piercing the very sky itself. Entire communities rallied around building projects taking a century or more to complete.

The new complexity--determined in part by the combination of geometry and theological symbolism--was a marvel in itself, and corresponded to the elaborate structure of the vast religious treatises then being written, to the rediscovery of perspective in painting, and to the extraor­dinary embellishments develped to adorn manuscript copies of the Gospels. Music, not surprisingly, followed suit--in a most interesting way.

During Christianity's initial millennium, music in the church was plainsong, a single line of chant (often of otherworldly beau­ty) providing an aura of tone for the words of a service. God's glory and the sacred meaning for believers of Jesus' example and teachings had been well served by plain­song's disembodied flow, that is until the great period of change began. Composers responded to the challenge posed by so many new layers and levels of meaning in the church's endeavors by creating something analogous through sound, polyphony.

Observing the natural mathematics of what physicists have since dubbed the "harmonic series," a few geniuses began to ask of their choristers that more than one line of music be sung simultaneous­ly. First in two parts, then three and four (later, more), music acquired the dimension of harmony. It was as much a revelation! as a revolution! God's music was now as glorious as his buildings, his images, and his Word. It could be marveled at by all who heard it--with awe equaling that of seeing everything else.

The Renaissance brought even more to music. Composers such as Binchois, Isaac, Dufay, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Josquin, Palestrina, Compere (and others) emerged to rival the architects for sheer magnificence and intricacy of design. Euphony, the sweet-sounding balance of each part with its partners, triumphed as rich tapestries of tone embodied ideals of proportion scarcely imagined before. The beauty which resulted became the talk of Europe.

Demand was great for printed copies, which widened the circles of influence of the amazing new style. From 1501 on, music printing flourished in Italy, then in France, England, The Netherlands, Ger­many, and Spain. Polyphony was an inter­national sensation and would, in time, dominate the succeeding baroque and reemerge in the late works of the great classical composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Our present release captures, like a time capsule, a wonderful point in the develop­ment of the polyphonic process, one at which elaboration had not yet become the end in itself which would cause the Coun­cil of Trent to threaten a return to plain­song. The pieces here are perfect examples of an equilibrium struck between art and craft in music by composers with an innate sense of just how far to go in giving us something marvelous without sacrificing any of their texts to an excess of polyphony.

Perfection is rarely encountered, but we have it here. Coming face to face with har­monies, melodic lines, and rhythms which allow for no criticism--like a painting by Leonardo--affects us today rather strange­ly. We are a bit baffled, then intrigued, and, finally, moved. Perfection takes getting us­ed to, we discover.

Review of Hail, Divine Mother page 47

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