Thursday, August 14, 2014

Greatest Composers Before Bach: Part 2

My post yesterday got cut short because I had some appointments to get to, so let me take up where I left off. With all due respect to David Letterman, there is nothing especially sacred about the number ten and, as I was mulling over possibilities, I realized that there were a lot more than ten composers worthy of mention. Heck, you could easily do ten Medieval, ten Renaissance and ten Baroque! So here we go with The Rest of the List:

8. Despite the suggestion of reader David, I'm not sure either Telemann or Buxtehude quite makes the list. Both are fine composers, and I have greatly enjoyed playing some lute duets by Telemann. However, if we take the opinion of J. S. Bach, we would pick something by Dieterich Buxtehude. As a young man, Bach walked two hundred miles to hear Buxtehude in Lübeck. Here is a Magnificat for choir and orchestra:

9. Another reader mentions Josquin des Prez and he certainly makes the list as possibly the most important composer of the late 15th and early 16th century. He was the first composer to become really famous through the widespread printing of his music. Possibly his most famous mass, the Missa Pange Lingua, paraphrases the hymn Pange Lingua by St. Thomas Aquinas in all voices. Here it is:

10. The first two names of important composers in the history of Western music are Léonin and Perotin, the two composers of organum at Notre Dame around 1200. They are the founders of polyphonic music and we know their names only by sheerest accident. I tell that tale in this post. Here is Gaude Maria Virgo by Léonin:

11. Another reader mentions Guillaume de Machaut and we certainly can't forget him. Equally famous as poet and composer, he is the greatest figure in the music of the 14th century. Here is the ballade "De Fortune Me Doi Plaindre Et Loer" illustrated with miniatures from the Codex Manesse:

12. Yet another reader urges that I not forget Claudio Monteverdi and I shall not. I have always had a great fondness for his music since purchasing the first performance of his Orfeo on original instruments, oh, it must have been thirty-five years ago. Here is just the beginning of a DVD version by those same performers:

13. That same reader mentions Henry Purcell, who was an excellent composer, but I think when it comes to English composers I will choose instead William Byrd. He was the great master of music during the Elizabethan renaissance and excelled in songs, masses and keyboard music. His students number most of the great composers of the next generation. Here is "My Ladye Nevells Grownde" played on a 1604 virginal:

14. I put up a clip from a mass by Ockeghem in the previous post, but as one of the greatest masters of polyphony, he probably deserves a post all to himself. His Missa prolationem consists entirely of mensuration canons which you can read about here in Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that this is one of the most difficult kinds of composition and the only ones who really did it well were Ockeghem and Josquin. J. S. Bach achieved a similar level of contrapuntal excellence in his Art of Fugue, though with different means. Here are the Kyrie and Sanctus from the Missa Prolationem:

15. Another composer mentioned was Palestrina, who is certainly very fine, but I am going to choose instead Orlande de Lassus who was, in my view, the equal of Palestrina, but with more intense musical expression. He is famous for having written a parody mass on the very obscene French chanson "Entre vous filles de quinze ans". He also wrote one of the most highly admired settings of Penitential Psalms. Here is the De Profundis from that collection:

And that brings this project to a close. I hope I have been able to introduce at least one or two composers to you.


Shantanu said...

Quite a list. It's amazing how we have such ancient music at our disposal 24-7 these days through the internet! It's a tall order to even remember the names, let alone really appreciate the fine qualities of the music. Sometimes, I am tempted to just put on some Bach and relax. And mostly that Bach is something as common as the Goldberg Variations or the keyboard partitas! Even those compositions I find new and fresh almost every time I hear them.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, you bet! You can't go wrong listening to Bach, especially the Goldberg Variations. But now and then, try a little Scarlatti or Couperin. And once a month, listen to some Medieval or Renaissance music. It is like a very easy trip in the Tardis to another time and place.

Unknown said...

Poor old Purcell =[

Good pick with Orlande de Lassus over Palestrina. Another composer I usually prefer over Palestrina is Vittoria (a little bit later I know) but I find both of them have more 'spunk' than Palestrina who is nice enough but never really seems to leave his comfort zone.

Rickard said...

@Shantanu, I think the easiest composer to start with is Vivaldi. However, I recommend Scarlatti and Couperin even more. Their music is way more contrapuntal than Vivaldi's (in my opinion) and near hypnotic at times (in a good way). More specificially I recommend Scarlatti's Keyboard Sonatas played by Scott Ross and Couperin's Harpsichord Works also played by Scott Ross. Scott Ross' playing is very clear.