I like the idea of what is sometimes called a "thick" description:
In the fields of anthropology, sociology, religious studies, human-centered design and organizational development, a thick description of a human behavior is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider.This comports well with Collingwood's idea that a historian should try and "get inside" historical figures and events, that is, try to see things from their perspective.
Just as a little experiment I would like to pick a favorite piece of mine and do some aesthetic criticism. The piece is a transcription, by Luys de Narváez for vihuela, of a four part secular chanson by Josquin des Prez titled "Mille Regretz." The original is in the Phrygian mode on E:
|Click to enlarge|
One of the things that Narváez is known for is the very first published sets of instrumental variations that appeared in his book Los seys libros del delphín. But what I want to focus on briefly is the social context. Narváez was a member of the household of the Secretary of State of Charles V and later of the court of Philip II. Spain was, at the time, the first global empire. Transferred to the contemporary world this would be like being a close advisor to John Kerry when he was Secretary of State in the Obama administration and then being a close advisor to Donald Trump. In other words, Narváez was at the very center of world power for much of his career. This says something about his abilities, but also about how patronage has changed over the centuries. Then, outstanding artists were patronized by the highest members of the political aristocracy. Nowadays, the most powerful figures in the arts and media donate enormous amounts of money to elected politicians. Just think how different that is.The exact date or even year of Narváez's birth is unknown. He was born in Granada and the earliest surviving references to him indicate that as early as 1526 he was a member of the household of Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, a well-known and very successful patron of the arts who was the Secretary of State and commentator for the kingdom of Castile under Charles V. Narváez lived in Valladolid with his patron until the latter's death in 1547. It was during this period that the composer published Los seys libros del delphín (Valladolid, 1538), a large collection of music.By 1548 Narváez was employed as musician of the royal chapel, where he also taught music to choristers. His colleagues there included the famous keyboard composer Antonio de Cabezón. Narváez and Cabezón were both employed as musicians for Felipe, Regent of Spain (later Philip II of Spain), and accompanied him on his many journeys. The last reference to Narváez is from one such journey: during the winter of 1549 he resided in the Low Countries.Narváez was very highly regarded during his lifetime, particularly for his vihuela playing; he was reported to be able to improvise four parts over another four at sight. His son Andrés also became an accomplished vihuelist.
Now let's look at the piece by Narváez. He was a composer and performer on the vihuela, the fretted instrument, related to the guitar, that served the role that the lute did in the rest of Europe.
|16th century Vihuela|
|16th century Lute|
The first good modern edition of the piece was published in a brief anthology titled Hispanae Citharae Ars Viva ("The Living Art of the Spanish Guitar") transcribed and edited by Maestro Emilio Pujol in 1956. I purchased it in Spain in 1974 when I was studying with José Tomás. He had me do several pieces from the book as an exercise in the separation of voices. Here is the first page of the score:
If you compare the original with the transcription for vihuela you will be a bit perplexed as they don't look anything the same. The note values in the guitar transcription reflect those in the original tablature, but in the modern transcription of the vocal work are reduced by half: a breve (double whole note) becomes a whole and so on. Another change is that the four voices of the original become three voices on the vihuela. Also, if you compare the two versions you will see that one measure in the vocal piece becomes two in the vihuela. But that is far from all! Nearly everything is varied on the vihuela. Take the second measure in the vocal score: it becomes the third and fourth in the vihuela score. The bass line is the same (F to D in the voice becoming C to A in the vihuela) given the transposition from E Phrygian to B Prygian. But all the eighth notes are added ornaments. This is partly because the vihuela cannot sustain notes the way the voice can and also because these kinds of free ornaments were very popular in Spain at the time. Tomás de Santa María, a composer and theorist, published an extensive book on ornamentation in 1565 titled Arte de tañer fantasía. From then on the vihuela version is so different from the vocal one that it might better be described as a free fantasia on the Josquin original. This is not surprising as Narváez is a pretty significant composer: he was the first to publish a set of variations on a theme.
Now let's listen to the two pieces. First the Josquin original with the score:
Now the version for vihuela with the original tablature (the lowest string is at the top):
I think that covers the first two stages of criticism: description and interpretation? The third is evaluation. I think it is safe to say that this is one of the best vihuela pieces in the repertoire. It is based on a very famous piece by Josquin and the transcription is famous in its own right. It is popular with performers and audiences and was certainly a hit with Philip II. I think the reason is that it is a very expressive piece with the underlying melancholy of the Phrygian mode, successfully exploited in both versions, and with the delicate filigree of the vihuela ornamentation. As this is meant to be a very basic exercise in music criticism I won't go any further!
So there you go...