Sunday, October 15, 2017

Music Criticism, part 1

I've been leaning heavily on Mr. Beardsley when it comes to aesthetics and criticism, but if I am going to do some sample exercises then I need to define my own turf. Part of music criticism, I feel, is the historical aspect. You might think that this is just because, as Frank Zappa said, all the good music was already written by dead white guys in wigs, but in fact all music, even pop music, takes place in an historical context. My early education as an undergraduate included a course in the philosophy of history and I have continued to do a bit of reading in that area. My Renaissance Music History professor was a bit surprised to learn that I not only knew, but had read R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History. At one time I also tried to read all of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History, though I didn't quite succeed.

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
Most scholars attribute this to Josquin, but there are some who disagree. The practice of transcribing vocal music for fretted string instruments like the lute or vihuela was common in the 16th century as those instruments were just finding their way and the intabulation of vocal counterpoint was an important technical advance. Narváez' setting was known as the "Canción del Emperador" because it became a favorite piece of Philip II, We learn from Wikipedia:
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.
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.

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 two instruments were tuned identically: GCFADG (though some vihuelas were at a different pitch and there was no standard pitch in the 16th century so all this is relative). Guitarists can approximate the tuning of both instruments by tuning the third string to F# and then placing a capo on the third fret.

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...


Will Wilkin said...

How refreshing to read the historical context of the composition (and its adaptive transcription) without feeling the need to condemn monarchy and the music created under monarchical patronage. Your approach seems to me the right way to place a work in history without letting focus fall away from the aesthetic object and wander into a political agenda that uses music as mere prop or ornament to a political agenda.

Your first page looks beautiful on my computer screen but, perhaps due to low ink, I cannot print dark enough to show the ledger lines. My goal is to try the piece on my violin, as I love early music and this is older than the 17th century sheet music I've been collecting. With the exception of the low e in measure 29, all the notes on your guitar transcription page 1 are easily played on the violin, and that note can be easily transposed up an octave to at least keep the chord.

Thinking possibly the bad printing is due to a low quality png-format image from your blog article, I went to the great IMSLP website and found the following versions and transcriptions of the Mille Regretz by Josquin Desprez (none for vihuela or violin):

Your account of how the vihuella version became so unlike the original polyphonic vocal score is an excellent illustration of how music can be adapted for different instruments, and yet live on in essence despite the transformation. It reminded me of the excellent insight offered by "Anonymous" in his comment under your Sept 24 article "Veridical and Illusory Aesthetic Characteristics":

"Even the score doesn't seem to be the ultimate locus of the music. Some of Bach's greatest music was scored (by Bach himself) for different instruments in different keys with different arrangements. Take the Art of Fugue. There's been endless debate about the instrumentation. My own theory is that it was written as an exercise (like so much of Bach's keyboard work) with no particular instrumentation in mind. So now you have a piece of music that lies upstream of any actual music itself."

One other historical insight you give is especially interesting: the change from renaissance artists relying on monarchs [and nobles and merchants] for patronage contrasted to today's politicians receiving campaign money from celebrity artists. The democratization there is obvious, though the quality of leadership doesn't seem to have improved much, if such an over-generalization even deserves hazarding here. Of course artists' patronage of politicians is only a tiny portion of the money that flows into the auction-house often called representative government.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for your comments! Yes, Anonymous' comment that the Art of Fugue is a piece of music that lies upstream of any actual music, is a fascinating one.

One other thing to notice about the changed social circumstances is that in the 16th century there was almost no commoditization of music.

Steven Watson said...

This is a very useful post. Have you heard Nicolas Gombert's six-voice setting of Mille Regretz? I think it's quitw beautiful. Longer and more intricate than the Josquin, and seems to my ears to take nearly as many liberties as Narvaez.

Bryan Townsend said...

Wonderful composer, Gombert. But no, I hadn't heard his setting. Listening to it now, I don't think it has anything to do with the Josquin setting except for using the same text. It's in a different mode, uses an entirely different texture and doesn't seem to share any motifs.

Steven Watson said...

On the contrary, they even share the same opening motif (E A G F) first in the second tenor, then the second bass, then the first tenor, then the first bass. Recognisably the same.

Bryan Townsend said...

I had to go back and have another look at the Gombert. Yes, you are quite right: they do share that motif and other ones as well, such as the ECFE one found in the contratenor of the Josquin and the cantus of the Gombert. So I was wrong about that. But in just about every other way they are very different. The Josquin is largely homophonic with almost no imitation, whereas the Gombert is filled with imitative counterpoint. The harmonic structures are very different as well. The Josquin opens with a very Phrygian harmony, E moving immediately to F major. In the Gombert we get a point of imitation on D minor with imitative entries in the basus, altus and quintus while the tenor and sextus share a somewhat different motif. The Gombert suggests A Phrygian with the B flats in measure ten. The Josquin, on the other hand, suggests A minor with the G sharps in mm 21 and 23.

Doing a close comparison of the two pieces would be a great doctoral dissertation! Wouldn't you say that the Narváez is an ornamented setting of the Josquin, while the Gombert is a complete recomposition?

Steven Watson said...

Now I had to go back and take another look at the Josquin. Yes, you're quite right, unlike the Gombert the Narvaez matches structure of the Josquin. There was one harmonic difference I noticed, a raised seventh in bar 17 of the Narvaez score (bar 10 of the Josquin in the superius), suggesting A minor instead of E phrygian. Otherwise the melody, at least, seems to match perfectly. The ornamentation completely threw me. I was sure Narvaez had changed more than that!