Thursday, July 7, 2011

La musica comuna

Musical style tends to swing back and forth between two poles: the extreme and mannered and the regular and comprehensible. Some examples? The change between the rather fantastic music of the 14th and 15th centuries exemplified by the score I use as the image at the top of this blog and the music of the 16th century. From the complex and irregular rhythms of the late middle ages to the smooth, regular music of composers like Palestrina. Here is an example of the earlier style, called ars subtilior:

Here is a piece by Palestrina, a good example of la musica comuna:

The characteristics of this style are clarity, directness, naturalness using smooth, connected phrases and nothing superfluous. There have been other similar swings of the musical pendulum. Another was in the period between the end of the Baroque, around 1750, and the beginning of Classical style around 1770. The Baroque was very fond of complex textures and intricate counterpoint. One mark of the Classical style was to focus on harmonic clarity and replace a lot of counterpoint with simple chordal accompaniment deriving from the comic opera. Here is some Baroque counterpoint from Bach:

And here is Haydn's simpler Classical texture:

We even see these trends in popular music where the movement towards a more clear and direct style after a phase of mannered experimentation is often referred to as "back to the roots". After the complexities of Sergeant Pepper's the Beatles returned to a simple kind of rock and roll with Let It Be and Abbey Road. Here is an example from Sgt. Pepper:

And this is a song from Let It Be that John wrote around 1957 in early rock and roll style:

Back to the roots! Let it be said, though, that both phases have their virtues. The mannered, experimental phase throws up a lot of ideas and material that may be used later on. The musica comuna phase organizes this material and makes it clearer and more direct. There was a similar shift in avant-garde music around the same time as the Beatles were retrenching. Here is a large complex piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen from the late 1950s:

Compare that to this piece by Steve Reich from 1986:

All the rhythmic irregularities have been smoothed out, harmonies simplified and the structure is one long process instead of a series of disjunctions.

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