CHAPTER XXXIV

Music

1300–1564

I. THE INSTRUMENTS

THE popularity of music in these centuries corrects the somber note that history tends to give them; every now and then, through the excitement and bitterness of the religious revolution, we hear people singing. “I care nothing for the pleasures of food, gaming, and love,” wrote the passionate printer Étienne Dolet; “music alone... takes me prisoner, holds me fast, dissolves me in ecstasy.”1 From the pure note of a girl’s voice or a perfect flute to the polyphonic counterpoint of Deprès or Palestrina, every nation and class redeemed with music the commercialism and theology of the age. Not only did everyone sing; Francesco Landino complained that everyone composed.2 Between the merry or plaintive folk songs of the village and the solemn High Masses of the Church a hundred forms of music lent their harmony to dances, ballets, banquets, courtships, courts, processions, pageants, plays, and prayers. The world sang.

The merchants of Antwerp were escorted daily to the Bourse by a band. Kings studied music as no feminine or mechanical prerogative but as a mark and fount of civilization. Alfonso X of Spain sedulously and lovingly collected songs to the Virgin—Cantigas de Santa Maria. James IV of Scotland wooed Margaret Tudor with clavichord and lute; Charles VIII of France took the royal choir with him on his campaigns in Italy; Louis XII sang tenor in the court choir; Leo X composed French chansons;3 Henry VIII and Francis I courted and challenged each other with rival choirs on the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Luis Milan described Portugal in 1540 as “a veritable sea of music.”4 The court of Matthias Corvinus at Buda had a choir rated equal to the pope’s, and there was a good school of music under Sigismund II in Cracow. Germany was bursting with song in Luther’s youth. “We have singers here in Heidelberg,” wrote Alexander Agricola in 1484, “whose leader composes for eight or twelve voices.”5 At Mainz, Nuremberg, Augsburg, and elsewhere the Meistersinger continued to adorn popular songs and Biblical passages with the pomp of pedantry and the jewelry of counterpoint. The German folk songs were probably the best in Europe. Everywhere music was the prod of piety and the lure of love.

Although nearly all music in this age was vocal, the accompanying instruments were as diverse as in a modern orchestra. There were string instruments like psalteries, harps, dulcimers, shawms, lutes, and viols; wind instruments like flutes, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, cornets, and bagpipes; percussion instruments like drums, bells, clappers, cymbals, and castanets; keyboard instruments like organs, clavichords, harpsichords, spinets, virginals; there were many more; and of many there were fascinating variants in place and time. Every educated home had one or more musical instruments, and some homes had special cabinets to hold them. Often they were works of art, fondly carved or fancifully formed, and they were handed down as treasures and memories from generation to generation. Some organs were as elaborately designed as Gothic cathedral fronts; so the men who built the organs for the Sebalduskirche and the Lorenzkirche in Nuremberg became “immortal” for a century. The organ was the chief but not the only instrument used in churches; flutes, pipes, drums, trombones, even kettledrums might add their incongruous summons to adoration.

The favorite accompaniment for the single voice was the lute. Like all string instruments, it had an Asiatic origin. It came into Spain with the Moors, and there, as the vihuela, it rose to the dignity of a solo instrument, for which the earliest known purely instrumental music was composed. Usually its body was made of wood and ivory, and shaped like a pear; its belly was pierced with holes in the pattern of a rose; it had six—sometimes twelve—pairs of strings, which were plucked by the fingers; its neck was divided by frets of brass into a measured scale, and its pegbox was turned back from the neck. When a pretty girl held a lute in her lap, strummed its strings, and added her voice to its tones, Cupid could save an arrow. However, it was difficult to keep the lute in tune, for the constant pull of the strings tended to warp the frame, and one wit said of an old lutanist that sixty of his eighty years had been spent in tuning his instrument.6

The viol differed from the lute in having its strings stretched over a bridge and played by a bow, but the principle was the same—the vibration of taut struck strings over a box perforated to deepen sound. Viols came in three sizes: the large bass viola da gamba, held between the legs like its modern replacement, the violoncello; the small tenor viola da braccio, held on the arm; and a treble viol. During the sixteenth century the viola da braccio evolved into the violin, and in the eighteenth the viol passed out of use.

The only European invention in musical instruments was the keyboard, by which the strings were indirectly struck instead of being directly plucked or bowed. The oldest known form, the clavichord, made its debut in the twelfth century and survived to be “well tempered” by Johann Sebastian Bach; the oldest extant example (1537) is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In the fifteenth century a sturdier variant took form in the harpsichord; this allowed modifications of tone through differences of pressure; sometimes a second keyboard extended the gamut, and stops and couplers offered new marvels of sound. The spinet and virginal were Italian and English variants of the harpsichord. These keyboard instruments, like the viol and the lute, were prized for their beauty as well as their tone, and formed a graceful element of decoration in well-to-do homes.

As instruments improved in range and quality of tone and in complexity of operation, more and more training and skill were required to play them successfully; an audience grew for performances of one or more instruments without voices, and virtuosos appeared for the organ and the lute. Conrad Paumann (d. 1473), the blind organist of Nuremberg, traveled from court to court giving recitals whose excellence knighted him. Such developments encouraged the composition of music for instruments alone. Till the fifteenth century nearly all instrumental music had apparently been intended to accompany voices or dances, but in that century several paintings show musicians playing with no visible singing or dancing. The oldest surviving music for instruments alone is theFundamentum organisandi (1452) of Conrad Paumann, which was composed primarily as a guide to organ playing, but contained also a number of pieces for solo performance. Ottaviano dei Petrucci’s application of movable metal types to the printing of music (1501) lowered the cost of publishing instrumental and other compositions. Music written for dances lent itself to independent presentation; hence the influence of dance forms on instrumental music; the suite of “movements” composed for a succession of dances led to the symphony and the chamber music quartet, whose parts sometimes retained dance names. The lute, viol, organ, and harpsichord were favored for solo or orchestral performances. Alberto da Ripa achieved such fame as a lutanist at the court of Francis I and Henry II that when he died (1551) the poets of France warbled dirges to his remains.

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