The songs and dances of the people were the perennial fountain from which nonecclesiastical forms of music took their origin, moods, and themes, and even Masses might stem from such ditties as Adieu mes amours. The chansons of France ranged from the lilting lays of street singers and the ballads of troubadours to the intricate polyphonic chants of Guillaume de Machaut and Josquin Deprès.
Machaut (c. 1300–77) was the lord of that ars nova which Philippe de Vitry had expounded in 13 2 5—music using binary rhythms in addition to the triple rhythms sanctioned by the ars antiqua and the Church. Machaut was poet, a scholar, a musician, a canon of Reims Cathedral, probably also a man of ardor, for he wrote some amorous lyrics whose warmth has not yet cooled. He excelled in a dozen musical forms—ballads, roundels, virelays, motets, Masses; to him we trace the oldest polyphonic Mass composed by one man. Though an ecclesiastic, he shared in the movement to secularize polyphonic music, to lead it from the orthodox rhythms of the motet and the High Mass to the freer, more flexible cantilena of secular song.
In those centuries the English were musical. They did not rival the Italians in melody (who has?), nor the Flemings in polyphony, but their songs now and then touched a strain of tenderness and delicacy equaled only in the profoundest French chansons. English singers were acclaimed at the Council of Constance, and in that generation Henry V, hero of Agincourt, composed a Mass whose Gloria and Sanctus are still preserved. The compositions of John Dunstable (c. 1370–1453) were sung from Scotland to Rome, and played a part in forming the style of the Flemish school.
As Flanders had set the pace in painting in the fifteenth century, so it was there, in a milieu of prosperous and art-loving nobles and burghers, that music had one of its most exuberant periods. “Today,” wrote Johannes Verwere about 1490, “we have blossoming forth, quite apart from a large number of famous singers... an almost unlimited number of composers” whose works “excel in pleasant sound; I never hear or look at their compositions without rejoicing in them.”7 Contemporaries would probably have ranked Dufay, Okeghem, and Deprès quite on a par with Jan van Eyck, Claus Sluter, and Rogier van der Weyden in the hierarchy of genius and beneficence. Here, in Flemish polyphony, Western Europe lived the last phase of the Gothic spirit in art—religious devotion tempered with secular gaiety, forms firm in base and structure, fragile and delicate in development and ornament. Even Italy, so hostile to Gothic, joined Western Europe in acknowledging the supremacy of Flemish music, and in seeking maestri from Flanders for episcopal choirs and princely courts. Emperor Maximilian I, enchanted by the music of Brussels, formed a choir in Vienna on Flemish models. Charles V took Flemish musicians to Spain; Archduke Ferdinand took some to Austria, Christian II others to Denmark; “the fountain of music,” said the Venetian Cavallo, “is in the Netherlands.”8 Through this Flemish ascendancy professional music escaped the narrowing nationalism of the age.
Guillaume Dufay led the way. Born in Hainaut (c. 1399), trained as a boy chorister in the cathedral of Cambrai, he was called to Rome to sing in the Sistine Chapel; then, back in Cambrai, he raised its choir to international renown; the Masses that he composed there were sung in all the musical centers of Latin Christendom. Those that survive sound heavy and slow to ears alert to the light celerity of modern life, yet they may have fitted well in stately cathedrals or solemn papal choirs. More to our mood is a polyphonic song of mellifluous melancholy, Le jour s’endort—“The day is going to sleep.” We picture a robed chorus singing such a chant in the Gothic halls of Cambrai, Ypres, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, or Dijon, and we perceive that the architecture, painting, costumes, music, and manners of that warm and colorful and pompous age made a harmonious artistic whole, being themselves variations on one pervasive theme.
Dufay’s methods were developed, and were broadcast through Europe, by the most influential musical teacher of perhaps any time. Johannes Okeghem, born in Flanders (c. 1430), spent most of his years providing music, and musical education, at the court of France. His special passion was for the “canon”—a form of fugue in which the words and melody sung by the first voice were repeated, several bars later, by a second voice, later by a third, and so on, in a flowing counterpoint whose laborious complexity challenged the singers and charmed the composers. These ran to him from every Roman Catholic land to learn and carry off his skill. “Through his pupils,” wrote an old historian, “the art” of contrapuntal and “canonical” polyphony “was transplanted into all countries; and he must be regarded—for it can be proved by [stylistic] genealogy—as the founder of all schools from his own to the present age”;9 but since this was written in 1833, Okeghem cannot be held responsible for twentieth-century music. At his death (1495) the musicians of Europe wrote motets to his memory, and Erasmus a “Lamentation.” The names of even the “immortals” are writ in water.
His pupils became the musical leaders of the next generation. Coming from Hainaut to Paris, Josquin Deprès spent years studying with Okeghem, then served as maestro di capella—“master of the chapel” choir—in Florence, Milan, and Ferrara. For Duke Ercole I he wrote a Miserere that soon resounded throughout Western Europe. After six years in the Sistine Chapel Choir he returned to Paris (1494) to serve as maître de chapelle for Louis XII. One of his noblest works was his Déploration de Jehan Okeghem, a dirge for his dead teacher. For a time he followed him in composing Masses and motets in canonic style, piling voice upon voice in almost mathematical problems of sequence and harmony. When his skill was complete, and his supremacy in “art music” was unquestioned, he tired of technique, and wrote motets, hymns, and secular songs in a simpler harmonic style, in which the music followed and illuminated the words instead of torturing them on a Protean canon, or stretching a syllable into a song. When both teacher and pupil were gone it became customary to call Okeghem the Donatello, Deprès the Michelangelo, of musical art.
The French court cultivated music as the finest flower of wealth and power. A lovely tapestry dated about 1500, and now in the Musée des Gobelins at Paris, pictures four women, three vouths, and a bald monk grouped in a garden around a fountain; one lad is playing a lute, a girl plays a viol, a staid lady plays a portable organ. French poets intended their lyrics to be sung; an Académie du Palais devoted itself to promoting the union between music and poetry; and even now one without the other seems incomplete. Clément Jannequin, a pupil of Deprès’, excelled in descriptive chansons; his Chant de l’alouette, or “Song of the Lark” (1521), still warbles over several continents.
Spanish music reflected the piety and gallantry of the people. Cross-fertilized by Arabic, Italian, Provençal, French, and Flemish influences, this art ranged from melancholy Morisco monodies to stately polyphonic Masses in the Flemish style. One of the greatest composers of the sixteenth century, Cristóbal Morales, carried polyphony to high excellence, and transmitted his art to his more famous pupil, Tomás Luis de Victoria. By contrast the Arabic heritage produced just the strains to fit the lute. Luis de Milan and Miguel de Fuenllana composed for the vihuela—and performed on it—songs that rivaled the German Lieder in range and power.
The conquest of Italy by Flemish musicians continued to the rise of Palestrina. Heinrich Ysaac, after absorbing the contrapuntal art in Flanders, was brought to Florence by Lorenzo de’ Medici to teach II Magnifico’s children; he stayed there fourteen years, and composed music for Lorenzo’s songs. Disturbed by the French invasion of Italy, he passed into the service of Maximilian I at Innsbruck, where he shared in giving form to the Lieder. In 1502 he returned to Italy, pensioned by the Emperor and his former pupil, Leo X. His Masses, motets, and songs—above all his Choralis Constantinus, fifty-eight four-part settings for the Offices of the Mass throughout the religious year—were ranked with the highest music of the age.
Orlando di Lasso brought the Flemish school to its culmination, and illustrated, in his triumphant career, the geographical range and rising social status of Renaissance musicians. As a boy chorister in his native Hainaut, he so fascinated his hearers that he was twice abducted by those who hoped to profit from his voice; finally, in his fifteenth year (1545?) his parents allowed Ferdinand Gonzaga to take him to Italy. At the age of twenty-three he became choirmaster in the church of St. John Lateran in Rome. In 1555 he settled in Antwerp, and published his First Book of Italian Madrigals, secular lyrics dressed in all the frills of Flemish counterpoint. In the same year he issued a miscellany of villanelles (songs of Neapolitan origin), French chansons, and four religious motets; this collection well reflected the judicious oscillation of Di Lasso’s life between profane enjoyment and melodious penitence. We get a glimpse of his environment at Antwerp in the dedication of a motet to Cardinal Pole, and another to Cardinal Granvelle, minister to Philip II in the Netherlands. Probably it was Granvelle who arranged the young composer’s engagement to assist in directing the ducal choir at Munich (1556). Orlando came to like Bavaria as much as Italy, took his wife from one as he had taken his name from the other, and served the Bavarian dukes till his death.
This happy Mozart of the sixteenth century doubled the 626 compositions of his counterpart. He traversed the whole gamut of current musical forms, and in each won European renown. He seemed equally at home in madrigals of refined love, chansons of amorous levity, and Masses of mystic piety. In 1563 he was made Kapellmeister. Now he composed for Albert V a musical setting of the seven Penitential Psalms. The Duke so admired these compositions that he engaged artists to transcribe them on parchment, adorn them with miniatures, and bind them in red morocco in two folio volumes which are today among the most prized possessions of the state library in art-loving Munich.
All Europe solicited the new star. When Di Lasso visited Paris (1571), Charles IX offered him 1,200 livres ($30,000?) per year to stay; he refused, but presented Charles and Catherine de Médicis with a book of French chansons, the most melodious, said Brantôme, that Paris had ever heard. One song chanted the praises of the French capital for its love of justice and peace—a year before the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Returning to Munich, Di Lasso dedicated to the Fuggers a collection of Latin motets, Italian madrigals, German Lieder, and French chansons; this composer was no romantic starveling but a man adept in the ways of the world. In 1574 he traveled to Rome at Duke Albert’s expense, gave Gregory XIII a volume of Masses, and received the Order of the Golden Spur. Even God appreciated Orlando’s dedications; for when, on Corpus Christi day (1584), a severe storm threatened to cancel the usual religious procession through the streets of Munich, the rain stopped and the sun came out as Orlando’s motet,Gustate et videte—“Taste and see how gracious the Lord is”—was sung by his choir; and every year thereafter, on Corpus Christi, the same music was sung to ensure propitious skies.
In 1585 Di Lasso, aging and repentant, published his Fifth Book of Madrigals, in which he applied the form to spiritual themes; these are among his most moving compositions. Five years later his mind began to fail; he could no longer recognize his wife, and talked of almost nothing but death, the Last Judgment, and an increase in salary. He received the increase, and died triumphant and insane (1594).