Term Paper, Renaissance Music, April 20, 2009:
By all accounts, the role of the composer in the Renaissance was very different from the role of the composer in the Romantic era. And yet, many scholars continue to force a Romantic, Beethovenian model of the suffering musical genius onto composers of the past, especially Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez. The typical narrative begins with evidence of Josquin’s greatness, and proceeds to provide evidence of this greatness outside of the historical context of the Renaissance composer. Some of these narratives, such as the ones discussed below, conform to larger trends in historical thought such as modernist historicism and invented tradition. I apply critiques of both of these trends to the kind of modernist Josquin scholarship perpetuated in the recent Josquin Companion, and use these critiques to unveil hidden political agendas prevalent in Josquin scholarship from the 1960s to the present.
In his introduction to The Josquin Companion, Richard Sherr recites well-worn evidence of Josquin’s timeless and universal greatness. Like many other Josquin scholars, he quotes sixteenth-century Swiss humanist Henricus Glareanus, who asserts that Josquin is a genius, and the equal of Virgil. He also quotes Martin Luther, who claims Josquin is so masterful he can make notes bend to his will, unlike lesser composers who must resign themselves to the will of the notes. Sherr also promotes Josquin’s commercial clout, explaining that the first volume of polyphonic masses ever printed was devoted entirely to Josquin’s polyphonic masses, thus proving Josquin’s popularity. But ultimately, however, Sherr asserts that Josquin is great because his music stirs the emotions better than all other composers. Therefore, all in all, Josquin is great because his music stands the test of time: it remains both historically and aesthetically important, and perennially popular and moving.
Since at least the 1960s, scholars have sought to quantify Josquin’s greatness by establishing a definitive canon of his collected works. This would allow us to define his style, and thus prove that he is in fact the greatest composer of his generation, if not of the Renaissance, or of all time. Unfortunately, many pieces attributed to Josquin are considered inauthentic, and much of The Josquin Companion is devoted to parsing through works attributed to Josquin to determine what should and should not be considered the work of the master. Given his assumedly high level of craft, the best pieces attributed to Josquin are considered authentic, whereas pieces considered inferior “surely could not be Josquin.” According to Sherr, “even if all the works that people want to discard were removed and all that was left was the smaller repertory of works, those works would be enough to justify his contemporary and posthumous reputation.”
And what is that reputation? Joshua Rifkin explains that
Josquin is remarkably versatile and inventive, more than any other composer of his time, and his inventiveness is to be found in all the genres in which he composed, from the constructive world of the cantus-firmus mass to the freer world of motets and chansons and even instrumental pieces. Further, this inventiveness is to be found at all levels of his musical output, from large-scale structure to the surface elements of counterpoint and melodic invention, down to the details of motivicity.
Of course, Rifkin’s analysis requires the context of a defined canon of works, and the relationship of that canon to the canons of other, supposedly lesser composers. This is obviously the kind of analysis that perpetuates the need for an authentic Josquin canon. And within these canons, Rifkin praises Josquin for his versatility and inventiveness. Note that if you substitute Romantic era genres like “symphonies” and “piano sonatas” for “motets” and “chansons” in the above quotation, Rifkin could just as easily be describing Beethoven.
In her article “The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius,” Paula Higgins in fact claims that early music scholars apply the same “universalizing rhetoric of genius” to Josquin as is applied to Beethoven, and with troubling results. Higgins explains that
The ideological refashioning of Josquin in the image of Beethoven has simultaneously shaped and derailed the intellectual trajectory of early music scholarship … by privileging a discourse of musical genius in the service of which, among other concerns, the composer’s canon is being decimated beyond historical recognition, and the richness and complexity of the musical culture of which he was a vital art risks being overshadowed and obfuscated by the disproportionate amount of attention invested in his singular accomplishments.
In her article, she traces this “privileging of musical genius” back to Edward Lowinsky’s two-part article “Musical Genius—Evolution and Origins of a Concept,” published in 1964. Lowinsky argues that the concept of a musical genius begins not in the 18th century, but as far back as the Renaissance. As proof, for instance, he explains that the epithet “divine” was first applied to secular celebrities in the Renaissance, and the Renaissance was the first period of time when composers were described as having an extraordinary personal and psychological constitution. Coincidently, these are all attributes of the 18th and 19th century idea of genius. As is well known, Josquin was described as having a difficult personality, melancholy and despair, and is reputed to only compose when he wanted to, and not when asked, and that he revised his compositions until they were “perfect.” Lowinsky insists that, in the surviving descriptions of Josquin, “a picture emerges of an altogether original character, endowed with a strong temperament and a deep sense of obligation to his genius, an individual utterly unwilling and unable to compromise in matters of his art.” According to Lowinsky, “Josquin des Prez was to the Renaissance musician the very incarnation of musical genius.”
Tellingly, Higgins describes Lowinsky’s Josquin as “Lowinsky’s own intellectual construct, heavily indebted … to nineteenth-century German discourses of musical genius.” Among these discourses is the perceived connection between a character who disregards the rules of social etiquette and a composer who breaks the rules of composition for expressive purposes. There is also, of course, the Beethovenian model of the composer as a genius who obsesses over a piece of music until it is perfect, which is contrasted with the composer as craftsman who, like Obrecht, is famous for completing an entire mass in one day. In every example, Lowinsky discusses Josquin’s genius within the paradigm of genius established by Beethoven.
Though Lowinsky is not alone in comparing Josquin to Beethoven, his article is a perfect example of the trend of Renaissance scholars applying the model of the Beethovenian hero to composers as far back as the Renaissance. Though this comparison can be fruitful, analyses of documents such as Castiglione’s Book of the Courier suggest that the concept of the composer as a creator of a fixed musical art-object may be a fairly recent social construction, and not relevant to composers of the Renaissance. As Castiglione makes clear, music is some kind of activity rather than a fixed and tangible work of art, and a score is only one of several references a performer may use to create music during the Renaissance.
As Richard Taruskin relentlessly insists, the score is not always the definitive edition of a piece of music, especially of music in the Renaissance. As Taruskin puts it, “we tend to think of the Western musical tradition as a literate one, permanently preserved in written artifacts,” but we must remember that “the written artifacts have always been mediated by oral traditions.” The score, as a product of a composer, is therefore merely one component in a complex and flexible musical environment—an environment that by all accounts was quite different in the Renaissance than the musical environments of the Romantic era or the present. However, despite this obvious cognitive dissonance, Lowinsky, et al., continue to perpetuate this master narrative of the isolated musical genius.
This kind of narrative is typical of a modernist historicism as defined by Karl Popper in his Poverty of Historicism. Modernist historicism includes an historical perspective that seeks familiar trends over a long period of time, and in a variety of historical developments. Put bluntly, this kind of historicism will group disparate historical events into a fixed set of possible historical grand narratives. In contrast, contemporary historicism—which Popper confusingly calls “historism,”—seeks to understand historical doctrines within their own historical context. In other words, historicism wishes to understand historical events and artifacts within their own contexts, and not through the lens of the present. Of course, the lens of the present is unavoidable. As historian Charles Beard explains, “any written history inevitably reflects the thought of the author in his time and cultural setting.” However, in the context of this newer historicism, it is understood that we can never truly understand or recapture the past, and though any historical reconstruction is flawed, it remains valuable. For our purposes, perhaps the main difference between these two kinds of historicism is in the historian’s awareness of how much he or she is projecting the present on the past.
In the case of the musical genius in the Renaissance, Lowinsky is clearly compiling any evidence available that will support his grand narrative and his political agenda. Like a modernist historicist, he begins with the fixed narrative of the genius, and then looks for evidence to support his fixed narrative. For instance, Higgins points out that Glarean’s remarks about Josquin’s genius, and difficult creative process, are interpreted out of context. Higgins claims that Glarean
systematically uses the word ingenium to describe the creative gifts of Antoine Brumel, Gregory Meyer, Johannes Ockeghem, Heinrich Isaac, Ludwig Senfl, Jacob Obrecht, and Antoine Fevin, as well as Josquin. In every case, the translator elected to render the word ingenium as ‘talent’ or ‘skill’ for these [other] composers, whereas for Josquin, ‘genius’ is often substituted.
Higgins also claims that though Josquin is praised by Glarean, and that Glarean does discuss Josquin’s more laborious compositional process, Glarean also praises Obrecht, and specifically praises Obrecht’s ability to write quickly and on command. Higgins concludes, “It is questionable whether ‘painstaking effort’ necessarily carried the aesthetic value that has been retrospectively attributed to it.”
Obviously, Lowinsky builds his case beginning with a grand narrative of the musical genius, and not beginning with the historical evidence. This modernist historicism tends to recontextualized evidence that can fit into his narrative, and disregard evidence that does not fit in his narrative. As Higgins points out, this leads to “the richness and complexity of the musical culture of which Josquin was a vital art … being overshadowed and obfuscated by [a] disproportionate amount of attention [being] invested in [Josquin’s] singular accomplishments.”
This modern historicist narrative makes sense when considering that Lowinsky begins his article expressing his political need for the musical genius to counteract an age of total serialism and composition based on chance operations—in other words, an age when the role of the composer is assumedly minimized. I further interpret his introduction to say that total serialism is an antithesis to creativity, and that the minimization of the composer represents the symptom of a larger dehumanized bureaucracy. In this context, he presents the origins and concept of the musical genius as a means to counteract this bureaucratic trend, and to reestablish the Romantic-era paradigm of the musical genius and the cult of the art-object as an authoritative and authentic musical paradigm, especially in comparison to serialism, which he deems inauthentic.
This need to build a tradition rooted in something primordial to reclaim a space of authority is an historical trend discussed at length in the influential text The Invention of Tradition. In his introduction, Eric Hobsbawm explains that, historically, traditions that appear to be quite old can in fact be recent in origin, and quite often invented. Hobsbawm defines an invented tradition as a set of practices, like in a ceremony, that perpetuate a society’s accepted norms and rules of behavior, and imply continuity with an historic past. However, it is essential to note that this continuity is often factitious, or artificial. In fact, these traditions tend to preserve a fixed and formalized practice within a society to counteract a dangerous and constantly changing modern world. In many cases, it is a political action to maintain stability in a seemingly chaotic present full of disruption and obsolescence.
Invented traditions frequently occur when “the rapid transformation of society weakens or destroys social patterns for which ‘old’ traditions had been designed … or when … old traditions and their ‘institutional carriers’ … no longer prove sufficiently adaptable and flexible.” Notice that Lowinsky constructs a lineage of musical genius back to the Renaissance—the very beginnings of our conception of the Western classical composer—and he does this in reaction to the changing role of the composer within serialism and music composed using chance operations. Beyond this, he is also writing in America, where composers are increasingly confined to academia, which can be interpreted as a break from the tradition of musical genius within the German romantic imagination.
In other words, in a moment of rapid societal transformation, Lowinsky panics and constructs a tradition of primordial musical genius to add weight and authority to his political agenda. When the Romantic musical genius role is no longer flexible or adaptable enough to succeed within modern capitalism, Lowinsky invents a tradition of musical genius that can be traced back into the depths of history, in an attempt to reestablish its viability as a worldview. In an era when the composer may be considered obsolete—which is admittedly an extreme perspective—Lowinsky promotes a fixed set of norms, rules and practices that create stability in a changing world.
Of course, Lowinsky is not alone—this analysis can extend to the authors of The Josquin Companion as well. In a situation where so little evidence remains of Josquin beyond his written works and the admiration of a few peers, scholars tend to flock towards something fixed and concrete—something tangible and knowable. With so little to go on, perhaps scholars turn to the idea of the genius to add authority to a field that requires a great deal of speculation and leaps of faith.
Though discussing Josquin’s greatness and connecting it to our contemporary model of the musical genius is understandable and has its own benefit, it seems negligent to assume that the ideas expressed in The Josquin Companion and in Lowinsky’s work capture the role of the composer in the Renaissance. As Rob C. Wegman explains in his chapter “Who Was Josquin?,”
The ‘true’ Josquin and his ‘authentic’ canon (if they can be recovered) … reflect present-day interests, and may not remotely resemble sixteenth-century perceptions of the composer… . The ‘real’ Josquin … is not knowable in any absolute sense: he is real only insofar as he is real to us, or to his contemporaries, or to himself.
Rather than dissuade Renaissance scholars from discussing Josquin’s style, or the authenticity of his canon, perhaps Wegman and Higgins simply urge scholars to consider the assumptions they make concerning Josquin and his compositions, and make them transparent to the reader. Though considering Josquin through the lens of Beethoven is fascinating, as Higgins notes, it can be historically destructive.
Castiglione, Baldassare. “From Il libro del cortegiano.” In The Renaissance. Edited by Gary Tomlinson. Vol. 3 of Strunk’s Source Readings in Music History, rev. ed., edited by Leo Treitler. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
Fenlon, Iain, ed. The Renaissance: from the 1470s to the end of the 16th century. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1989.
Garratt, James. Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination: Interpreting Historicism in Nineteenth-Century Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
________. “Prophets Looking Backwards: German Romantic Historicism and the Representation of Renaissance Music.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 125, no. 2 (2000): 164-204.
Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Headlam Wells, Robin, Glenn Burgess and Rowland Wymer, eds. Neo-Historicism: Studies in Renaissance Literature, History and Politics. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.
Higgins, Paula. “The Apotheosis of Josquin des Prez and Other Mythologies of Musical Genius.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 57, no. 3 (Autumn 2004): 443-510.
Hobsbawm, Eric and Terence Ranger, eds. The Invention of Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Lowinsky, Edward E. “Musical Genius—Evolution and Origins of a Concept.” The Musical Quarterly 50, no. 3 (July 1964): 321-340.
________. “Musical Genius—Evolution and Origins of a Concept—II.” The Musical Quarterly 50, no. 4 (Oct. 1964): 476-495.
Sherr, Richard, ed. The Josquin Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Taruskin, Richard. Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Walls, Peter. History, Imagination and the Performance of Music. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2003.
 Robin Headlam Wells, Glenn Burgess and Rowland Wymer, “Introduction,” Neo-Historicism: Studies in Renaissance Literature, History and Politics, eds. Robin Headlam Wells, Glenn Burgess and Rowland Wymer (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 2.
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