European Music 1520-1640
Ed. James Haar
The Boydell Press 2014
Paperback. x+586pp. ISBN 978-1843838944
This was first published in hardback in 2006 (at £75), as part of the Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music series, and has now been reissued in paperback at a more realistic price (£25). A comprehensive guide to the music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, it’s separate essays cover the different genres of late Renaissance polyphonic music (music for the Mass, the Motet, Chanson, Madrigal, early opera, instrumental music), extra-musical influences (music printing, the Reformation, Catholic renewal) together with chapters on the music of Italy, France, The Netherlands, German and Central Europe, Spain, and England.
The dates were chosen to reflect the period between the deaths of the likes of Josquin, Obrecht, and Isaac and that of Monteverdi around 120 years later. The closing date of around 1640 also rather tantalisingly includes the merging of the Renaissance into the early Baroque. The terminology (and relevance of the names) of those two periods are discussed in two ‘Concept’ essays, both perhaps of more interest to historians than to musicians. The focus of the book is on the development of musical styles, rather than the lives or styles of individual composers, information easily found elsewhere. Although it avoids the temptation to talk down to the non-specialist, the book is broadly academic in style and content, with detailed references. It does assume some knowledge of musical terms and the background to the composers mentioned. But the lay reader will still find much of interest here; perhaps most appropriately by dipping in to whatever sections happen to be relevant at the time rather than attempting to read it from cover to cover.
The genre chapters are particularly relevant here. Many concerts of Renaissance choral music are built around a performance of a Mass, so the 30 pages on Music for the Mass is a useful chapter to dip into. It traces the development from the ‘cantus-firmus’ mass, based on a chant usually heard in the tenor, through the ‘paraphrase’ mass based on a single existing melody, and the rather confusingly-named ‘parody’ mass – the derivation of the name of which is explained. As well as style, the chapter also addresses questions of choir size, and the use of instruments – more common during this period than we usually hear nowadays.
The various countries generally have separate essays covered two or three time periods within the overall late Renaissance remit, making the often complex musical history of the various geographical areas more approachable. If you are up to reading it from the start, it is in broadly chronological order with the non-geographic chapters interspersed at relevant intervals. References are sensibly placed at the bottom of each relevant page rather than at the end of chapters or at the end of the book, something that other academic publishers would do well to adopt. The Boydell Press produce high quality books, and this is a good example. The print is clear, as are the musical examples.
There seems to have been a complex back-story to this publication, judging by the slightly churlish Preface by the editor, who castigates the “dilatory behaviour” of some earlier contributors which, alongside his admitted “procrastination”, almost led to the project being abandoned. The eventual publishers, Boydel Press, are praised for coming to the rescue. With some 26 separate contributors, the editor seems to have some trouble imposing guidelines noting that “few of them paid much attention to what I did tell them”. It would have been useful to have brief CVs of the contributors.
The publisher’s website (here) covers all the topics included but has an incorrect listing of the chapter headings, possibly based on an earlier draft. There are actually 26 chapters, not the listed 30, with the five separate chapters on The Netherlands and German Music now combined into two.
Even if you have managed to read through the whole 600 pages, it is a volume still worth keeping close by and dipping into. The late Renaissance is an enormously complex period of music history. The many details of its development are perhaps not as well known as later periods, despite the popularity on the genre in recordings and concerts.