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Old 11-03-2013, 12:35 PM   #11 (permalink)
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These woodcuts (from the Heidelberger Totentanz of 1488) and paintings depict the close association of dance, music and death. The Black Death must have profoundly affected the European arts. But the effects were not all bad. In the wake of pestilence, the depopulation killed feudalism, raised wages as employers vied in securing an adequate workforce and gave women opportunities to procure occupations and posts previously denied to them simply because there were not enough men to fill them. While the large cities still remained cesspools of humanity, many smaller and isolated kingdoms and villages sprang up where the streets were kept clean and people bathed and did laundry regularly. They thought cleanliness kept the diseases away and they were right but for the wrong reason. The plague was not in the filth but rather the filth attracted rats which brought the fleas which brought the disease. No filth, no rats, no fleas, no plague.
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Old 11-04-2013, 12:59 AM   #12 (permalink)
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Very cool artwork, and this section reminds me of how Bach said he was broke when a healthy wind blew through.
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Old 11-04-2013, 06:28 PM   #13 (permalink)
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They thought it was bad star positions too.
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Old 11-04-2013, 08:10 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Art Bears - Rats and Monkeys - YouTube
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Old 11-10-2013, 12:22 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Lyrics of a medieval song:

"A sickly season," the merchant said,
"The town I left was filled with dead,
and everywhere these queer red flies
crawled upon the corpses' eyes,
eating them away."

"Fair make you sick," the merchant said,
"They crawled upon the wine and bread.
Pale priests with oil and books,
bulging eyes and crazy looks,
dropping like the flies."

"I had to laugh," the merchant said,
"The doctors purged, and dosed, and bled;
"And proved through solemn disputation
"The cause lay in some constellation.
"Then they began to die."

"First they sneezed," the merchant said,
"And then they turned the brightest red,
Begged for water, then fell back.
With bulging eyes and face turned black,
they waited for the flies."


"I came away," the merchant said,
"You can't do business with the dead.
"So I've come here to ply my trade.
"You'll find this to be a fine brocade..."

And then he sneezed.
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Old 02-01-2014, 02:13 PM   #16 (permalink)
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The earliest composer in the West was Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Born the tenth child of noble family, she was promised to the Church as a tithe (which means “tenth”). She was sent to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg and took the veil at the age of 15. She became the abbess in 1136. She knew only the monastic life for many years and had almost no contact with the outside world save for a single window until the middle of her life when she left the monastery and established a convent in Rupertsburg near Bingen in 1147. She suffered from migraine headaches. Either the headaches themselves or the treatments caused her to have visions which she wrote down (I have reason to believe she may have taken treatments using ergot which contains LSD). She also wrote music and poetry around the 1150s and a morality play in 1151 called Ordo virtutum, the oldest known morality play. She was also an artist. She also wrote treatises on philosophy, medicine and science. She was a physician and healer—to many, a prophet (because her visions often foretold the future) and miracle-worker. She was also a skilled herbalist and an early botanist. She also invented her own coded language (one has to wonder how much she might have had to do with the Voynich manuscript). Pope Eugene III loved her song, Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”), which he inherited from the venerated teacher, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and read the words in public. This gave her special papal approval no other women and even few men enjoyed.

She founded another convent in Eibingen and taught her nuns about the special role of the feminine in divinity that she had seen in her visions. She taught them that women were the only fit template for the image of god since male involvement in the Immaculate Conception was non-existent but could never have happened without a woman. She would not allow her ladies to languish but made sure they were educated in science as well as religion. They learned such arts as painting and copying manuscripts including illuminating the margins. They were taught to read, write and sing music as well as learning musical instruments. They also learned to weave and tend to flocks of sheep and goats in order to be as self-sufficient as possible. Her convents even had piped-in water! She taught her nuns to bathe regularly in warm water at a time when bathing was actually seen as unhealthy! She also had the convents make their own beer which the nuns drank because Hildegard felt the water in its natural state was unsafe for consumption (she was right).

Her music was unlike anything else the Church was producing. For example, she did not write plainchant but in her own unique style which was highly original and well written. She was a known composer in her time when most written music was published anonymously:


Hildegard of Bingen, Spiritus Sanctus - YouTube


Hildegard of Bingen.


An example of Hildegard’s written music.

While women were forbidden by canon law to preach, Hildegard continued to lecture, publish works and as well as carry on a voluminous correspondence with popes, archbishops, rulers and ordinary clergy she had met. Her self-education must have been extensive, her intellect very high (she was regarded in her own time as a polymath) and her spirit fearless. She even opposed the Church when she gave permission for a revolutionary who had died to be buried at the Rupertsburg abbey cemetery in 1178. When the Church overruled her, she protested that the man’s sins were already absolved. The Church sent people to exhume the body. Hildegard had the grave markers removed prior to their arrival so that they would not be able to locate his grave. Angered, the canons placed the abbey under interdict meaning that, among other things, music was banned there. Hildegard vigorously protested saying that the banning of music was itself a sin but still she would not give in and identify the man’s grave. After some months, the Church gave up and lifted the interdict in March of 1179. In September of that year, Hildegard von Bingen passed from the world at the age of 81, a remarkably long life for a time when men died of “natural causes” in their 30s and 40s and few women lived long enough to see their 60s—a testament to her philosophy and practice of hygiene and healthy living. She was never officially made a saint but is often referred to as one.


Another likeness of Hildegard, a.k.a. Sybil of the Rhine.
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Old 02-01-2014, 02:31 PM   #17 (permalink)
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To recap from earlier posts, thanks to other early composers as Léonin and Pérotin, the organum-style polyphony (heterophony) or ars antiqua (old style) laid the foundations for the later polyphony. The secondary voices moving in parallel to the main vocal line was called conductus. By the 13th century, conductus was replaced by the motet which introduced counterpoint that produced striking harmonies of exquisite beauty. Meanwhile, secular song such as those performed by the French troubadours was also evolving due to being written down. Various composers began dissecting them to incorporate into their own styles and by the 14th century ars nova (new style) was born mainly due to the efforts of theorist Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) who served as a bishop but, like Hildegard, had a wide range of interests as philosopher, poet, writer, critic and composer. He was widely traveled and enjoyed great renown for his writings. His book, Ars nova, introduced the use of the minim or half-note and he is regarded by many to be the inventor of ballade. His work was a huge influence on Guillame de Machaut whom we have discussed in earlier posts.


Léonin - Christus Resurgens - YouTube

Pérotin was active in the 12th century but we don’t know when or where he was born or when or where he died (some believe he may have been a high-ranking official at the cathedral of Notre-Dame named Petrus but there is no evidence Pérotin actually had anything to do with Notre-Dame). We know Pérotin edited the Magnus liber of Léonin (about whom similarly little is known) leading some to believe he could have been a student of Léonin. This book was a very early work of musical notation containing the chants used at Notre-Dame in the late 1100s and is one of the first to be written about the use of harmony. Pérotin was greatly influenced by this book and was the first composer known to compose in more than two independent parts. He composed at least two four-part compositions and a dozen pieces for three parts. Pérotin also composed about 160 clausulae or polyphonic passages inserted into plainchants to break up the monotony. No doubt he had a lot to do with the development of the motet which emerged in his lifetime although it is not known if he ever composed in that style. His material has a surprisingly modern sound; certainly a departure from other organum compositions of that time:


Pérotin "Alleluia nativitas" - YouTube

Another important early composer (and astronomer) was John Dunstable (1390-1453) who enjoyed great success and international renown as a composer of masses, carols and motets which are not only stunningly beautiful but were extremely influential in continental Europe. He was one of the first composers to exploit the use of third and sixth intervals which became a distinctive English musical trait. Due to the popularity of his compositions, we know that by 1436 he was a wealthy man. In the decade before his death, Dunstable was, by far, the leading composer of England. His pieces continued to have great influence well after his death.


John Dunstable: Motets - Salve Regina misericordiae - YouTube
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Old 02-21-2014, 12:50 PM   #18 (permalink)
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By the end of the 17th century, the orchestra had a hole in it. The highest and lowest parts of the orchestra were given emphasis but the middle part was indeterminate. The strings could have been used to fill this hole but they simply were not. This was a problem that had been noted by the end of the 16th century. After the motet introduced the idea of harmony and polyphony with striking contrasts, this idea remained even as the orchestra expanded but, at a certain point, this was outliving its usefulness. Now, the orchestra had a hole in it.

And so arose the continuo or basso continuo as it was variously called. A continuous bass line was supplied upon which chords were vertically stacked to act something akin to pillars that support the main melody. The minor melodies—that interplay in which the various instruments moved over and against one another—lost emphasis as they were too distracting. They became instead a single “block of harmony.”

To form the continuo, a minimum of two instruments were needed: a bass instrument such a double bass, cello or bassoon accompanied by an instrument capable of playing chords such as a harpsichord, lute or organ. This core supports the melody, all the other instruments now play in blocks of harmonies. It was a fundamental progression in the evolution of the symphony orchestra.

In the clip below, we see how Monteverdi uses the continuo in his opera L’Orfeo. Notice the bass instruments, namely the theorbos or chitarrones (bass lutes). You can hear the harpsichord which supplies the melodic base for the vocals. The other instruments play in blocks of harmonies.


Monteverdi - L'Orfeo - Savall - YouTube

The continuo became the orchestra’s backbone. Eventually, the continuo resolved itself into a trio of harpsichord, cello and double bass. All three read from the harpsichordist’s sheet music. The bassist and cellist had to peer over harpsichordist’s shoulder. The continuo played the recitativo secco or that which is accompanied by a few plain chords. At times, a few of the other musicians—the finer instrumentalists—and some of the vocalists might assemble around this trio to constitute what is known as the concertino or small choir. The rest of the musicians in the orchestra would join in to support the concertino. They were called the concerto grosso or great choir. The great choir might also contain double basses and cellos but they simply weren’t part of the continuo. The great choir’s job was to play chords in unified “blocks.” We call this tutti which means to play all at once as opposed to soloing.

With the orchestra now ready to provide music on a grand scale, that is exactly what happened—music on a grand scale. Next, we shall examine the Pièces à Grand Orchestre and the important changes they brought.

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Old 02-21-2014, 02:13 PM   #19 (permalink)
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[Whoops, you may have noticed that my history has a hole in it. We jumped from the 14th to the 17th quite without explanation. sorry, got a little ahead of myself. The following should have been inserted before the stuff about the continuo.]

Not until the end of the 16th century would we see the true orchestra in formation when Giovanni Gabrieli (1557-1612), the organist and choirmaster at St. Marks, Venice began composing pieces where voices and instruments would contrast one another to achieve a striking polyphony. He utilized two choirs, four soloists, an organ and sections of violas, cornets and trombones in his motet In Ecclesi (1608):


Giovanni Gabrieli - In ecclesiis (1608) - YouTube

In his piece, Sonata pian’e forte (1597), Gabrieli uses two sections, one of cornett with three trombones and another of viola with three trombones that not only contrast beautifully but when one section plays by itself, the music is soft; when both sections play, the music becomes loud (hence the title). The contrast isn’t simply between lines of harmony but also in dynamics. In the clip below, the instruments are updated in the spirit of what Gabrieli was aiming for (this piece is often played by high school bands):


Giovanni Gabrieli Sacra Symphonia Sonata Pian'e Forte - YouTube
What set Gabrieli’s attempts apart from earlier church music was that he was aiming to make music suitable for public listening rather than as a purely functional thing such as for church services or for dancing. Gabrieli sought to make the music itself the center of attraction where people could attend just to listen and enjoy. Gabrieli was successful in that he garnered audiences of aristocrats to attend these performances. By the later half of the 17th century, the common people were also attended these concerts.

By 1620, secular music was being performed publicly in Lübeck, Germany after Evensong (a.k.a. vespers or evening prayer). Since this happened towards evening, it was known Abendmusik. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), musicians began to put on concerts in taverns in and around London for those willing to pay a small fee to attend.

Around this time, opera came to be and became very popular among both the wealthy and the masses. The first opera house opened in Vienna in 1637. By 1650, Vienna had four opera houses operating simultaneously. It was through opera that the modern orchestra began to form. The reason is that the voices required instrumental support and had to convey the correct emotions. The composers began to assign different groups of instruments to convey various moods—strings, horns, winds, percussion—and so we see the beginnings of the symphony orchestra here. And because opera spread so rapidly across Europe, there was a need to standardize the instrumental lineup so that any orchestra could perform it anywhere. In fact, the word “orchestra” came from opera. The Ancient Greek choruses danced and sang their dramas in a semi-circular area in front of the stage. The area was known as the orkhéstra (from orkheisthai or “to dance”). The same area in opera, known as the pit, was where the musicians sat and so they became known as the orchestra.


Because the area is depressed so as not the block the audience’s view of the stage, this area became known as the pit or the orchestra pit.

Opera really reached prominence as an art form with Claudio Monteverdi’s La favola d’Orfeo in 1607. There is no surviving full score so any version you see today is only an approximation. However, we do know the instruments to use because Monteverdi specified them:


Monteverdi - Orfeo - Rosa del ciel - YouTube

Since Monteverdi was patronized by the Duke of Mantua who spared no expense, the large orchestra was assembled and the opera’s phenomenal success ensured that future operas would have large orchestras which was essential to the evolution of the symphony orchestra.

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Old 06-21-2014, 04:15 PM   #20 (permalink)
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By the times of Bach, most orchestras consisted of strings of the violin family, woodwind section of flutes/piccolos, bassoons and oboes and a harpsichord-led continuo. Some orchestras added brass section of trumpets and sackbuts (trombones) but brass instruments had not yet come into their own. The cornet—a post horn with valves added—would not be invented until 1814. French horns existed but not as we know them and would not until the 19th century. Likewise, the tuba—descended from the ophicleide and the serpent, both huge ungainly instruments—was not known until patented in Prussia in 1835 as a basstuba. As it stood, the trumpet at this time was a fixed-key instrument and would not become chromatic until more valves were added in the early 19th century.


17th century trumpet. Louis Armstrong couldn't have done much with this thing.

Some early orchestras may have had percussion sections—drums and cymbals—but not tympani as these were still a ways off from being added to the orchestra.

The orchestra seemed to set the standard for the future was that at the court of Duke Carl Theodor at Mannheim in 1742. They introduced ideas of tone coloration by combining different instruments playing in unison and using dynamics of soft passages interspersed with loud, clashing ones to excite the audience. This was departure from other orchestras that played pieces where one section of instruments could do as well on a certain passage as another—winds instead of violins, for example. The instructions indicate that these different sections play in unison and rarely did one go out of the range of the other. But with the introduction of brass, harps and that new-fangled clarinet, more differentiation not only crept in, it was rather necessary.

Instead over-relying on violins as before, a scene in a meadow, for example, would rely on flutes and piccolos to provide bird-like notes while the strings played lower and in the background like wind occasionally rustling through the trees and grass. A scene taking place in the heavens or celestial realms would rely on harps with brass providing sound of an angelic host, etc. This was where the concerto grosso came in. By answering or backing the soloists and the small choir, great variation in tone coloration was achieved. True orchestration can be said to have arrived in the second half of the 18th century.

The difference between a Mozart piece and a Bach piece was that the instrumentation in a Bach piece could be supplied by any number of instruments. An oboe could do as well as a flute or a trumpet playing high up. But by the time of Mozart, orchestration provided enough tone coloration that parts written for flute could only be played by the flute or parts written for strings could only be played by the strings and so on.

Concomitant with the development of Pièces à Grand Orchestre, was the development of the double bass. The assumption that it descended from the bass viol is erroneous. The bass viol was intended to provide soft music for intimate settings such as chamber pieces. The double bass was intended to be loud enough to fill a hall. There was not a lot of use for it until Pièces à Grand Orchestre because it was loud enough to be heard by all the players. A good player could keep the entire orchestra in time which was essential for a large ensemble (there were no conductors yet).

The following two pieces illustrate the difference between baroque period music and that of the classical period which followed:


Giovanni Valentini - Sonata à 5. Forgotten early baroque music - YouTube


Christoph Willibald Gluck - Fruhlingsfeier - YouTube

Notice in the Gluck (an early composer of the classical era) piece, the addition of expanded instrument sections to the orchestra, most notably brass and tympani which add tremendous punctuation inconceivable to the baroque era. Note also the addition of the choir. What we hear is a whole new style of music, whole new dimensions opened to the listener.

Notice also the difference in length. The baroque piece lasts only a few minutes while the classical piece lasts 20 minutes. What was the rationale for the expansion?

All music from the early religious hymns to classical to the latest pop consist of repeating themes but the themes are much longer in classical and so one must listen with more attention to catch the themes repeating whereas with pop the themes are so short that they take no real effort to catch where the themes repeat.

People of the past paid a lot more attention to the “music-scape” of a piece than people do today. Imagine walking in a big circle through a detailed landscape and so one must to pay strict attention to landmarks to figure out where one is and to know when one has passed by this area before and all along the way there are little side paths and what not to walk through. One may not walk the side paths on first listen but only on subsequent listenings or may not have even noticed except another pointed them out. Composers used to delight in taking the listeners on these long, long musical journeys and the listeners had fun to navigating through them. People today often hate these long passages and find them exceptionally boring.

Art Buchwald once wrote an article about his visit to the Louvre in Paris. He said only three works are worth seeing—the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo and the Mona Lisa. He said everything else in the museum is “just so much window dressing.” One must arrive by taxi, stopwatch in hand, and then enter the museum in a walk, no running allowed. By keeping an even but quick tread one can see each of the three masterpieces in a quick glance. Buchwald wrote of Peter Stone who had tried before but failed to set the record of seeing the three masterpieces faster than anyone but who finally broke the record at five minutes and 56 seconds. Stone’s advice was to not look at any other exhibit but to shut them out or one will get caught up in actually enjoying the art and will lose the race.

The point of Buchwald’s article was to point out what has become important to modern society and it is just as true of music as painting or sculpture: It's no longer about enjoying the landscape as you journey slowly to take it all in and imprint it in your memory but rather how fast you can get to the end, how fast you can whiz through it. That's why rap is so stripped down and bare-bones minimal. There is no point to creating rich textures that the listeners aren't going to notice anyway or understand even if they did notice them. The idea of a modern songwriter deliberately creating repeating themes that take 10 or 20 minutes to cycle through just once to give the listener an hour or two of enjoyment is completely alien to people today. Classical music today is “tl;dl”—too long; didn’t listen.

Ironically, the huge amount of available music today is largely what is wrong. People of medieval times or the 18th century were not bombarded from all sides with a zillion songs and jingles from a zillion forms of media blasting it at them 24/7. Music was comparatively scarce so they paid a lot more attention to it. The symphonies were something new and exciting to them. Couple this with the lack of visual stimuli that we have today with television and movies and the internet and a million magazines on the store shelves.

The people of old had to use their imaginations way more than we do now and so they took delight in losing themselves in this glorious music. They couldn't wait for the next symphony to take them somewhere new and exciting the way we might reserve ONLY for the next over-hyped big blockbuster movie today.

And remember also that they had no way of hearing it except to attend the performance. They couldn't just throw on the cd or the mp3 and listen back as many times as they wanted to catch everything. They attended these symphonies with the full knowledge that they might never hear this particular piece again and so they struggled to remember as much of it as possible on the first and possibly only listen.

They did the same with books and all the arts. Most of the population couldn’t even read and, in fact, regarded it as something akin to magic. But music? Anyone could listen to music and so I imagine the masses took great delight in it. It may have been one of their few true diversions.

Today, we revel in our ignorance because it takes too much time to study anything. If it takes time then it is a waste of time. That is the path to doom.
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