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Early Period of Classical Music

The study of the history of music, seconded by hearing the actual performance of the masterpieces of different epochs, will prove the most rapid and effectual cure for conceit and vanity.
-- Schumann

A celebrated musician once declared that nobody worth considering as a composer lived before the time of Handel and Bach. Painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative work of various kinds: all, he said, produced masterpieces which still value and admire, though they are now more than two thousand years old. But go back even two hundred and fifty years in music, and we feel as if we were among things crude and incomplete. That was the celebrated musician’s verdict. In his view, Music, heavenly maid, was born when Handel and Bach were both -- then, and not before.

In a sense it is true; so true that Bach, who, like Handel, was born in 1685, is often called "the father of music." But it would never do to ignore entirely Bach’s and Handel’s predecessors, unfamiliar though most of their names are now. There are names of old masters -- composers and theorists-that every musical amateur ought to know, because of the services they rendered towards the development of the art. Art of all kinds is an evolution, and the beginnings of musical composition carry us to a time a good long way before that last decade of the seventeenth century which produced Handel and Bach.

In the earlier days, before Handel and Bach, music was chiefly in the hands of churchmen, which is readily explained by the fact that the churchmen were then almost the only people of education and culture. It is thus that
St. Ambrose and St. Gregory have come to be named and honoured in musical history. Ambrose was Archbishop of Milan from 374 to 397. He took a keen interest in church music, and did much for its advancement. It was he who devised a general system of chanting known from his name as the Ambrosian Chant. When Ambrose died, church music again deteriorated.

Two hundred years later, a reformer arose in the person of Pope Gregory, surnamed the Great. Most musical people have heard of "Gregorians," a mediaeval medium of chanting the psalms which is still employed in some churches where the ritual is "high." The taste for Gregorians, like the taste for olives, has to be cultivated. Many share the feeling of the American who, when he was told that David himself sang his psalms to Gregorians, said he understood for the first time why Saul threw the javelin at him! That, then, is what we owe to Gregory the Great. It was during his time also that the Romans reduced their nomenclature of music to the first seven letters of the alphabet -- a nomenclature which has been preserved intact through the long intervening centuries. They had practically no musical notations as yet -- only a system of dots and scratches which look as mysterious to us as the hieroglyphics on Cleopatra’s Needle or the symbols on a China tea-chest. The five-line staff was quite unknown, and sharps and flats were lying far away in the bosom of the future.

It was Guido of Arezzo, in Tuscany, a learned monk of the eleventh century, and Franco of Cologne, who flourished about the year 1200, who, between them, laid the foundations of our present system of musical writing. Guido devised a four-line staff, and two of the lines were coloured. One line was yellow (sometimes green), and its purpose was to fix the place of the note C. Another line was red, and the red line fixed the place of F. It is from this practice of the old monk that our familiar treble and bass clefs are derived. Nor did Guido’s services to music end here. We may fairly call him the inventor of sol-fa, for he was the first to employ the syllables ut (now doh), re, mi, fa, sol, la. These syllables he derived from the following Latin lines, which he made his pupils sing to a melody so arranged that each line began with the note it was used to represent:

Ut queant laxis Famuli tuorum
Resonare fibris Solve polluti
Mira gestorum Labii reatum.

The syllable si, for the seventh of the scale, was not introduced till so late as the seventeenth century, but it would never have been introduced, and probably we would never have had a sol-fa notation at all, except for Guido of Arezzo.

And what about Franco? Well, his part in the musical advance applied mainly to the devising of notes of different shapes to express different time lengths. Before Franco’s day there was no way of clearly representing time in musical notation; no way of showing, for example, the difference between a note which should be four beats long and one which should be two beats. It is difficult to imagine such an inconvenience now, and we have to thank Franco for saving us from it. The breve (seldom seen) and the semibreve come down to us from him, though he called them the "brevis" and the "semibrevis." He invented "rests" too; and he was the first to divide time into what we call "dual" and "triple." Dual time has two beats in the bar, as in a polka; and triple time has three beats, as in a waltz. Franco made this distinction before anybody else did; and he had a quaint idea that all church music should be written in triple time because its three beats correspond with the Holy Trinity, three persons in one God.

Thus, then, the world had arrived at a tolerably clear and intelligible method of representing music to the eye. Still, there had been, so far, no composers, as we regard the term. It was not until the so-called Netherlands School arose in the fourteenth century that anything significant was done in musical composition. We may think it curious now that Belgium and Holland, and not Germany, which has given us nearly all our really great composers, should have been the first home of music the modern art. But the wind bloweth where it listeth, and there were notable musicians in other lands before Germany produced Handel and Bach.

There was, first of all, Josquin des Prés, who, at the height of his maturity, as much overtopped his contemporaries as Beethoven overtopped all other composers at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Des Prés music is even yet heard occasionally, and according to an admirer is "still ravishing to the ear." He was born at Condé about 1450, and lived till 1521. He enjoyed immense popularity in his day, first as a singer in the Pope’s Chapel at Rome, and later as chapel-master to Louis XII. of France. It was complained indeed that there was "only Josquin in Italy, only Josquin in France, only Josquin in Germany; in Flanders, in Bohemia, in Hungary, in Spain, only Josquin." Luther, the great Reformer, said "Josquin is a master of the notes; they have to do as he wills, while other composers must do as the notes will." Some historians would have us accept him as "the first composer of modern music." However that may be, he was a real pioneer composer, and greatly influenced the trend and history of the art.

One of his pupils, a Belgian called Adrian Willaert (1490-1563), is credited with the introduction of the madrigal. The madrigal, a particular kind of part song, became exceedingly popular in England towards the end of the sixteenth century. Nobody writes madrigals nowadays, for they are held to be old-fashioned. But who has not heard of "Down in a flowery vale," "In going to my lonesome bed," and "Flora gave me fairest flowers"? These are all madrigals, and if we owe them indirectly to Adrian Willaert, then we owe him a big debt. Willaert had a contemporary who was much more distinguished. This was Orlando Lasso (1520-1594), born at Mons, in Belgium. They called him the "Prince of Music," and he was celebrated all over Europe, employed and honoured by kings and nobles. If it be true, as is said, that he wrote 2500 works, he was one of the most prolific composers who ever lived. Barring one quaintly beautiful madrigal, nothing of his is heard in public to-day. But he played a considerable part in the advance of his art, for he introduced the chromatic element into composition, and it is from him that we have derived such indispensable musical terms as Allegro and Adagio.

But the real glory of those early times was
Palestrina (1514-1594), who was born to effect a complete revolution in the style of musical composition for the church. He is the first composer who is treated seriously by the musical historians, though he is rather a herald of the really great composers than one of the greatest in his own person. When quite young, he went by a variety of names, but, as his fame gradually increased, be began to be called after the little place near Rome where he was born. Tourists go to Palestrina to-day to see it just for his sake. It is the type of a hill-town in the Sabine country. The traveler finds if difficult of access, but it was meant to be so when it was built, like so many neighbour cities, on a peak. It carries Roman mosaics in perfect preservation in an amphitheatre on the top its steep streets, whence you might drop an apple, or almost, straight into the Campagna at your feet. Seen thence, the dome of St. Peter’s looks like a dim, clouded pearl on the far horizon, and you may nearly discern the statues on the Lateran pricking into the sky. A recent visitor tells that all the people are poor, most of them beautiful, and the abounding children look as though they must fall into the plain. Out of this nest of isolated poverty came the greatest musical genius of his time, the creator of the true religious style.

As a youth Palestrina had studied music in Rome, and before he was thirty he was choirmaster in the chapel of Julius II., the fiery Pope who figures so prominently in the life-story of Michael Angelo. The composer had married young and happily, yet it turned out as if he should not have married at all. "With his wife," says his biographer, "he suffered the most strait penuries of his live, with her he sustained the most cruel afflictions of his spirit, and with her also he ate the hard crust of sorrow." The marriage became a misfortune in this way: Pope Julius died, and his successor, objecting to married men as singers in the chapel, discharged Palestrina, who had to take a poorly-paid post in another church.

But then, in 1562, came the sittings of that famous Council of Trent which determined so many points in church procedure and polity. The Council expressed itself as dissatisfied with the prevailing style of church music. It was too frivolous, too much tinged with secularity, they said. In fact, they condemned it root and branch, and proclaimed the need for a higher and purer style. Now came Palestrina’s opportunity. He had proved himself a master of music, and the Pope suggested to him that he should produce a Mass in the manner demanded by the Council. Palestrina jumped at the idea, and by 1565 had completed three Masses, which a Commission of Cardinals declared to be the very thing that was wanted to save church music from the utter degradation with which it had been threatened. Casting aside the learned yet puerile combinations which had been in vogue, Palestrina wrote in a style pure and serene, free from agitation or excitement, with no sentimentality and no affectation. We who live in the strenuous atmosphere of the twentieth century can hardly get into the condition of mind to understand and feel the almost angelic beauty and sweetness of his work, though indeed there are few chances of hearing it. We must be content to know that, though perhaps not actively or directly, it continues to influence and correct the art of all the more serious-minded church composers. Palestrina died in the fullness of his fame in February 1594, when Shakespeare was thirty years old, and was just getting into print for the first time.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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