Vocal Polyphony

With John Dunstable we emerge from the twilight, and musical history thenceforward follows a clearer path. We may proceed therefore during the rest of this chapter to follow its fortunes through the supreme period of vocal polyphony, and may for convenience divide this into two sections: one from Dunstable to the Council of Trent, the other from that point to the early years of the seventeenth century.

There were, after Dunstable, three principal schools of composition, the English, the Franco-Flemish and the Italian. Among these the English was at first of the least account.Dunstable seems to have lived much abroad, and those of his countrymen who adopted his methods did so with a too slavish subservience and instead of advancing them as a school petrified them as a fashion. The names of its chief composers, including Henry VI, who was one of the best of them, are preserved in the Old Hall MS. and reproduced, with an account of their work, by Wooldridge in the " Oxford History of Music " (Vol. II, pp. 143 seq.). It is, by the way, noticeable how much, during this period, the music of England was supported by Royal patronage. Henry V sent for his choir to Rouen during the French wars, Henry VI wrote motets for the service at Windsor, Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth were celebrated as musicians. Most remarkable of all is that the Chapel Royal, which through all this period was the core and centre of our religious music, owes much of its prosperity to its re-establishment by Richard III, who took a deep interest in its fortunes and materially aided them both by regulations and by endowment. Nor did this royal encouragement go unrewarded. By the turn of the century we have again a great school of Church Composition, influenced it may be by Flemish example, but full of names which are once more recalling their ancient celebrity:

Fairfax and Aston and Cornish, John Redford and Nicholas Ludford, Shepherd the organist of Magdalen, and Taverner the organist of the new Cardinal's College, all working between 1480 and 1540, all producing Masses and Motets and Canticles of far more than historic importance. Taverner, indeed, may claim to rank among the greatest English composers, and the others are not far behind him.

The Franco-Belgian school began with Dufay and Binchois, both pupils of Dunstable, continued with the great names of Okeghem, Obrecht and Josquin des Pres, whom his contemporaries called " the Prince of Music," the audacious composer who satirised a forgetful courtier in one of his Masses, and wrote in another, for the unmusical Louis XII, a part all on one note which he called the vox Regis,and finally culminated in Adrian Willaert, who was organist of St. Mark's, Venice, Arcadelt, the madrigal-writer who settled at Rome, and Orlando di Lasso, who was accepted over the whole Continent as the rival of Palestrina.

It is noticeable that nearly all the Flemish composers from Dufay onward spent a large part of their careers in Italy. During the later fifteenth and earlier sixteenth centuries she was, above all others, the home of the Arts: the meeting-place of craftsmen and patrons; the mistress of all who loved beauty and had skill to create it. And not only had she a welcome for all foreign musicians, she could meet them on at least equal terms. At Rome (where Morales sang as a boy in the Papal Choir) there were Constanzo Festa and the madrigalists: at Venice the two Gabrielis, at Florence the group of composers who under Corteccia sunned themselves in the favour of the Medici. The supreme triumph of Pales-trina was not yet: his best work belongs to the latter half of the century: but apart from him there was no lack of genius and learning.

Central Europe had not yet the artistic organisation to form schools, and its contributions to musical history are confined at this time to a few isolated but eminent names:

Adam de Fulda, rather a theorist than a composer, Isaak the Bohemian, whose song of farewell to Innsbruck has passed, by way of Sebastian Bach, into our hymnologies; and Hans Leo Hasler of Munich, writer of a love- song with the exquisite melody of which we now celebrate the mystery of the Passion. But the treasury to which these paid their tribute was already being heaped to overflowing by the Western and Southern nations, and it is in a long and honourable roll that their names are inscribed.

It follows to consider what manner of music these men were writing: what were its aims and methods and what its dangers. For the most part it consisted in unaccompanied vocal polyphony: the secular kinds expressed in Madrigals and other forms of concerted song, the sacred in Masses, Motets and other works intended for liturgical use. There were a few othersin our own country, for instance, Cornish was writing solo songs of great beauty and Hugh Aston was experimenting with the virginalsbut the main course of artistic composition lay throughout along polyphonic lines. We may take the two chief subdivisions separately.