- Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th-16th Centuries: Theory, Practice, and Reception History
Belgium continues to be a major center for collaborative work in Renaissance musicology, and this book is the latest product of that country's scholarly drive. The proceedings of a conference held at the University of Leuven in 2005, it [End Page 984] includes an introduction by coeditor and conference organizer Katelijne Schiltz followed by twenty-two essays from scholars based in ten countries on three continents. The selections are mostly in English, with two each in French and German. The book is handsomely produced, with real footnotes, copious musical examples, and even luxurious color illustrations for two of the essays. This is a level of quality rarely found today even in books by the most reputable publishers, and Peeters is to be commended for observing such high standards.
The subject of the conference was an inspired choice: canons and canonic structures play an extremely important role in music of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the final three essays even take us successively into the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. The choice of specific subjects, approaches, and emphases is, not surprisingly, quite varied. Two of the best-known scholars of canon provide further work in their areas of expertise: Virginia Newes conducts a guided tour of "Mensural Virtuosity in Non-Fugal Canons c. 1350 to 1450," while Peter Urquhart outlines "The Persistence of Exact Canon throughout the Sixteenth Century." Oliver Vogel lays out the implications for canon in the structuring of the Old Hall manuscript, suggesting that the canons were integral to the political ambitions the collection furthers. Stefan Gasch is the first to explore the significance of canon within the Renaissance Magnificat, Thomas Schmidt-Beste the first to align the use of canon with the Papal Chapel's construction of its self-image. Andrew Johnstone provides a tour-de-force argument for reconstructing Tallis's Service "of Five Parts Two in One" — most specifically the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis — from the sole surviving part, the bassus, although it is disappointing that the full reconstruction of these two sections, which received a public performance in 2005, is not included. In an essay whose implications are potentially far-reaching, Theodor Dumitrescu starts with the famous Salve radix canon at the beginning of London Royal 11 E.XI, makes a case for performance with downward pitch spirals via the continuing application of diatonic ficta, and extrapolates thereby evidence for the more widespread use of this practice.
Matters of performance practice play an important role as well in Bonnie Blackburn's essay, which formed the keynote address of the original conference. Blackburn focuses on two significant and little-studied theorists of the sixteenth century, each of whom was fascinated by canon: Hermann Finck and Lodovico Zacconi. Especially eye-opening is the material Blackburn has uncovered from Zacconi's unpublished manuscript treatise on canons. For example, if a singer misinterprets canonic instructions and finishes his part too early, he should improvise counterpoint until the end of the work, a refreshing reminder that modern scholars and performers are not the only ones who can misread these cues, and sobering in its implications that there must have been more mangled performances and near misses at the time than we might imagine. Zacconi also relates a story about a canonic duo by Lassus that singers performed in inversion; Lassus approved it even though such performance was not his original intention. Moral: if it works, do it. A third example concerns performances using alternate textings, the [End Page 985] gradual addition of singers to a part, unspecified changes in tempo, and, at the conclusion of a piece, a thrown-in organ accompaniment. This is scary business: it sounds just like the sort of 1950s Berlioz-inspired romantic rendition of this music that we have shunned now for the past three decades. Is our hands...