- Improvising Early Music: The History of Musical Improvisation From the Late Middle Ages to the Early Baroque by Rob C. Wegman, Johannes Menke, Peter Schubert
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Improvising Early Music, the eleventh volume of the Orpheus Institute series, contains three articles written by leading experts in the field of improvised polyphony. All three contributions address the complicated relationship between improvised and composed counterpoint. It is a fascinating, well-edited volume, and according to its editor, it “shows us through historical sources how improvisation was an integral part of music education and how closely improvisation and composition were linked”.
For me, the first and longest article is also the most interesting. Rob C. Wegman’s “What is Counterpoint?” is odyssean: the title might at first seem pretentious, but Wegman really does offer a convincing, provocative yet elegant, historical-theoretical explanation of the phenomenon of counterpoint. Wegman sets out from an attempt to characterise counterpoint in a way that is as relevant to a motet by Philip de Vitry as it is to Beethoven’s study of “first species” counterpoint: counterpoint is based on whole notes (or on unmeasured plainchant neumes), its note-against-note texture is viewed as the fundament of all other polyphony, and its rules authoritatively define what is theoretically right and what is wrong. Wegman then presents the Docta sanctorum patrum (the 1325 papal bull that banned some early forms of polyphony) and a gallery of treatises and early counterpoint works that he reads as responses to that famous bull. Aiming towards improvised polyphony, Wegman then contemplates the relationship between surviving sources and what improvised polyphony may have sounded like.
Wegman minimizes the inevitable distance that twenty-first-century music students would feel when reading Medieval Latin treatises. Combining these sources together with musical analyses and early “secondary” sources like Calvisius (Leipzig, 1600), Wegman weaves a coherent narrative that includes provocations, prohibitions, and past musicians’ ongoing quest after detours that bypass the aforementioned papal bull. Students of music history have but few series of sources that seem to converse with one another in a way that tells a story (the notable examples being John the Deacon vs. the monk of St. Gall and Artusi vs. Monteverdi—but each of those is based on just two or three sources), and Wegman offers an attractive source-based dialogue.
Naturally, some of the sources fit better in the narrative than others. Morley’s Plain and Easie Introduction, being a printed source, is also likely to be motivated by commercial considerations, hence Morley’s scepticism with regards to improvised counterpoint (p. 52 in the reviewed publication) may also have been his way to promote his own instruction book. Coclico’s criticism of the poor quality of improvised counterpoint in Germany must be contextualised within the war between Catholic and Protestant aesthetics—Coclico was not just “a musician of the old school” (p. 51) but a musician who was born and raised within the Catholic establishment and only later in his life converted to Protestantism—he must have been proud of his Catholic professional upbringing. Only towards the end of the article, Wegman explicates the Catholic-Protestant tension at the heart of the debate regarding counterpoint—he remarks that contrapuntal improvisation on a sequence of equal-length cantus firmus “was a universal tradition, and for a long time, even after the Reformation, it continued to be practiced in Catholic countries” (p. 58).
Johannes Menke’s “ ‘Ex centro’ Improvisation: Sketches for a Theory of Sound Progressions in the Early Baroque” is more modest in scope. The article explores how certain “sound progressions” were perceived around the stylistic watershed of 1600, and the gradual and complicated turn from thinking “con centro” to “ex centro”—from tenor-based to treble-and-bass framework. Menke highlights the way in...