Listening for the Change

Understanding the period and context in which a piece of music was created can offer great rewards for the listener.

The shellac recording of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s ‘Livery Stable Blues’, 1917.  Granger/Alamy

In 1472 or 1473, the Flemish composer Johannes Tinctoris (c.1435-1511) penned an innocuous sounding book, entitled Proportionale musices (‘Proportions in music’). Dedicated to King Ferrante of Naples, it was a rather dry treatise concerned with questions of mensural notation. Its 23 turgid chapters dealt with such mind-numbing problems as the variability of the time values of certain notes (‘imperfection’) and the use of superparticular ratios. But its preface was truly remarkable.

To explain why he had felt the need to tackle such an arcane subject – on which so much had already been written – Tinctoris offered a potted history of music from the Creation down to his own day. For the most part, this was a tale of gradual development. After being invented by the biblical Jubal, Tinctoris explained, music had been cultivated by the Jews and Greeks, before being integrated into the Christian liturgy by the Church Fathers and further refined by medieval theorists, such as Guido d’Arezzo and Johannes de Muris. But when he reached the 15th century, Tinctoris observed that an extraordinary change had taken place. Over the past few decades, he argued, music had undergone ‘such a marvellous transformation’ that it sounded like a ‘new art’ (ars nova).

A few years later, Tinctoris went even further. In the prologue to his Liber de contrapuncti (‘Book on the art of counterpoint’) he contended that the transformation had been so great that, for the erudite, it was scarcely worth listening to any music composed before 1430. Anything older, he claimed, was ‘so ineptly, so tastelessly composed that [it] would be more likely to offend the ears than to please them’.

For many years, scholars accepted Tinctoris’ comments as a testament to the beginnings of a new period in music. Even though he might have been a little over-enthusiastic here and there, they felt they had every reason to take his word at face value. After all, there was no doubting Tinctoris’ sincerity; and besides, it seemed only natural for there to have been a Renaissance in music, as well as in art and literature. If Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) had revolutionised the visual arts with his discovery of linear perspective and Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444) managed to transform the way history was written, why should it be so hard to believe that John Dunstaple (c.1390-1453) and Gilles Binchois (1400-50) could also have ushered in a ‘new age’ in musical composition?

More recently, however, scholars such as Reinhard Strohm and Rob Wegman have begun to examine Tinctoris’ claims more critically. They have pointed out that it is ‘exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the exact stylistic changes that (he)must have been referring to’. Given how damningly Tinctoris spoke of music written earlier than the 1430s, we might expect it to be radically different from that of the later 15th century. But when the works of the young Guillaume Dufay (c.1397-1474) are compared with those of Johannes Ockeghem (d.1497), for example, the most obvious difference is their tempo.

This is not to be dismissed lightly. As Wegman has noted, it has important implications for the prominence of consonance and dissonance in the two composers’ works. Because Dufay’s music had a fast, dance-like rhythm, clashes between dissonant voices were so brief and fleeting that he did not need to worry about avoiding them too assiduously. In Ockeghem’s music, however, the tempo is much slower, causing any dissonances to be more obvious, requiring greater care to be taken to avoid them.

Nevertheless, this change was not so great that it alone can be used to define a new period in musical history. Indeed, a modern listener – especially one unfamiliar with the peculiarities of 15th-century music – might be forgiven for thinking that the century between Dufay’s birth and Ockeghem’s death was marked by continuity, rather than rupture.

This did not mean that Tinctoris was wrong about living in a ‘new age’. As Wegman has astutely pointed out, he never claimed that the difference between the music of the 1420s and the 1480s would be apparent to everyone. Quite the opposite. As he argued in the Liber de contrapuncti, only the erudite would be able to hear it. This suggests that the transformation which defined Tinctoris’ ars nova was a matter more of how music was heard than of the music itself. While composers were beginning to experiment with different tempos, professional musicians such as Tinctoris may have started to listen to music in a new way, as well, perhaps as a result of wider shifts in social attitudes towards singing and instrumentation. Growing steadily more accustomed to slower rhythms, they would eventually have become ‘so acutely sensitive to dissonance’ that older pieces of music would have sounded tasteless and inept, justifying Tinctoris’ stinging attack on music written before the 1430s.

The implications of this reach far beyond the Renaissance. If the significance of any music is to be understood, then we need to look beyond the technical features of the score and reconstruct the ‘period ear’: the way in which it was actually heard. This is not always an easy endeavour. Although musicological treatises like Tinctoris’ Proportionale musices can sometimes provide an insight into listeners’ expectations, they do not always survive; and even when they do, they may only tell us about the listening practices of a few members of a composer’s actual – or intended – audience. As such, it is often necessary to turn to other, less direct, sources of evidence, or even to adopt the techniques of other academic disciplines. It might, for instance, be possible to gain some impression of what noises and melodies were most familiar to listeners by rebuilding everyday soundscapes from details preserved in chronicles, newspapers and, in later periods, recordings. In much the same way, an analysis of the contexts of musical performance (such as churches, opera houses and nightclubs) can sometimes provide us with clues about how much attention listeners paid to particular pieces, as well as the relative importance they attached to vocals, instrumentation and tempo. Given that cultural constructions of memory, difference and causality all shape how listeners process auditory stimuli, a wider anthropological study of social attitudes might even help determine how listeners perceived and parsed different musical strategies at a more fundamental level, too.

However, such approaches are dangerous. Since they all require music historians to employ rather more imagination than they would normally do, this can easily incline them to over-interpretation. Sometimes it is too tempting to weave a few scattered details together to produce a psychologically compelling (but false) reconstruction of listening practices. As a result, the intellectual foundations of any subsequent re-interpretation of the music in question are undermined. Art historians – whose pursuit of the ‘period eye’ parallels the musicologist’s own search for the ‘period ear’ – are all too familiar with this sort of thing. Late in life, Erwin Panofsky recalled overhearing a colleague offer a wildly misleading interpretation of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), after pushing some scanty evidence about its viewership further than it merited. ‘I was dumbstruck’, he wrote, ‘my hair stood on end.’ While imaginative speculations were all very well in moderation, when carried too far they made art history ‘behave not like ethnology as opposed to ethnography, but like astrology as opposed to astronomy’.

Provided that historical methods are ‘tempered … by common sense’, however, reconstructions of the ‘period ear’ can transform not only the way in which we perceive individual pieces, composers and genres. Take the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s ‘Livery Stable Blues’ (1917), which was one of the first jazz records to be released. At the time, it caused a sensation. Newspapers denounced it as wild, crazy, even anarchistic, but the public loved it – so much so that it became one of the first recordings to sell more than a million copies. From a modern perspective, however, this enthusiasm seems baffling. To modern ears, it sounds rather dull and mawkish. A technical analysis of the score generates no more admiration. Only when we try to listen to it as it would have been heard at the time, without the distortion of later expectations, does its original reception seem justified. When compared with the music of contemporary bands (preserved on paper, or in later recordings), their style does indeed seem freer, more energetic, more exciting than audiences had been used to. This insight not only helps us appreciate its significance better, but may also allow us to appreciate the music more.

It just shows that, if you want to enjoy music as an historian, you’ve got to listen for the changes – or rather, change how you listen.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick and author of The Ugly Renaissance (Arrow, 2015).