Nigel North, lute and Carrie Henneman Shaw, soprano CICGF Recital: Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 4:00pm, Cleveland Institute of Music

Compared to what came after, renaissance music is still relatively unfamiliar to the average music aficionado. To be sure, its reputation is better than it was. The 20th century saw a flowering of interest in renaissance music—one might say there was a renaissance in renaissance music. But this revival had to swim against a mindset that saw music before 1600 as a watered down precursor to something better.

For those of a more simpatico mindset, however, the renaissance era in music reveals itself as a time of exuberant innovation. The printing press, firmly established in Europe by 1500, was in this time what the internet is today. For musicians, printed music was a game-changer. For the first time in history, almost any musician could find out what was going on far from home. Artistic parochialism was on the wane. Musicians of this time were beginning to revel in communication. Without ever leaving home, a lutenist in, say, England could find out what a lutenist in Italy was playing. And then try to top it. One can sense a spirit of one-upmanship that pervaded this time. Music changed faster from 1450 to 1600 than it ever had before. Indeed, it’s during this time that much of what we’ve come to expect from classical music was first puzzled out.

Looking back from our own time, it’s hard to appreciate how decisively renaissance musicians broke from their medieval predecessors. Wrestling with matters of form and musical language, renaissance musicians instinctively groped their way toward music that was easier to understand. Consider, for example, coherence. How does one write an extended musical work that seems to hang together? Weaned as we are today on Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, that seems an odd question. But remember that the musical organizing techniques with which we’re now familiar had, many centuries ago, yet to be worked out. The medieval musician often gravitated to obscure devices that, for the average listener, were very hard to follow. One example is the isorhythmic motet, a beloved medieval technique that today befuddles all but the most perspicacious music students. In the isorhythmic motet, a recurring rhythmic pattern is buried within a multi-voiced work, usually with new pitches assigned to the rhythmic pattern every time it cycles through. If you imagine this would be difficult to hear as the music progresses, you’re correct. The medieval mindset might reply that, although you can’t hear it, God can.

To the renaissance mindset, however, that which couldn’t be grasped by the human mind (or perhaps more to the point, a rich patron) was deficient music. One happy innovation in renaissance music was imitation: in music of more than one voice, a passage in one voice is echoed by another voice. In a vocal mass, for example, the music might begin with a distinctive melody in one voice, then that same melody is taken up by successive voices as they enter one at a time. This layered sound scape might continue throughout the piece, conferring immediate and obvious coherence to the whole. So successful was imitation that it permeated every genre of renaissance music: from the Catholic Mass to instrumental music of all types. It also spawned musical forms—canon, ricercare, fantasia—that persist to our own day. Little wonder that musicologist Edward Lowinsky, in a particularly apt phrase, called renaissance music “the era of prevailing imitation.”

Another renaissance innovation is the gradual emergence of tonality. Before then, music was based on a bewildering variety of modes that to modern ears sound strangely archaic. Further, multi-voiced music was often written with a curious indifference to how the various lines clashed with one another. In renaissance music, however, this indifference gradually resolved into a greater care and treatment of dissonance. More and more, music found its way to a chordal texture, the kind of texture familiar today to folk singers accompanying themselves on the guitar. In more lowbrow forms of renaissance music, a simple recurring chord sequence might be the basis for an instrumental improvisation. Any guitarist who's soloed over a twelve bar blues pattern would feel at home in such music. In fact, nowadays former rock guitarists sometimes find their way into early music ensembles. It takes only a little tweaking for them to feel comfortable with this side of renaissance music-making. The “dump” on today’s program is one such work.

This chordal texture brings us to perhaps the most satisfying achievement of renaissance music—at least to modern ears: the lute song. This intimate form of music-making was particularly well suited to its time. The standard orchestra was still to come, and concerts for large audiences were rare. In renaissance Europe, most music-making was confined to a small circle of family and friends. So as you listen to the songs on today’s program, you might imagine yourself not in a modern concert hall, but rather at the hearth with a modest gathering of musical friends. Indeed, to the renaissance way of thinking, this was a hallmark of good breeding. As Henry Peacham in his 1622 The Compleat Gentleman averred: “I know there are men of such disproportioned spirits that they avoid music’s company. But I am verily persuaded they are by nature very ill disposed and of such a brutish stupidity that scarce anything else that is good and savoreth of virtue is to be found in them.”


About the Author: With over 30 years teaching experience, Tom Poore has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts Community Music Center and the Cleveland Institute of Music Preparatory Department. His background in teaching children includes Suzuki training, outreach programs through the Broadway School of Music and Passport Program, and the Cleveland Public Schools Arts in Summer Education Program. Tom and his students have performed for WCPN radio and WVIZ television. Former students of his have gone on to earn scholarships and degrees from the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University, The Juilliard School of Music, and others. Tom earned his bachelor’s degree at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied with Aaron Shearer, and master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where he studied with John Holmquist. He was also the editor for Aaron Shearer’s three volume “Learning the Classic Guitar,” published by Mel Bay. Currently he teaches in the greater Cleveland area at the Solon Center for the Arts, Western Reserve School of Music, Avon School of Music, and from his home in South Euclid.