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Book Review

European Music 1520-1640

European Music 1520-1640 by Haar
James Haar, Ed
Woodbridge: Boydell. 2006. 586 pp
ISBN: 1 84383 200 3
ISBN-13: 978-1843 832003
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By the sounds of it, this book nearly came to nought. As James Haar explains in his introduction, the tardiness of contributors led to cold feet by the first publishers. Then changes and challenges to the plans for structuring and dividing the material to be covered almost collided with efforts on Haar's part to stretch the willingness of the contributors who were left. So one is to be particularly grateful to the ever imaginative publishers Boydell and Brewer for effectively rescuing this fifth volume in the "Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music" project.

This book – apart from the high production standards, which are only to be expected – has three strengths:

  • It's comprehensive. It deals fluently and authoritatively with a variety of music spanning over a century. Music from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and The Netherlands. It also has general chapters on contemporary musical genres across national boundaries and as they developed over the 120 years in question. It's significant that these are set in the wider historical and artistic context and not treated in isolation. The chapter on the motet is typical: many primary sources are quoted, a tally of the types of motet (antiphon, psalm, canticle etc) is given and textual and musical structure are carefully analyzed to reveal the genre's development. Similarly, in just 30 pages all key areas of interest surrounding the mass are expertly covered… the tradition as inherited by Josquin and his contemporaries, non-cyclic types, "parody", stylistic and performance changes – many with clear, apposite musical examples

  • There are 26 (not 33, as suggested on the book's webpage essays or chapters written by leading specialists in their field. Despite the difficulties just referred to, these have been equally painstakingly co-ordinated and collated by James Haar. This book is not a ragbag of random material left out of someone's research. It's a superb survey of almost everything that counts in current thinking about European Renaissance and Baroque music – with its own internal logic and set of central theses to be developed. Each assertion or thread of commentary is fully sourced and referenced. Opposing and otherwise perhaps contentious views on the many issues continually debated in this lively area of musicology are covered; considered assessment is uppermost and one feels in safe hands to drink safely from some pretty fast-running streams

  • A particularly felicitous balance has been struck between amply-illustrated, cogently argued and appropriately sourced and footnoted specialist essays and such expert lead ins and contextualization for the non-specialist. Each chapter in this book would make an excellent starting point and inviting resource for study of the corresponding subject matter in its own right. The tone is of scholarly and approachable authority making this an ideal source book for undergraduate courses, as well as for the interested music lover with experience of the period

So this is a fine book. Above all, perhaps, it manages to combine the academic (with all that that implies for necessary attention to detail) with the well-focused and suitably-perspectived general survey. It's been designed to be read sequentially and thus provides a trenchant overview of music at the turn of the seventeenth century. Or to be dipped into as curiosity for particular musical topics is piqued; and for geographical areas of interest and/or the various genres which are examined extensively and fluently. It's not an encyclopedia but its breadth and depth are encyclopedic.

There are no chapters in European Music 1520-1640 devoted to any one composer. Rather surveys of issues, regions and genres: the nature and concept of the Renaissance and Baroque by James Haar himself and Tim Carter respectively make excellent introductions. Later in the book – no chapter is longer than 35 pages or so – the Reformation and Counter Reformation are explored. Italy is surveyed, France; The Netherlands; Germany and Central Europe; Spain and England. Interspersed are chapters on the mass; motet; chanson and air; madrigal; early opera; music theory and developments in publishing. The final chapter is devoted to instrumental music. This should give an indication of the relative importance attached to each area of musical development and experience by Haar. Few would disagree. Perhaps just as welcome would have been an examination of the development of musical instruments themselves in this period; and the growth of more formal and widely spread patronage as a major factor in composers' concerns. The dramatic changes in the written word, maturing of drama and evolution of new and exciting verse forms (and the disappearance of others) are all folded into the chapters devoted to the appropriate musical forms… madrigal, chanson, opera etc.

For someone completely new to music of the period European Music 1520-1640 probably starts expecting a little previous knowledge and familiarity. But not much. It's very much to the book's advantage that time isn't wasted explaining who Obrecht or Victoria were. But for someone who has heard some music from the period desirous of understanding how they relate to one another and to what went before any particular piece and learn what was to come after most of the chapters will help. They will particularly indicate to such a reader which are the key issues – and why – and which areas are sponsoring the liveliest debates. The depth and density in and with which almost all the subject matter is covered provides more than a quick summary to someone otherwise unfamiliar with current concerns. Gary Tomlinson's magisterial survey [Chapter 1] of the development and multiple evolving species of humanism which grew out of the Renaissance yet – choosing his words carefully; this is a fraught topic – also defined the period is typical of the book's breadth and authority. On the other hand, almost all the contributions successfully survey recent and present thinking in their area, allot the right weights to currents and counter currents across the world of musicology, and allow the wealth of material now available to direct readers to plausible and sustainable conclusions about practically every aspect of music from this period. Quite an achievement!

Another pitfall in a book that's surveying such a broad sweep of interest would have been to try and cram in social, political, geographical, intellectual and artistic (other disciplines as well as music) background simply because that's what's usually expected. And/or because the developments of the period were so critical: The Reformation and Counter Reformation; The Thirty Years War; mass disease; large scale population shifts; changes in the concepts of government; increasing poverty and dispossession; early forms of crude industrialization and significant advances in agriculture. This was a period of as great a set of changes in Europe as any other; there could have been a real danger that they would have been dealt with perfunctorily without integrating them into the discourses on the music.

This is not the case with European Music 1520-1640. There are certainly details aplenty about how, when and where the non-musical events in question affected the development of musical composition, performance and reception. Iain Fenlon, for example, looks in depth (but without obscuring the overview) at the new cultures of print; at the reception and collecting of books and how these influenced musical thought; as well as at the trade itself. Although packed – again – with a mass of detail, he provides – again – the necessary summations and conclusions to make the raw data meaningful.

Such detail is almost always carefully and convincingly filtered and weighted in all the chapters here. The three discussions of Italy, for instance – from 1520 to 1560, 1560 to 1600 then 1600 to 1640 – contain just the right amount and description of the relevant political and social changes and issues to make them absorbing yet fully contextualized. The effectiveness of this continuing narrative of times with significant social change in that country has not been compromised by the fact that different authors address each these three 40 year periods. Yet to have divided the entire period 1520 to 1640 as has been done has allowed each specialist to focus just as needed.

Early music – and particularly music of this period – is a rich and lively field with many cogently and fiercely argued points of musicological view. The changes from the generation of Josquin to that of Monteverdi are huge and many. Consequently the musicology to reveal and interpret them is correspondingly complex and intricate. So it's helpful to have a compendium of current thinking from a broad variety of sources, rather than from any one "school" or trend. In fact, it's the authority of the contributors to this book, rather than any spurious claims about arrangement or packaging, sensation or controversy itself, that make it so strong.

At nearly 600 pages with a relatively compact design, this book is hardly light reading. It's not intended to be. The specialist in any one area, genre, composer and country will probably look elsewhere for their starting points. But as an overall survey of the music of the period it deserves to be read and reread and can be safely recommended as a standard on the subject.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Sealey