Music Post: The Renaissance of Temporarily Forgotten Music


Our sense of time is not the same as our measurement of time.

Ten seconds in an automobile accident, seeing an oncoming vehicle and knowing you will collide, can be longer than 10 minutes listening to a bore. A half hour PowerPoint presentation lasts longer than three hours dining in a five-star restaurant.

I have always been interested in history, but sometimes I discover my time sense has been off. The unification of modern Germany and modern Italy did not occur until the 1800s, making both countries, in their current iterations, younger than America. Yet both Americans and Europeans tend to think of America as a youthful nation, still wet behind the years. It is true that German and Italian cultures go back much further, but to a lesser extent that is also true of American culture, given that the oldest colonial cities were already 150 years old by the Revolution, fought in Haydn’s lifetime.

At one point in my youth I had the idea that Bach and Rembrandt, both of whom are often regarded as early masters, were contemporaries. Rembrandt died 16 years before Bach was born. “The Art of the Fugue” was published (and Handel’s “Messiah” premiered) exactly 100 years after “The Night Watch” was painted.

For the modern listener, Bach seems a distant figure. He and Handel and Domenico Scarlatti were all born in 1685 and Bach died first of the three in 1750. Not until 1850 was a society founded to publish the complete works of Bach, and “The Art of the Fugue,” its 47th edition, was not published until 1926. Most first recordings of Bach have been made in the last 60 years. In this regard this distant figure is the latest thing.

Renaissance music, more or less the music of 1450 (when the printing press was new) to 1620, is even newer as defined by when we modern sorts began to rediscover it in a big way.

The modern stars of Renaissance music mostly come from the end of the period: William Byrd, Giovanni Gabrieli, John Dowland, Michael Preatorius and Orlando Gibbons were all alive in 1600.

In the Roaring Twenties, even as “The Art of the Fugue” was being published, scholars were studying Renaissance scores. Among those scholars was the composer Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), who composed three suites of “Ancient Airs and Dances.” The first came out in 1917, the last in 1932.

Gordon Jacob (1895-1964) wrote a suite based on tunes of William Byrd.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) memorialized fallen comrades of World War I with “Tombeau de Couperin,” 1917-1919, based very loosely on the dance formats in the music of Francois Couperin, a composer of the generation before Bach and Handel.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), commissioned to write a ballet on themes of Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736), produced the 1920 hit “Pulcinella.” Later he learned most of the original works were by others, but let that pass.

What started as modern arrangements of older music morphed into something else, with composers writing original music under the inspiration of the Renaissance or Baroque periods.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) studied early music, put Renaissance-sounding chords in a lot of his own music, and used a brief melody by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) in his masterpiece, “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.” He wrote it in 1910, before any of the other pieces referenced here.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), the dapper young Roaring Twenties composer, befriended in 1923 Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who singlehandedly brought back the harpsichord as a modern instrument, and for her he composed an entirely modern harpsichord concerto. In 1938 he composed a Concerto for Organ, Strings and Timpani that somehow manages to be thoroughly modern and Bachian at the same time.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed the opera “Gloriana” for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, based on the original Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603). Like Ravel, Britten adopted dance formats from the 44-year Elizabethan Era (which included the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the failure of the Spanish Armada, and Shakespeare, more than half of whose career occurred in her reign) but otherwise wrote his own music in his own way.

Jean Francaix (1912-1997) wrote a harpsichord concerto in 1959.

John Rutter (1945- ) wrote one in 1979.

Philip Glass (1937- ) wrote one in 2002.

In the 1960s there was a lull in the composition of modern music for Renaissance and Baroque instruments, for the excellent reason that musicians and the public alike turned their attention to the original music of the Renaissance and Baroque, performed, as much as possible, the way it was done originally. This movement was called “Original Instruments” or “Period Performance” or “Authentic Performance,” and led to recordings of Baroque music with stringed instruments using catgut, harpsichord continuo heard more often and more prominently, and, interestingly, performances on modern instruments whose conductors went for more of a “period sound.”

An important descendent of the Renaissance/Baroque resurgence movement was Chip Davis (1947- ), the composer behind Mannheim Steamroller and the Fresh Aire albums, who often uses harpsichord and recorder and other Renaissance or Baroque instruments and styles in his works Davis sometimes described what he did as “Renaissance rock.” With a few like-minded musicians he put out eight “Fresh Aire” albums from 1975 to 2000, but found greater success in a series of Fresh Aire Christmas albums, which spawned so much demand for live performances that two separate bands tour annually at Christmas season performingthe music from more than a dozen albums of Christmas song arrangements that combine Renaissance and Baroque instruments with modern sounds.

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