Pre-1600 Styles in European Art Music

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Pre-1600 Styles in European Art Music

The "old" European attitude, and the attitude that attracts many modern performers to early music, is exactly the opposite of the modern attitude:

1. Music is a strictly local expression, rich in variety since each culture expresses affective differences through art, 2. Music is a poetic process--complex, vague, and irrational--based upon borrowed traditional musical materials (melodies, rhythms, forms, etc.), 3. Music is for a religious, elitist-class performer who can understand and appreciate its mysterious nature and power, 4. Music is played softly in intimate gatherings, 5. Music making is the activity of Everyman, exacting the talents of variously trained amateurs who, with industry and practice, decorate their recreation and leisure in moments of social intercourse.

In terms of the technical differences between the art music of early times and that of the modern period (i.e., after 1600) we can identify five specific features that make post-1600 styles in music sound more or less "familiar."

1. Wide-ranging, dynamically expressive tonal melodies are played in equal temperament and generated from logical tonal harmonic progressions. 2. A simple, isometric, and restricted rhythmic range is used. 3. The texture is homophonic, that is, a principal melody line with accompaniment. 4. Clear periodic formal structure is favored. 5. The instrumentarium is restricted and standardized.

On the other hand, the pre-1600 styles in European art music are based upon the following features:

1. Narrow-ranging, dynamically restrained modal melodies are played in a variety of tuning temperaments that generate an "illogical" modal harmonic succession. 2. An unrestricted range of multimeters, polymeters, and complex rhythms are used. 3. A texture of two or more independent and equally important melodies accompany one another (i.e., polyphony). 4. The formal construction is often vague and unclear. 5. The instrumentarium is unrestricted and nonstandardized.

Early music is chamber music par excellence. Superstar conductors, dramatic symphonic music, and large-scale virtuosic genres such as the concerto, opera, oratorio, and ballet belong to a later period and a different aesthetic. Early music involves a decidedly intimate approach to music making: the performers are equal partners who understand the science of composition and do much more than merely interpret the music of others--they recompose it during rehearsals and performances. In this regard, early music may be considered performer oriented (similar to jazz or Indian classical music). The performer thinks of himself or herself as a "student" (a Liebhaber, i.e., "lover") of music, and must be able to play several different instruments as well as sing.
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