Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Music Before Bach

I was standing in the university library in the spot where the large books on the lives of composers are grouped. Picking up one after another, I was reminded of an incredible fact: it has been a long-held and deeply entrenched belief that musical composition worthy of the name began with Bach. I know of no other sector of art history that is so blind to the past than the musicologists of old.

In any case, a group that has done things to change this impression is the Tallis Scholars. The founder and director has a wonderful article in the new issue of Sacred Music (one that will surely spark controversy), and the Tallis Scholars are busy performing and dazzling crowds the world over.

Here is an interesting review of their performance last month in Chicago. It begins with an apology for giving this music attention at all.

"Renaissance music is something of an acquired taste"--unlike, say, Milton Babbit?

"To modern ears, its a cappella repertoire can sound remote and austere"--unlike, say, electronic dance music?

"Plus, like the art of its time, much of it is either liturgical or religious"--and certainly that takes it down a peg or two in merit!

The review actually improves with each paragraph. The reviewer comments in passing: "Did those composers save their sweetest music for their Marian works?"

Interesting question.

It concludes: "After seeing the Tallis Scholars, the Renaissance doesn't seem remote at all."

And this is the strongest case for making this music available in the concert hall. An even stronger case for make it available within the liturgical framework for which it is written. But lovers of great Church music can only be grateful for the Tallis Scholars, not only because of their musical excellence but also because broken down many prejudices and shown the world that music before Bach has so much to offer--indeed, some of us believe that it was not a primitive stage of music making but its most glorious stage.

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