Reviewed by Janette Tilley (Department of Music, Lehman College/The City University of New York)
Published on H-German (February, 2006)
The Composer Reconsidered
At its core, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory explores the intersections between oral and written composition and the art of memory, arguing that "the ability to write does not exclude composition in the mind" (p. 6). Berger draws on the work of Frances Yates (The Art of Memory, 1966), Mary Carruthers (The Book of Memory: A Study in Medieval Culture, 1990), and the anthropologist Jack Goody (The Interface between the Written and the Oral, 1987) to argue that the earliest polyphonic compositions from the Notre Dame school (mid-twelfth to early thirteenth centuries) may not have been the final, polished compositions that musicologists have long taken them for. Rather, she argues, Notre Dame polyphony, or organum, was likely worked out mentally through various memorized melodic and rhythmic formulas and transmitted orally. The written versions of organum that survive are merely possibilities that could be altered, not final creative works of a single musician.
In the laudatory quotations that grace the back cover of this volume, Anna Maria Busse Berger's work is predicted to "rock medieval musicology to its foundations." The prologue alone could indeed unsettle the discipline's long unquestioned foundations. For readers of H-German, the prologue may be the most interesting chapter of Berger's book. In it the author explores the German roots of musicology to expose well-established nineteenth-century presuppositions that colored the earliest inquiries into medieval music. Entitled "The First Great Dead White Male Composer," Berger's prologue scrutinizes the career and legacy of Friedrich Ludwig (1872-1930), chair of musicology at the University of Göttingen. Ludwig was a leading figure in the discipline due to his precision, attention to detail and thorough examination of sources. Ludwig is remembered today for his Repertorium organorum recentioris et motetorum vetustissimi stili (1910), a catalog of thirteenth-century polyphony, and his Nachlass (now in the Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek in Göttingen), which contains authoritative transcriptions of most music manuscripts of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Ludwig set high standards for methodological rigor; his work is a model of positivist source study and analysis. The apparent objectivity with which Ludwig approached his material comes under intense scrutiny by Berger. She exposes Ludwig's evolutionary perspective of music history by questioning the means by which he locates the "original version" of works as well as his chronological assertions, most of which place the more complex music in a relatively later time. A telling case is that of the Magnus liber organi, the most significant collection of Notre Dame polyphony. Different versions of this collection exist in manuscripts held in Wolfenbüttel, known as W1 and W2. Ludwig labels W2 "final version" and "best ... because it is least improvised, and more worked out" (p. 27). In the case of motets, polyphonic compositions with new sacred Latin texts added to the plainchant, Ludwig "is mainly concerned with establishing which version was first. And the original version is for him the version where the text fits best. It does not occur to him that a later poet might have added a text fitting the music better than the earlier one" (p. 27).
Ludwig's association with the Romantic Palestrina revival movement through his teacher Gustav Jacobsthal appears to have colored his views of medieval music. The Berlin Palestrina revival dates to at least the second half of the eighteenth century and is closely tied to the formation in 1789 of the Berlin Singakademie, an organization dedicated to the revival of choral singing. For theological as well as musical reasons, a cappella sacred music, and particularly that of Palestrina, was privileged above mixed genres. An interest in medieval music arose out of the desire to locate the origins of Palestrina's music. While Ludwig gives pride of place to works that "led" to pinnacles of a cappella music, he marginalizes those that seem to be tangential to his single line of evolution. The evolutionary perspective is barely disguised in Ludwig's writing: "only from here, only from the organum, as it was called, only from this polyphonic song of the Frankish church choirs and the British choirs that learned from them, only from here did polyphony find the way to the complete artistic unfolding of unimaginably rich forces lying dormant in the organum, a way, at first, after a long difficult ascent that would only reach a first pinnacle illuminated in immortal light in the polyphony of Palestrina after more than half a millennium of lively development, then would reach in a faster advance the pinnacles of modern polyphonic and harmonic form in Bach's and Beethoven's creations" (Ludwig, writing in 1929, as quoted on p. 22). Ludwig unquestioningly embraced the nineteenth-century ideal of the creative genius and longed to find individuality and original expression associated with a single name. Despite more than seventy years of musicological activity since Ludwig's death, his shadow looms large. The myth that either Leonin or Perotin (musicians associated with the Notre Dame school of polyphony) is the "first great dead white male composer" is perpetuated not only in widely used music history texts, but, as Berger notes, in major new studies, including Jürg Stenzl's book Perotinus Magnus (2000). Berger further argues that Ludwig's "agenda has made it possible to work in medieval music for one hundred years without ever seriously considering the role of memory in the composition and transmission of polyphony" (p. 44). Berger's critique of Ludwig's "agenda" is a cogent reminder that even the most positivist musicology may be clouded by tacit value judgments.
In subsequent chapters, Berger investigates both medieval techniques and modern theories of memorization. She finds persuasive similarities between the organization of florilegia (documents containing excerpts of memorized texts in order to speed recollection and perhaps even memory in the first place) and that of tonaries (documents that collect and classify chant). Music theory treatises, too, show evidence that their contents were intended to be memorized. Treatises employ common medieval memorization strategies including verse form, visual mnemonic devises such as the hand, and in the case of polyphonic treatises, include every possible combination and permutation of pitches instead of general rules that the reader may apply on his or her own. This vast amount of information was stored and recalled in the minds of medieval composers, according to Berger, using the technique that modern psychologists label "chunking" (p. 199). In the act of composition, whether extemporaneously or on wax tablets and parchment, the composer recalls not individual rules, pitches, or rhythmic patterns alone, but also large passages of music that have been committed to memory. Through extensive memorization and experience, the composer would be able to recall relatively complex passages of music.
In her final chapter, Berger takes what appears to be the next logical step in the relationship between memory and notation in musical composition. If early notation was a way to assist memorization, the advent of mensural notation allowed composers to create very complex works that first required written notation. Mensural notation appears in the late thirteenth century as an innovation that could precisely indicate rhythmic values. Compositions taking advantage of this notation frequently employ complex patterns of pitch and rhythm, including retrograde, palindromes, or the superimposition of patterns of different lengths. One could not sing these without having first visualized and then memorized the patterns. Moreover, performers could not substitute one pattern with another, as had been the practice with improvised organum. Rather, compositions became, in a sense, fixed works. Rhythms and pitches were grouped into recurring patterns and thereby memorized--a sign of chunking--but notation "ultimately resulted in what we would consider a modern artwork, a composition where the composer would determine the pitch and rhythm of every part, where he would develop a sense of ownership" (p. 251). Berger thus turns the table on Ludwig's search for the "first great dead white male composer." When oral and literary tendencies intersect, ownership, rather than written legacy alone, may be a more sophisticated signal in the continuum between performer and composer.
With luck, Berger's fascinating contribution will find wide resonance in musicology, even beyond those who work directly in medieval music. Although Berger has in mind a specialist audience, as evident in her references to manuscripts, elements of music theory and detailed musical examples, she leads the way for others in the discipline to question long-held assumptions and query historical prejudices that may still operate today. Her uncovering of the complicated relationships between orality and literacy in music has far-ranging implications for later periods. For example, can mnemonic pedagogy and "chunking" shed light on the great improvisatory tradition of North German organ music or vocal performance practice of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? What was the effect of music printing on the relationship between oral and literary tendencies? Berger invites musicology to embrace an inquisitive interdisciplinary approach; the discipline will be richer if we accept.
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Janette Tilley. Review of Berger, Anna Maria Busse, Medieval Music and the Art of Memory.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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