The history of music printing
Some ideas and innovations by Maxwell Fernie, from an article by Ros Johnston.
Polyphonic music of the sixteenth century has not been served well by the nineteenth century tendency to standardise the layout of the musical page, leading for instance to the universal use of modern bar-lines and notation in editions of the music of such composers as Palestrina, Victoria and Byrd.
A New Zealand authority on this early music, Maxwell- Fernie, who has spent a lifetime of deep study of the music of this period, has found that the modern printed versions of sixteenth century polyphony are not conducive to its authentic and fitting performance. One effect of modern layout upon such music is that bar-lines “often, if interpreted in the modern way, falsify the accentuation of the music which was much freer in rhythm than music later became”. It is interesting to see why this situation has arisen.
When discussing the problem recently, Maxwell Fernie points out that at the time Palestrina was writing it was the unaccompanied Gregorian chant which was the contemporary style of singing – the flowing plainsong melody, indicated upon the musical page by the neum system of notation, was the vehicle by which the all important words were conveyed to the listener. This was especially effective because the resonant acoustics of the building (usually a church) in which plainsong was sung characteristically enhanced the sound. Later the introduction of part singing and the gradual flowering into polyphony with its interwoven melodic lines created the need to measure in regular pulses to keep the singers together, though still retaining the flexibility of the plainsong style. In the words of Maxwell Fernie, duple and triple pulses “contain the essence of the sixteenth century” sacred music. Reference to a Palestrina manuscript shows that bar-lines were only inserted at this time to mark the end of a textual phrase.
This early music was written in the modal style, but by the last half of the sixteenth century changes were afoot as there were attempts to break away from the medieval modes – notably by the Flemish composer Orlando Di Lasso.
In a lecture to mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of this composer, Maxwell Fernie gives an exposition of how Orlando Di Lassowas becoming “key conscious but not yet key centred conscious,” and explains how his progressive ideas were to pave the way for the writing of more modern music eventually in keys and using chords. After this there was a gradual shift to more “vertical” thinking in music leading to the use of regular harmonic changes in music composition. As Maxwell Fernie puts it: “when the harmonic changes became regular, the pulses became regular.” Bar-lines began to be occasionally used in the early seventeenth century to indicate this regular beat, for example by Sweelinck (1562-1621) in his Hodie Christus Natus Est. By the mid-seventeenth century bar-lines were in common use and after this time have been routinely used to divide the music into groups or measures with a strong accent on the first beat of a group. This system has led to modern “measured” music indicated by the use of time signatures. The layout of the musical page into measures or bars indicated by bar-lines became so universal that in the modern age published music, even that of the sixteenth century, was brought out with bar-lines inserted by editors and arrangers, and also with modern notation, often lines of crotchets. Another parallel trend was the growing popularity of instrumental and later orchestral music which helped to cause interest in the vocal arts to diminish until the Romantic period. This meant that there was also a gradual loss of the general knowledge of the prose rhythms of plainsong.
Maxwell Fernie, who has directed the performance of many polyphonic works with both his choirs, the Schola Polyphonica of Wellington and St. Mary of the Angels Choir, says that bel canto legato is not possible from modern notation. Faced with this problem, as well as the modern day average singer’s lack of knowledge of the vocal style of Gregorian chant, he began not only to train his singers in this art but also to experiment with ways of editing and writing out polyphony so that the layout and style of the musical page would become intrinsically helpful to the achievement of a fitting style in performance, without which the true impact of this music has so often been lost to the modem listener. It is notable that the performance of sixteenth century polyphony by many a choir is pale by comparison with that achieved under Maxwell Fernie’s direction when tone, nuance, clarity of diction, total style and interpretation all become quite different – the work comes to life! This effect on the performance of such a work, the Victoria Tenebrae Responsories, can be heard in a recording made in 1982 by the Schola Polyphonica using music transcribed and edited by their director. Maxwell Fernie summed up this difference with the comment that so often one hears a perfectly “correct” performance but which nonetheless “fails to execute the Work “.
As a first step in achieving his unique style of page layout for polyphony, Maxwell Fernie tried using the minim as the basis for notation to encourage the singers to “think lengthwise”; necessary, he says, because so often today a singer has been brought up on barred music and has typically had early training in perhaps a percussive instrument such as the piano, so that “the mind demands beats.” This effect partly explains why the modern published editions of the sixteenth century music can lead to miss-performance, for the lines of crotchets reinforce the idea of beats, which can also “tend to cause the singer to lose muscle support.” Finding that this initial strategem was only partially successful, Maxwell Fernie next began to write out the music without bar-lines, in addition to using minims, but allowing rests to remain (Palestrina did not use a symbol to indicate a rest). He found that this was a definite aid to the desired flexible fluid style. The additional problem of indicating the Gregorian “pressus” was dealt with by using the device of tied minims. The success of this style of musical layout has led Maxwell Fernie to spend countless hours over many years editing and transcribing by hand all the music sung by his choirs from this period – he still continues to complete new works for performance each year.
Victoria University of Wellington
Occasional Papers on Bibliography & Librarianship series 10(1990)
Pages 19 to 21