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Flemish Polyphony.

Ignace Bossuyt, Flemish polyphony (Leuven: Davidsfonds, 1994), 24.99 [pounds sterling]

The second thing that strikes one while leafing through Flemish polyphony is the quality and diversity of its illustrations. There are portraits or representations of Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem, Obrecht, Josquin, Willaert, Lassus, Rore and Monte, to name only the most famous composers, and of Philip the Good, Ercole I d'Este, Charles V, Margaret of Austria and Albert V of Bavaria among the patrons, as well as an astonishing number of full-colour reproductions of manuscripts and prints, of which perhaps the best known are the Cordiforme and Escorial chansonniers, the Chigi Codex and its `twin', Brussels 9126, Brussels 5557 and 11239, and the Medici and Mielich codices. Such captivating pictures are perhaps the ideal way to draw the reader into the proper subject of the book.

Flemish polyphony is intended for a general readership, and its appearance nicely echoes john Milsom's recent plea in these pages that we `not forget the amateur' (EM, xxv (1997), p.587). Through its translations from the original Dutch into German, French, Spanish and Japanese, it will be the first book of its kind to reach an international audience. Ignace Bossuyt rightly calls attention to the discrepancy between the public recognition of the art and literature of the Renaissance, and that of its music (p.12). The problem is not confined to Britain or the Netherlands: recently I was astonished to meet a French postgraduate student in fine arts who had studied Machaut's poetry quite closely, but, as for his music, she was unaware of its very existence. A book of this sort has been needed for a very long time. (As it happens, the English translation appears to postdate by several years the stated publication date of 1994.)

The book is divided into two parts whose titles are self-explanatory: `Context, characteristics, genres, dissemination' and `From Guillaume Dufay to Philippe de Monte'. The headings of part 2 refer the reader to a series of 10 CDs (on which more below) that provide an aural introduction to the subject. As with any general overview, it is easy enough to query certain choices or emphases, and some details of Bossuyt's approach are worth questioning, but the balance between the two parts strikes me as one of the book's strongest features, and crucial in a livre de vulgarisation.

In part 1 political and cultural issues (such as the role of collegiate churches in the Low Countries) are examined in turn, following which the major genres and their functions are discussed. (There is also a short primer on the origins of polyphony and the etymology of the term.) After a brief interlude concerning the role of number-symbolism, a final section explores the role of manuscripts and printed editions, and the transition and differences between them.

In part 2 the emphasis is not so much on the `key figure' within each section as its geographical basis, most often centred on a court (`Dufay and Burgundy', `Ockeghem and France' and so on). Some may find even this modified view of the `great man' approach to history unsatisfactory; yet today's record catalogues (to say nothing of the contents-pages of 16th-century prints) are testimony to the `pulling power' of named individuals. In a work intended for the general public they have their use: they can serve to focus ideas and aid in the identification of concepts. Even so, Bossuyt overdoes it when he credits Dufay with the invention of the four-voice cantus firmus Mass (p.83). Not incidentally, one disadvantage of the `Netherlandish' (I use the term advisedly) bias is the minimization of the role of English composers: the importing of their style is mentioned, but not their role in the dissemination of the polyphonic Mass cycle. Another notable casualty is Palestrina, whose achievement is summed up in a single sentence (p.125), presumably because he was Italian. Surely a crucial aspect of this entire period is that composers of several countries helped create a truly `international' style. On a broader scale, the opportunity could here have been taken, when discussing areas which have received relatively little public exposure, to stress the general point (so well conveyed in part 1) that great musicians do not arise in a vacuum.

Bossuyt fares rather better when dealing with the later stages of the period. Generally, part 2 is less convincing than part 1 because the role of certain figures is undergoing re-evaluation. Just as Dufay is here credited with the virtual invention of a genre that in fact represents a collective achievement, so Josquin's role in ushering in the `Age of Humanism' seems to me over-stated. Echoing Rob C. Wegman, Bossuyt cautions that `Josquin ought not to be used (or misused) as the absolute standard against which all contemporaries are measured' (p.107); yet he opens his chapter on Obrecht, Isaac and La Rue (p.103) with that old chestnut from Howard Mayer Brown's Music in the Renaissance: `Josquin is the giant among his contemporaries, but the others suffer only by comparison with him'. Bossuyt's own evaluation of Josquin is similarly protean: he `succeeded in endowing the musical construction with a hitherto unknown power of expression. He wrote music which nears perfection, speaking to us on both rational and emotional terms', and later, `He was without a doubt one of the first artists who was fully conscious of his abilities and made no secret of the fact' (p.100). It would be sad if Josquin came to be regarded as the Renaissance's answer to Mozart, held up as a composer of `perfect' music, opportunistically trotted out by every politician appearing on Desert island discs.

In many other respects Flemish polyphony communicates an enthusiasm about its subject--surely a prerequisite in a book of this sort. Another essential feature, as I wrote at the start, is its elegance and attractiveness; having taken it on several trips I can also vouch for its durability. The tone of the English translation is rather arch in places (that very Dutch art of delicate periphrasis, used in discussions of the texts of chansons rustiques and the like, comes across as coy in English), but never unpleasantly so. As to minor errors of fact (there are very few misprints), these can be corrected in the subsequent editions that Flemish polyphony deserves to achieve.

I finish (as my introduction unsubtly suggests) with the first thing to strike the reader, and which does so before the book has even been opened. To be fair, Bossuyt sets out his reasons for the title right from the start (p.11), and they seem valid enough on the face of it. In this period `the term "Flanders" was used as pars pro toro, whereby the specific area of Flanders stood for the Low Countries in general'. Elsewhere he cites contemporary practice, observing that `Philip II's northern possessions were known as los estados de Flandes. In Italy, the artists ... from these northern regions were referred to as "Flemings" (fiamminghi; in Spain they were called flamencos) irrespective of their exact place of birth or the language they spoke.' I am tempted to add another reason which Bossuyt omits, that the term `Franco-Flemish' is simply too unwieldy for use (and unattractive as a title) in a book geared to a general audience. But however sensible Bossuyt's explanations may be, any discussion that takes in nationalism and cultural identity is bound to stir up emotions not entirely susceptible to rational debate. To claim that the term `Franco-Flemish' is `absurd [because it] confusingly refers both to the language[s] spoken ... and to the place[s] of birth' will simply not do. By those criteria the term `Flemish' is twice as absurd, since it leaves out of account one of the languages in contention. It is very difficult to suggest a convincing English alternative (let alone one that survives translation into several languages), and therefore easy to sympathize with Bossuyt in his dilemma. All the same, as a Francophone I find the title La polyphonie flamande deeply problematic, and if I were a Walloon I might well find it offensive.

Flemish polyphony is `illustrated' with ten CDs on the Eufoda label (Eufoda 1160-1169) covering the entire period, performed by the Currende Ensemble and Consort, and the Capella San Michaelis under the direction of Eric Van Nevel. These recordings are something of a mixed bag. Those devoted to the later period are more satisfying on all counts, from the choice of pieces and the balance of well-known and relatively unknown works, down to general and specific matters of interpretation. Given the set's pedagogical intention, it is rather embarrassing to find performances of formes fixes chansons that conclude, for instance, a virelai with a restatement of its verse. As a matter of general policy, there might be some practical advantages to excluding large-scale works (i.e. entire Masses), but pedagogically speaking it feels like a missed opportunity. The book, which may be purchased separately, comes free with the boxed set of all ten CDs; however, if one is to choose among them I venture to recommend those discs devoted to Philippe Rogier and Spain (1161), Adrian Willaert and Venice (1160) and Philippe de Monte and the Habsburg court (1164).
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Author:Fitch, Fabrice
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1998
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