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The Rise of European Music: 1380-1500.

Forty years ago it took Gustave Reese just over 1,000 pages to survey the music of Western and Central Europe in the period 1380-1600 (Music in the Renaissance, New York, 1954). Reinhard Strohm uses about three-quarters of this prose space (actually, somewhat less than this since his musical examples are much longer than those used by Reese) to deal with a century less. To be more precise, Reese's pioneering volume devotes about 350 pages to the fifteenth century. Do we therefore know twice as much about the period as we did in the years after World War II?

It would be pointless to try to answer such a crudely put question. But the comparison is not an idle one; Strohm acknowledges the value of Reese's work and indeed models the plan of his book - that of an account of 'central' musical language, spreading to 'peripheral' areas - on that of his predecessor (6). Even his method, alternating masses of factual data with dose description of selected pieces, resembles Reese's procedure in a general way.

Of course there are great differences between the two scholars' work. First of all, there are indeed quantities of new information almost everywhere here, and in certain areas - particularly Strohm's account of English music and that of the 'conciliar' period of the early fifteenth century in France and Italy - his own work and his summary of recent scholarly advances significantly alter earlier views. The book is as up-to-date as could possibly be expected; important published work of the last five years, including that of John Nadas, Margaret Bent, Rob Wegman, Anna Maria Busse Berger, Thomas Brothers, David Fallows, and Patrick Macey, shows the continuing vitality of musicological scholarship on fifteenth-century subjects without calling for major changes in Strohm's account.

Gustave Reese was famous for his ability to give a balanced account of the work of other scholars and also for his astoundingly detailed knowledge of the repertory. Reinhard Strohm also knows a great deal of music and can describe it very well, mixing analytical comment with occasional and highly effective bursts of enthusiasm, such as his rhapsodic account of Ciconia's O rosa bella (103-05). And he does acknowledge the work of many other scholars with respectful attention if not always with full agreement.

Indeed the author, unlike the self-effacing Reese, has strong opinions and can sometimes give them strong utterance, often showing old material in a new light and challenging us to rethink much of what we thought we knew. Strohm is a 'Northerner' by preference: France (including Burgundy), the Netherlands, and his adopted England are central in his story of fifteenth-century music; Germany, Spain, and Italy are peripheral. This view is, in a way, a reversion to nineteenth-century musical historiography, but with a difference: Strohm is something of an anti-aristocrat, stressing middle-class lay musical patronage and musical activity wherever he can, thus maintaining the position advanced in his Music in Late Medieval Bruges of 1985. He is also 'anti-Renaissance'; the word does not appear in his title and the concept is one he thinks of minor importance in the musical thought and practice of his chosen period. Finally, he views music's 'unwritten tradition' - its cultivation often seen by musciologists as a thing essentially other than its written form, and thus unrecoverable by modern scholarship - as something closely related to at least some levels of written music and in any event not a thing apart.

Though I'm sure he would deny it, Strohm has in all of this a single adversary, Nino Pirrotta. His fair evaluation of other scholars' work does not extend to that of Pirrotta, which he reads with a kind of Teutonic literalness that results in a distortion of the great Italian scholar's views. This, plus the oddly perfunctory account of later fifteenth-century Italian musical culture which doses the book, is my one serious reservation about it. Less serious, but something I feel must be mentioned, is Strohm's tendency to blur factually supportable argument with speculation - without any cautionary signs to the reader.

These reservations apart, the book is a remarkable achievement. Fifteenth-century specialists will not like everything in it but they will surely consult and profit from it; and graduate students will have an invaluable new text to aid them in learning about one of the most extraordinarily rich periods in Western musical history.

JAMES HAAR University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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Author:Haar, James
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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