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Tempo changes in Renaissance Masses

Does anyone know if there is any historical justification for the widespread (at least in the UK) habit of speeding up at various points in Renaissance Masses? Quoniam in the Gloria, et resurrexit in the Credo and Hosanna in the Sanctus, for instance. I've always assumed that it was a 19th century affectation and dislike it, and think that if you set the correct tempo at the start of a section you can achieve the desired change of mood by other means. Any thoughts?
Replies (17): Threaded | Chronological
on February 12, 2012 9:58am
Not sure if this is the Chris Watson I know but, be that as it may, I don't know much about historical justification but have always felt that there are plenty of musical justifications.
I am afraid I am guilty of picking several tempi through a Renaissance Mass performance, particularly in concert, to bring the text to life and, in my view at least, to bring out the inherent drama and excitement in the music!
Sorry to be such a 19th centuryist!
Good wishes
on February 12, 2012 11:14am
Hi Chris,
Are you talking about issues of tactus (ie. proportionate tempo changes -- particularly with changes between duple and triple)?  This is usually the case with the sections you are mentioned (Et Resurrexit or the Hosanna in particular). Perhaps the editions you have at hand are not good at giving a sense of the original notation as this can lead to all kinds of performance issues when you are dealing with tactus and mensuration. 
If this is the case, I can suggest the following:
DeFord, Ruth. “Tempo Relationships Between Duple and Triple Time in the Sixteenth Century.” Early Music History 14 (1995): 1-51.
Planchart, Alejandro E. “Tempo and Proportions.” In Performance Practice: Music Before 1600. In Brown, Harold Mayer and Stanley Sadie, eds. Performance Practice: Music Before 1600. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990, 126-40
RMS -- Research Memorandum Series -- published by Chorus America will have an issue next month by Daniel Abraham (me) and James Johns titled "Renaissance and Baroque Performance Practice: Invaluable Resources of the Choral Conductor." It is a fairly lengthy annotated bibliography that you may find useful as there are other sources that speak to this subject. You will be able to download a copy (when it becomes available) at
Daniel Abraham
Director of Choral Activities, American University
Conductor & Artistic Director, Bach Sinfonia
on February 12, 2012 11:48am
Chris:  A couple of thoughts, yes.  Renaissance composers, thoroughly trained in the concept of Taktus and in the meanings and use of both mensuration signs and proportion signs (no time signatures yet, so don't get fooled into thinking that's what you see!), knew exactly what they were doing.  The necessary information is probably right there in the original manuscripts or prints, if you know how to interpret their clear instructions.
Unfortunately, we're faced by several generations of "editors" who simply did NOT understand how to interpret those signs, and did not even consider it important to give us that information in their own editions so we can make our own informed decisions. 
And of course most renaissance composers were also active performers and often leaders of their enembles, so they were perfectly aware of the effect that room or hall acoustics can have on music, and of the adjustments that have to be made when the acoustics change, including tempo changes.  It's one thing to sing in a "dry" room with virtually no reverb, but quite another to sing in a stone cathedral with a 20-second reverb that you have to cut through! 
Now I'm not familiar with the "widespread" habit that you cite, but I would certainly consider it ill-informed if it is NOT based on original markings in the music.  Changes from duple to triple time would virtually always have been accompanied by a 3/2 or 3/1 proportion sign (although too often we get an ambiguous "3" instead, so some decisions have to be made by the musical effect alone).  But again, too many editors neglect to give us that vital information. 
There's a scene in Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" in which each verse starts slowly and graduatlly the speed builds up, faster in each section, and when the exact proportions are observed each one ends with the instrumental ritornello flying like the wind--and it's EXACTLY what the music is intended to do and not subject to the conductor's gut feeling because it's what Monteverdi WROTE!
And much renaissace music is lucky to have survived its 19th century rediscovery when no one realized that those "big" breves and semibreves can move along like modern 8th notes in their original contexts.  But in practice I would absolutely agree that if the initial taktus is right, everything after that should flow from that even with proportion and mensuration changes.  At least that's what the writers TOLD us should happen!
All the best,
on February 12, 2012 3:07pm
Hi Simon - yes, it's me!
John and Daniel - I didn't mean mensuration/tactus changes - I've sung enough Josquin Masses from the original notation to have learned most of those rules. I mean the speeding up in the middle of a section just because the text gets jolly. In the last two days I have sung Palestrina Papae Marcelli and Byrd 5 and the luminous director, who is responsable for the majority of my mortgate payments, does the old fashioned speed up at the points I mentioned. There is no indication in the music at all, and I would argue that the change of mood should come from articulation of the text or increased dynamics or any other rhetorical device (just singing what the chap wrote often does the trick) rather than imposing something on the music. Next time you're listening to a Tallis Scholars recording or a Sunday morning in an English Cathedral you'll hear what I mean! It's that habit that I was questioning.
on February 12, 2012 4:27pm
In the Renaissance, performers were people, not robots. Performers were expected to be musicians capable of exercising good musical judgment, and there's no reason to think they all came to the same conclusions. It's only in the modern age that we have so little regard for performers that they're not allowed to do anything which wasn't written down on the paper or described in a treatise. Forget about "historical justification" and use your ears and judgment to determine whether the tempo changes you're talking about make for a more effective musical presentation. Otherwise your job will be the next one replaced by a smart computer.
on February 12, 2012 5:41pm
Chris:  I can't legitimately argue with either Simon or Allen.  The conductor's ear--as long as it is an educated and experienced ear--really HAS to be the final arbiter.  But knowing the rules and how to apply them is clearly the first step in that educated decision process.  THEN it has to work musically.  Of course renaissance musicians were not robots, but they were well trained and awfully experienced, and unlikely to intend arbitrary variations from the "norm."  So our first job is to understand that norm as closely as possible, but of course not to follow the rules slavishly, especially if they don't work! 
Did renaissance musicians use rubato in their performances?  Can't say; it's remarkably hard to come across original recordings!  But COULD they have?  Of course.  To the extent that Chopin did?  Rather unlikely.
It's mentioned from time to time that Beethoven's metronome markings--and he is one of the first to have taken the machine seriously and actually used it--are very seldom observed by conductors of his music.  It does make you stop and think!  Is thinking that you understand Beethoven's music better than he did all that different from thinking that you know more about theology than God?!!!  (Which a great many modern preachers in fact seem to have convinced themselves they do?)
And no one can argue that we should NOT work from the text, which is where any composer started from, in discovering the right interpretation of what he or she actually wrote to set those words.
But that doesn't keep some decisions from being arbitrary, often capricious, and in a number of cases musically unconvincing!  Just listen to a few contrasting versions of any piece at all on YouTube and it becomes obvious.  That's really the only reason I argue for understanding the rules and the practice FIRST, and then proceding from there to find what the MUSIC wants to do.  It's quite often right!!  It's one thing to feel that a change in the emotional content of a text can best be expressed by changing the tempo, but we owe it to the composer to discover first whether HE (or she) thought the same thing, and if so how it was carried out, or if not, why it was not.  Not quite the same thing!  In the words of Julius Herford, "first we look once into the score," not necessarily into our own emotional reaction to it.  That comes later.
All the best,
on February 12, 2012 11:45pm
Thanks for your responses. I can't argue with most of what's been said either, and I've always argued that music isn't music until it's turned from a printed code into sound in live performance. And I'm also persuaded that while it's interesting, and a good starting point, to observe a composer's markings one should feel free to make one's own mind up about a particular piece. That's one of the things that makes music making interesting. But my original question, which was about a very specific habit in performances of Renaissance Masses, remains unanswered! I simply wanted to know when that habit arose, as I've been stuck with it all my life and have never found it musically satisfying!
on February 13, 2012 8:48am
   Allow me to make some suggestions regarding your dilemma of the Renaissance tempo as recorded by the fifteenth and sixteenth-century treatises without writing another dissertation (God help me!). Part of the problem in coping with sixteenth-century notation is that durational measurement was undergoing a transition from the proportional or mensural system of the late-fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to the modern system which was more-or-less established by the first quarter of the seventeenth century. As a result of this flux in notational systems, interpretation of mensural signs is not only difficult for the modern conductor, but often proved equally frustrating and confusing for the sixteenth-century performer. It is the evenness of the tact measured against the shift of the proportional values, or the note content, which provides the variety and contrast to the score. In the later half of the sixteenth century, the performer was encouraged to vary his tempo according to the textual demands, so you are indeed in good company to vary your tempi according to the meaning of the text as in the Mass movements, keeping in mind that as a general rule, sacred music was more conservative than secular---some things never change!
            Let me give you a quick list of names of treatise writers who address this issue, keeping in mind that there is not enough space here to elaborate. These writers address issues of tempo based on text, the tact as it relates to notation, tempo and note value, tempo and dynamic, speech accent and tempo, secular/sacred tempo, nationality considerations—take you pick!
Jacob of Liege-c.1340, Luis de Milan-1536, Sebald Heyden-1537, Alonso de Mudarra-1546, Heinrich Glareanus-1547, Loys Bourgeois-1550, Nicolo Vicentino-1555, Gioseffo Zarlino da Chioggia-1558, Lodovico Zacconi-1622, Mic
hael Praitorus-1619. I hope this is of some assistance to you. It is a terribly complex and often ambiguous subject.
Gary Fisher
on February 13, 2012 7:20pm
Chris:  Well, if it IS a particularly British thing (and Simon seems to have recognized it right away), I'm afraid that most of us aren't familiar with the practice, so we CAN'T comment on its history.  How about some of the folks around my age who have been singing for a long time.  Have you always been conducted in this way?
on February 13, 2012 7:40pm
Gary:  Yes, it was a time of transition, but a great deal of early 17th century music appears to have followed the older conventions.  Certainly true of Monteverdi, and also true of Schütz.
Personal experience:  In a graduate seminar we were each given pages of a ms. that originated somewhere in Eastern Europe in the early 16th century and was still being added to in the early 17th.  My folos included a piece from Schütz's "Psalmen Davids" of 1619, so it probably dated from the years immediately after that date.  And in it Schütz was using the older mensuration/proportion system to the extent that I discovered one wonderful place where the proportions changed in DIFFERENT bars, which made the relationship perfectly clear.  We aren't always that lucky!
All the best,
on February 14, 2012 6:58am
As a generation and more of scholarship on Historically Informed Performance has argued, the violent reaction AGAINST rubato that settled over early music in the late 20th century had more to do with Modernist aesthetics than with the supposed rediscovery of authentic practices. While this argument was most often used against sewing-machine-like performances of Baroque repertory, there is no reason that it is not applicable to the Renaissance as well.  As John mentions above, we have no reason to believe that Renaissance singers did not use rubato. And as Gary mentions, there is ample evidence that tempos did fluctuate according to the text. Of course, we don't know exactly how much, and we never will know. But I for one reject the notion that singers at the height of the Humanist movement marched through motets and masses like automata. (In fact, although I am no Renaissance scholar, I suspect that the very notion of "strict time" is anachronistic when we talk about the 16th century.) Just step outside the chapel for a moment and think about contemporaneous madrigals. Can one imagine singing that repertory with an unchanging tactus? If the goal is to stimulate emotions in the listeners, and to paint pictures in their minds, a rigidly steady beat is the last thing you'd want. (For the extreme case, consider Gesualdo with a metronome.) Of course the sacred repertory had different genres with different performance expectations, but as the century wore on why wouldn't elements of the madrigal aesthetic have migrated over, at least a little? To me the question is not "Should this practice be happening at all?" but "To what extent do WE feel this is appropriate" and "Are we making artistic choices, or just following an unquestioned convention like 'Speed up slightly at Et resurrexit'?"
on February 14, 2012 7:01pm
Hi Nathaniel - very good point at the end. I suppose part of my frustration is the feeling that it just happens because it always has! And at its worst it is not a slight speeding up but sometimes almost doubling the tempo without warning, usually when at least one part is in the middle of a word, often having the effect of masking the implied tempo change written in to the music in the first place.
I've always argued for rubato in early music, and have never been interested in "authentic" performances for their own sake. Singing Lassus's Lagrime di San Pietro for Philippe Herreweghe, for instance, is a wonderful experience (you can find a film we did of it in a Tuscan church, for Arte a couple of summers ago, on YouTube) and no two bars are the same length - everything is a result of his response to the text, and when we did a run of 13 performances in 12 days no two were the same.
And as for Gesualdo with a metronome, don't get me started. I'm about to do two performances of some of his stuff with the metronome very clearly ticking in the background, and it drives me bonkers!
My original question has brought up some very interesting and slightly tangential replies, no doubt partly due to my not being very clear, but it does seem as if we are all agreed that a flexible approach to the music, governed by the text (though maybe less so in the long melismas of a Taverner votive antiphon) is the way forward.
And the question of when English Cathedral choirs started doing these sudden speed changes that vex me so much will have to remain unanswered for the time being!
on February 14, 2012 9:16pm
Nathaniel:  Your post is much appreciated, but I'm not sure I can agree about "modernist aesthetics" having an influence.  In fact I'm not even sure what that means, so I guess I've never been influenced by them!  Since we will never have recordings of historical music in situ, we have to depend to a large degree on what people wrote, and that's unfortunate because (a) people do not write about the things that everyone simply takes for granted; and (b) we can't expect EVERYONE to agree on ANYTHING, and indeed they don't!
But I'm a little surprised at your vehemence about rejecting steady tempo in any form.  There's nothing intrincically good or bad about it, just as there's nothing intrincically good or band about a reasonable amount of rubato (and a great deal to recommend adaptation to room acoustics or lack thereof!).  But I DO think we have to accept that the composer/conductor/singer/leaders knew what they were doing, since they were after all professionals.
Nor do I see any reason to assume that the madrigal repertoire and performance practice--about which we know little more than we do of sacred music's performance practice--should necessarily have influenced the performance of sacred music in its native habitat.  True, the same composers often composed both--Palestrina and Victoria were exceptions--but they seemed remarkably adept at keeping one kind of music separate from the other, just as composers today have to be.  In fact one could equally well argue that the influence of dance music and its steady tempo would have had just as much influence in the opposite direction, but I do NOT make that argument because again we simply don't know.
But if you suggest that speeding up at the "Et resurrexit" was a period convention, and not just a modern one, it's a little difficult to find any actual documentary support for that, and indeed I'd suspect that the composers had plentiful notational devices by which they could have indicated it if they had wanted it.
Agreed, without question, that we have to re-interpret music of the past for both ourselves and our audiences, but I see nothing wrong with trying to understand how THEY approached it.  That is, in fact, the entire reason behind the modern performance practice movement in early music, not some 20th century aesthetic that didn't exist "way back when."
Much was written about tempo.  But what we're really talking about here is expression.  I just looked through Donnington's quotations on tempo (in "The Interpretation of Early Music," somewhat out of date but invaluable nevertheless), and it's interesting that no early writers seemed to talk about what would later be called "rubato."  Donnington himself summed it up thus:  "The most important variables, however, are the temperament and the passing mood of the performer.  Fine music has depths and shades of meanng which cannot all be fully brought out in the same performance.  We can make the most of its brilliant side, of its tender side and so forth, but not all at the same time."
He quotes Bemetzrieder (1771): "Taste is the true metronome."  Quantz (1752) wrote:  "The sense of the words should be taken into account, the movement of the notes, especially the fastest, and in quick arias the skill and the voice of the singer.  ...  It is the same with church music as it is with arias; except that both expression and tempo should be more restrained than in opera, to show respect for the sacredness of the place."
But interestingly enough, no comparable quotations from the renaissance.
All the best,
on February 15, 2012 1:05am
Hi all,
a few general comments first. "Renaissance Masses" covers about 150 years of music. Think back 150 years from now (or 150 years from 1850) and consider the stylistic changes in that time. It would be quite hard to find too many common denominators, I suspect. I think we need to assume something similar for the period 1450 to 1600. My second comment is on the common assumption that mensural notation (in all its mathematical glory) was the dominant notational system all through the mentioned period. Yes, music was still predominantly written without barlines, but many sources prove that the skill of reading the old notation decayed during the sixteenth century and singers, for example, tended to interpret all triple time passages in the same manner (sesquialtera). So any criticism of the incapability of modern singers to read for example the proportional relationships of Josquin's masses would have already been common in the sixteenth century.
I completely agree with the voices in this discussion for artistic freedom in the interpretation of the Renaissance Masses. Fortunately, we also have support from sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century musicians and theorists. Ritardandos in finals cadences are mentioned as early as 1512 (Cochlaeus) and strongly supported by Praetorius a century later. Writers who recommend tempo variation within a piece (according to the content of the text) include Nicolo Vicentino (1555), Gioseffo Zarlino (1558) and Lodovico Zacconi (1592). Agazzari (1603) writes that the beat can be quickened, for example, in passages where choirs in polychoral works toss the same motif back and forth. Seth Calvisius (1602) and Michael Praetorius (1619), also mirror these views. Calvisius stated that the tactus can be varied according to the harmony and text of a piece. Praetorius, in turn, believed that varying the beat according to the text lends a performance dignity and grace. They do not give examples of specific works, but I find hard to see why it would not apply to the Mass, especially the movements (Gloria, Credo) that include several separate passages in strongly contrasting moods.
A good introduction to the discussion on tempo is found in Kurtzman, Jeffrey 2003. The Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. Music, context, performance. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. A detailed analysis (in the English language) of most Renaissance theorists on tempo is Bank, Joannes A. 1972. Tactus, tempo and notation in mensural music from the 13th to the 17th century. Amsterdam: Annie Bank.
Perhaps the '19th century affectation' is after all not quite as anachronistic as Chris assumes. But one thing I have learned through my studies into sixteenth-century performance practices is that our biggest folly is to assume that there was only one correct way of performing music in that time. Everything I have learned points to a greater diversity and freedom than our contemporary understanding of how Renaissance music is to be performed. We would like to know what is the right way to perform the music, but in my undertanding historical evidence teaches us there were always many right ways to perform it.
on February 15, 2012 7:07am
John - I didn't meant to be vehement at all; I was just putting out stimulating ideas and questions. I have no expertise or authority in these matters, and defer to the experts.
At the beginning of my previous post I was referring to Richard Taruskin's arguments, first proposed in the 1980s, that performances like Christopher Hogwoods of the time unintentionally owed more to Stravinsky than to 18th-century practice. This position is hard to summarize in a sentence. See "Text and Act".
I don't reject steady tempo, nor do I suggest that speeding up at Et resurrexit is a period convention. On the contrary, I mentioned it precisely because it is certainly a *modern* convention; I know nothing at all about its 16th-century status. But that is not a reason not to do it. I am delighted by all the quotations coming in from the Renaissance scholars giving us license with tempos. Ironically, when I do Renaissance polyphony, I tend to try to keep a fairly steady tactus.  I would probably make an exception for a Credo (If I did it at all), but even then, I prefer fine adjustments to subito presto.
Finally, I am out ona limb here, but since the Counter-Reformation inspired at least some composers to experiment with a more overtly madrigalistic approach to sacred polyphony, I really can't see how the performance style would not have been influenced, at least a bit. Perhaps not, though....
This is the best thread I have read in a while. It makes me want to go back to singing Renaissance polyphony all the time. But that's not gonna happen, alas.
on February 15, 2012 8:11pm
Nathaniel:  Fair enough, and if I came on a little too strong I apologize.
OK, Stravinsky.  There's a LOT of Stravinsky, but anyone who blames him for mechanistic tempos has to be talking about the ballets, and in particular about "The Rite of Spring," and that was not only HIS conception of bringing the story to life but Diagalev's as well, for whom he wrote the music.  (And Nijinsky, who danced it, of course.)  But the point is that that was DANCE music, sacred only in the widest (and wildest!) sense.
The only connection I can see between the Counter-Reformation (1542-1562 roughly) and the development of the madrigal is a temporal one.  It coincided roughly with the "Golden Age" period of madrigal development.  But what actually happened (and remember that the same composers were writing madrigals AND sacred music--in fact most of them had church gigs and wrote madrigals on the side--is that the kind of Franco-Flemish polyphony that had become common in sacred music was making its way into madrigals, which had started out pretty four-square and almost indistiguishable from the earlier Frottole.  And unfortunately a correlation is not the same as causel-and-effect in EITHER direction.
A musical performance is either convincing or it isn't.  And beauty is probably in the ear of the listener.  But if you can't go back to singing renaissance polyphony all the time, try to do it at least part of the time.  The purity clears the mind and settles the soul!
All the best,
on February 16, 2012 7:25am
Discussions about singing rightly discuss the physical -breath, musculature, jaw placement etc.
 Do we not suppose there is a neuological/ emotional component to musical responses. Compatability in marital relationships might be akin to critical divergence.
 Consider the terms used to describe the human sexual responses.
Is it an anomaly that celibates created/promoted the most sensuous aural experiences?
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