15th & 16th Century Music

I began singing and editing Renaissance motets and masses many years ago. The editing, using Finale, was to supply material for singing, since I’m part of a small group that has been regularly meeting for some time. It was always more rewarding to produce my own editions than to use commercially available ones, or photocopies from various complete works series.

Over time, my ideas about editing have changed. When I started, I was just lifting pieces from published scores to produce a score of my own. The next step was to bring those scores up to the level one sees in scholarly editions, with a clear indication of editorial accidentals, the addition of an incipit showing the original clef and the range of each part and, later, by preserving the original time values rather than reducing them. From there, I gradually became more interested in the way this music would have looked to musicians at the time. To this end, I started producing parts to go along with the score. Because those original parts didn’t have barlines, I decided to dispense with barlines in mine, even though that represented a major headache, since no barlines mean no ties, which means you have to substantially re-edit each part. The other problem with parts with no barlines is that it’s difficult, if something goes off the rails, to find a place to start. To that end, I’ve sometimes added rehearsal letters. The end product of all of this industry is, for each piece, a score and parts. I figure this is about as thorough as you can get, but of course a downside to it is that each piece requires a lot more pages. And to make matters worse, I like to use a fairly large font, because it’s easier on the eyes. There are some good editions out there, such as the Byrd motets by David Fraser, but I find them too small to be usable. What I need these days is “geezer font.”

A major development that facilitated this work was the digitization and online publication of a couple of big collections of 16th-century music books. If you look in the links section of this website, you’ll be pointed to the Bavarian State Library in Munich, and the British Library holdings. But since the parts I was producing, and we were increasingly using to sing from, began resembling the originals more and more, it occurred to me that we may have come full circle, and that, with the availability of the originals online, it was no longer worth the effort to edit my own parts. I’m still not sure whether this is true though, because the originals are hard to annotate, they can contain errors, and the text underlay is often very problematical. So I’m still looking at this, going back and forth.

In the course of checking to see what was available, I ended up downloading a bunch of documents and assembling them, with more or less effort (including tweaking files with Adobe InDesign) to generate easily legible partbooks where possible. I’ve placed a lot of these in the “Facsimiles” section here, where they are identified with their RISM numbers, taken from Series B: Recueils Imprimés, XVIe-XVIIe siècles. For prints associated with a single composers (RISM Series A), such as Lassus, Byrd, and Willaert, you’ll find the pdf facsimiles under the composer’s name.

My interest in early music overlapped with my view of musicianship, so there’s also that angle. Because it’s way more fun, and much better training to do music with another person, I started years ago to collect all the 16th duos I could lay my hands on. I sang them with my computer, which was ok too. A lot of that music is now to be found in the counterpoint text which is described elsewhere on this site. But here, just for fun, are seventeen canons, which fall somewhat under the category of “head banger” music, because only one part is written out, so that you have to follow a rule in order to derive the other part(s). Someone should write a book about all the head-banging things going on in music that aren’t expected to be heard, such as the same part moving at two different speeds, or one going backwards, or someone leaving out all the notes of a certain value. There’s a whole side to music which most people, who figure it’s nice to listen, never discover. It’s a story that extends through Bach, and into much later music. Not the sort of thing your local classical music radio station would want you refliecting on at any length – bad for business if people find out that music isn’t necessarily about listening, or even sound.