8 December 2016
Dr. Thomas Peattie
Final Research Paper
Performing Vocal Music of the Renaissance
Music has existed for thousands of years, if not longer. The earliest musical notation known to date is from a cuneiform tablet created ca. 2000 BC, found in modern day Iraq in the 1960s.[footnoteRef:1] The oldest known musical instruments are even older than that. At an age of ca. 40,000 years old, four carved-bone flutes found in the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in France in the 1990s claim that distinction.[footnoteRef:2] Unfortunately for modern day musicians and historians, what that music sounded like is a mystery. Although music has been around for millennia, the Renaissance period is the earliest period in which we find the largest amount of repertoire. This period contains some of the most beautiful and challenging vocal music ever written. Indeed, the frequency in programming of repertoire from this period stands as a testament to its musical and historical validity and endurance. Because such a wealth of quality material exists and lends itself well to pedagogical application, we should be eager to teach it in our classrooms and program it in our concerts. In teaching and programming this repertoire, then, we must undertake the task of how to perform it most accurately in its historical lens. The performance aspects I will look at most closely are vocal/choral quality, ornamentation and improvisation, tempo, and expression, and pitch. [1: M.L. West, “The Babylonian Musical Notation and the Hurrian Melodic Texts,” Music and Letters 75, no. 2 (May 1994).] [2: Chip Walter, “The First Artists,” National Geographic (January 2015): 1, accessed December 1, 2016, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/01/first-artists/walter-text.]
Many singers, and instrumentalists for that matter, in my experience tend to shy away from music of the Renaissance period either because it is “too hard” or “boring.” In most cases this is simply due to their unfamiliarity with the time period and general unawareness of what makes these pieces exciting and how to appreciate them in their own right without comparing them to other genres. Another drawback for many musicians is that almost all of the music written during this period is for voices and, as such, much of the repertoire is well-refined and developed and often, quite challenging. This would suggest that only trained, professional musicians are capable of successfully performing these pieces today; however, many classically trained singers are unable to produce the lighter, agile quality of this period thus, untrained singers who are talented and eager to learn will often, with proper coaching, produce the best, most authentic sound.
With regards to sound, Renaissance vocalists produced a lighter tone quality with no pitch wavering in terms of vibrato.[footnoteRef:3] In fact, though the “straight-tone” style of singing is generally accepted as most authentic style for this music,...