"he is the master of the notes. They must do as he wills; as for the other composers, they have to do as the notes will.” Martin Luther
Analyze this music if you will, play it on any instrument such as the piano, and you will still be perplexed in how this music works. On paper, the notes are bare, and the harmony simple. Masterful at the time, sure, but why, with my 21st century ears, do I feel deeply emotional upon hearing this recording today? And why when I replicate these sounds on my piano the music fails to move me as it does here? Perhaps it is in the harmonics of five voices together that makes it impossible to translate these sounds onto anything else. Perhaps it is in the rhythmic flow paired with how each seemingly independent voice becomes symbiotic. Truly this was near the birthplace of the musical musing we’ve since become acquainted with by later composers named counterpoint.
Listen to this on headphones so you can properly hear the weight of the bass singer juxtaposed with the reverberation produced by the others. Merely listening to it on your smartphone or laptop's speakers doesn’t quite have the same affect.
And why at 3:05, when the tenor hits that F, does it make me lose a sense of vocabulary to describe how I feel?
All it is on paper is a D minor chord going to an A minor chord along with a passing tone within the tenor's melodic line: F, E, C.
Trying to theorize the music through a 21st century lens fails me. Before scales were even taught as we know them today, this piece was composed. When I look at early compositional teachings during this time period, the focus were primarily on the relationship between musical intervals, and melodic writing on a mere cluster of 5 notes within a particular modus. The biggest jump, besides the occasional octave, is a fifth within a singular melodic contour. Although the writing appears to be relatively simple, it is very intentional. I cannot comprehend how the mind of a 15th century composer heard music, but I want to seek out music in a similar way. As students, we assume that when we are taught music theory of the western world, there is one way to view how music is done. My first mistake was assuming there was a right way to do it. I find early polyphonic music to be superior than much music I hear in the concert hall today that I suspect we lost something along the way in our musical journey. I suppose to ever think we could “get” music or understand it by hearing a lecture or reading it in a textbook reflects the hubristic nature of humans. As in nature, one cannot offer a part of which requires all to embody.
It doesn’t matter how I attempt to understand the 15th century composer's perspective or if I ever achieve some kind of accurate understanding. When we learn upon the past to incorporate that knowledge into the present, we can never completely capture the original genius. This is how Arvo Pärt discovered his Tintinnabuli technique. Through the study of this music, he interpreted his own way of polyphony. All we could ever hope for are sips of perception, but how can any of us share with each other with what little we have for ourselves?
Anyway, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I don’t even know if anyone else can relate with me on this. I sometimes feel drunk when I listen to music. As if I’m in the presence of an angelic vision, my knees become weak while the sounds begin to purify my unclean mind.