When young girls read music they become altos. I’ve been singing all my life, in churches and schools and community choirs, and as far back as I can remember I was assigned the alto part because of my ability to read music and, I now realize, because I understood how the parts related to one another. In middle school, to my choir director’s amazement, I started singing the alto lines out of sheer boredom. She assumed that I had perfect pitch (I didn’t), but admonished me to go back to the melody so as not to distract the other students. As I sought out more challenging performance environments—my church’s adult choir, high school chamber choir, vocal jazz, college glee club—I routinely volunteered to sing the alto part because I was good at it. By the time I graduated from college I was hooked, and years of lazy singing and a lack of patience for the practice room had left me with mediocre vocal technique that excluded me from singing soprano in the sorts of choirs I strove to join.
But I am a great alto. I love orienting myself to the parts around me, tuning chords until they sparkle, singing Bach’s weirdest and juiciest lines (this is my favorite), and exploiting the rare heroic “alto moment” after thirty-five minutes of supporting work. This passion has led to some unforgettable opportunities—world travel, lifelong friendships, life-changing collaborations, and thousands of hours of rehearsal (once without electricity). And it has also shaped every aspect of my music theoretical work, from the repertoire I study to the questions I ask to the ways in which I answer them.
As an undergraduate I fell in love with Renaissance music. I craved the independence of line; it afforded my alto self opportunities to shine. I strove to show the audience when my rich melodic passage was more important than the parts around me, and to fade away when another voice took over. I loved the thrill of singing in parallel thirds or sixths with another voice for a few measures and the intricate interplay of cadential suspensions and evasive maneuvers, a technique I now know Zarlino calls fuggir la cadenza. As a graduate student I joined Yale’s Schola Cantorum, a semi-professional group that performed almost exclusively Renaissance and Baroque music, and my toolbox as a performer grew. From Simon Carrington I learned to find special moments in a seemingly undifferentiated contrapuntal surface and make them shine, from Andrew Megill I learned about the massive range of colors available to a choir (he once asked us to make a passage in Monteverdi’s Vespers sound like burnished gold), from Masaaki Suzuki I learned the endless expressive capacity of subtle variations in timing. And as I dove deeper into my academic work, I came to cherish our five weekly hours of rehearsal, which rooted me in my body and reminded me that music was a thing that we do, not just a thing that we think and write about.
What I have learned from studying, singing, and writing about Renaissance music is that most of this music is made for singers and players, not for listeners. What’s more, the experience of performing Renaissance music was mediated not by a cpdl.org score with questionable editorial ficta, but rather, through partbooks. For the past few years I have been working on a monograph on homophonic vernacular partsong composed in Western Europe in the decades surrounding the year 1600—it’s called Hearing Homophony: Tonal Expectation at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century. This project would have been impossible a decade ago. Many of the sources I work with are unedited or appear only in old, mostly unusable editions that are sorely in need of updating. Now, thanks to digitization projects from hundreds of libraries around the world, many of the sources I work with are available online (some of my favorites are Gastoldi’s Balletti a cinque voci and Hassler’s Lustgarten). But of course, nothing beats seeing the real thing; I have been fortunate enough to receive funding from The National Endowment for the Humanities and Oberlin College to travel to European libraries and work with dozens of sets of partbooks in person. Partbooks present some interesting challenges. For instance, how do you get to know an unedited collection? (You lay out all five partbooks side-by-side and do your best to piece a partsong together in your head, all while trying not to make too much noise in a silent but echoey reading room.) What do you do when a set of partbooks is bound together? (You ask for digital copies to take home and write in your notes that this particular set was never used for performance—someone purchased it to look impressive on a shelf.) How do you work with a collection where one or more of the partbooks is missing? (You extrapolate from incomplete information, compose your own inner parts when necessary, and even stumble upon the occasional hand-written part!)
I have learned as much from handling sixteenth-century partbooks as I have from my experience singing Renaissance music. I’ve learned to think about how these books were used, and how that changes our understanding of what the music sounded like. For instance, the earliest frottolas were published in fastidious, compact choirbooks. Unlike the partbooks I normally work with, the choirbooks place all four parts together on a pair of facing pages. But what you can’t tell from the (gorgeous) digital images is how tiny these books are! When I saw one in person at the Bibliothèque Saint-Geneviève I realized that it would have been impossible for a group of four singers to perform from this little book. (I made quite a scene in the reading room, too, holding the book at different angles and distances and walking around and squinting, trying to get a sense of how close I would need to be to make sense of the miniscule text underlay.) Whether these pieces were performed by voices or with solo singers and instruments remains an open question, but some of our best evidence comes from the physical objects of the books, not from the contrapuntal details. In her landmark study Composers at Work, Jessie Ann Owens hypothesized that Renaissance composers and musicians must have cultivated a kind of musical memory much different from our own, since there is little evidence that they ever worked with music in score-like formats. In my own experiences in the archives and in my office I have found this to be the case. Over time, it’s becoming easier for me to store lengthy passages in my working memory and play contrapuntal lines off of one another in my head as I move back and forth between two or three partbooks. And the more I sing from partbooks (and ask my students to do the same), the more I learn how much information is encoded in them that I had never noticed before, since my habits of reading are based on the technology of the score. But you can tell a lot from a single part—how the mensural grid aligns with the music, whether a pitch is consonant or dissonant, whether the texture is imitative or freely contrapuntal or homophonic, where the cadences are.
The more time I spend with Renaissance-era sources, the more captivated I am by their mysteries. We have a disciplinary habit of taking scores at their word, but as Ruth DeFord recently reminded us, we simply can’t take musical notation for granted in medieval and Renaissance repertoires. The tantalizing gaps between early sources and the performances they encode is a rich area for new research—we saw several models of this kind of work at SMT this year in a special session sponsored by the Early Music Analysis Interest Group. As I continue to triangulate between analysis, performance, and source study, I feel grateful for the constant reminder that music is a thing that we think and write about, a thing that we do, and a thing that other people not so different from ourselves once did. It is at the intersection of these axes that we do our best work.
Megan Kaes Long is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. She holds a Ph.D. in music theory from Yale University and a B.A. in music from Pomona College. Her work appears in the Journal of Music Theory and Music Theory Spectrum. Her forthcoming monograph, Hearing Homophony: Tonal Expectation at the Turn of the Seventeenth Century, explores how composers of homophonic vernacular partsongs exploited tonal trajectories, and how these repertoires and the cultural and intellectual movements that surrounded them contributed to the emergence of a tonal style in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She is also a mezzo-soprano and performs with several early music ensembles in the Cleveland and Detroit areas.