View Full Version : Flemish domination in the arts: north-south relations

Friday, November 18th, 2005, 11:28 PM
Flemish domination in the arts
north-south relations in painting


Although most north European painters paid little attention to what was going on in Italy, the reverse was not true. Both Italian painters and the Italian public paid great attention to what the northerners were doing. Those modern historians who claim that the northerners were not true representatives of the Renaissance but were fundamentally continuing the old Gothic traditions have to contend with the fact that to their Italian contemporaries there was nothing old-fashioned about them.

Flemish paintings by artists such as Jan van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden were certainly admired and collected in Italy in the 15th century. Portraits were particularly prized because of their lifelike detail, but other styles were also current. For instance, a huge altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes depicting the Nativity was set up in the Portinari Chapel in Florence around 1475, causing great admiration amongst the Florentine artists; and although stylistically it had little direct effect on the indigenous Florentine tradition, individual features of it, such as the portrayal of the shepherds, are found repeatedly in later paintings. Technical developments from Northern Europe were also adopted, as when oil painting was introduced into Italy from Flanders in the 1450s.

Northern Italy was in fact the only area of fifteenth century Europe with a sufficiently developed style of its own to escape complete domination by Flemish influence. Naples and Southern Italy, like Spain and France, were basically provincial outposts of the Flemish style, and although a painter such as Antonello de Messina, who was active principally in Naples, wholeheartedly adopted north Italian inventions such as linear perspective, his fundamental style is just as Flemish as it is Italian.
music in Italy

In music the situation is very much more confused, largely because hardly any written music by Italian composers survives from the fifteenth century. It is for this reason that the account I have given in this website of music in the early Renaissance is devoted almost exclusively to the Anglo-Burgundian-Flemish tradition.

Even in Italy itself, far more written music survives by Flemish and French composers than by Italians. It was not until the 1490s that an indigenous tradition of Italian notated music started to develop, when Isabella d'Este in Mantua began to commission poetry and music from native Italians and Lorenzo the Magnificent promoted carnival songs in Florence (though many of the latter were also written by foreigners). Before that point, if we were to rely solely on surviving records of notated music, we would conclude that music in fifteenth century Italy was totally dominated by the Anglo-Flemish style.

Yet, as I have already mentioned, there was also an indigenous Italian style, cultivated both by the poets and by popular musicians, involving solo singing with improvised accompaniment. We find frequent descriptions of this in accounts of music making in Italy at that time, and the poets and musicians who performed it were clearly highly regarded. It appears very probable that, although the Anglo-Flemish style is found more frequently in the records of notated music, the indigenous Italian style was more frequent in actual performance.
the Italian style in music

Obviously the accompaniment of this solo Italian music, being improvised, was not written down, and nor, generally, were the tunes. Consequently the only idea we have of what the music sounded like derives from descriptions provided by their audiences, and these descriptions are tantalisingly uninformative. Did these improvisators play an ornamented version of the vocal melody in heterophony? Did they play an improvised counter-melody? Did they play in faburden-like paralled thirds or sixths? Contemporary pictures show people singing or reciting while playing a fiddle-like instrument, the lira da braccio, which was designed to be capable of playing chords. Sometimes they show a performer singing to the lute. Either scene would be compatible with any of these methods of performance.

The evidence we have suggests that by the end of the fifteenth century - and, indeed, perhaps all along - the Italian style of music consisted of improvisation over a standardised chord sequence, with the improvisation carried out both in the voice part and in the accompaniment. The objective of the improvisation would be to convey the meaning of the words as expressively as possible, in much the same way as happens in blues or gospel music today, using a combination of clear and emotionally charged declamation and musical embellishment.

However, it seems likely that there was a difference between the music of the fifteenth century and a modern blues. The essence of blues is the expression of feeling. The essence of the Italian style seems to have been the communication of feeling. That is to say, while blues can be a purely private music, the Italian style was essentially intended for an audience.

As we have seen, mediaeval composers were not primarily interested in the effect of their music on an audience. They were not concerned either with communicating emotion or with the intelligibility of the words. Consequently they paid little attention to verbal sounds and rhythms. The fifteenth century Italians, however, were very much influenced by the ideas of the new humanist scholars. Following what they believed were classical precedents, they took great care with declamation, in the interests both of emotional expressiveness and of the clarity of words from the standpoint of the listener. Yet again we come across this increasing concern for the listener's perspective, which demonstrates the Renaissance regard for the individual viewpoint.
the influence of the Italian style

It is this expressive and declamatory style that must have so impressed those northern composers who visited Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century and which induced them to introduce a similar treatment of words in their own polyphonic compositions. It is interesting that this influence does not have appear to have occurred earlier in the century. Dufay spent much of his life in Italy, yet he seems to have had less interest in declamation even than earlier English composers such as Power and Dunstable. Perhaps the declamatory style developed only gradually in Italy, with the increasing influence of humanism, and only became sufficiently advanced to create an impression on the northerners in the second half of the century.

It is also interesting to speculate just when the technique of improvising over standardised chords originated. Was it already in existence in the 1520s and 1530s, when the English composers were revolutionising the musical style of northern Europe? We have seen from the example of Ciconia that Italian music was already progressing towards the new harmonic thinking in the first decade of the fifteenth century. It is quite conceivable that the approach to a coherent musical space developed on two fronts simultaneously, namely England and Italy. We would then need to explain why the composers of the low countries learned from the English rather than from the Italians, but that could simply be because the English style was more similar to their own and showed them a way of reconciling their traditional love of polyphony with a harmonic approach.

Harmonic thinking and word setting may not be the only ways in which Italian music was as advanced as the music of the northern composers. It is quite possible that some of the innovations of fifteenth century music came about first in the instrumental accompaniments of Italian poet-musicians and were only later transferred to vocal music. For instance, at a cadence the leap of a fifth in the bass line would have come more naturally to an instrumentalist than to a singer, particularly if the performer were playing a stringed instrument, since the lowest strings would generally be tuned a fifth or a fourth apart. The "octave leap" cadence we find in the later music of Dufay and his contemporaries, which creates the effect of a leap of a fifth by crossing the two lowest parts, could be seen as an attempt to transcribe instrumental practice in a way that maintained the traditional stepwise movement of the principal vocal parts and also made it easier to avoid parallelism.
northern domination in music

Although elusive but important developments may have been taking place in Italy, it is still clear that, in music as in painting, it was the Flemish who were the dominant influence in Europe as a whole throughout the fifteenth century.

French composers such as Brumel, Compère and Mouton came into prominence late in the century, but they clearly followed the Flemish style, and although there were local fashions in the music of the French court, such as the chanson rustique, these were derived from models created by Josquin and other Flemish composers. It was not until the end of the High Renaissance that a truly independent French tradition came into being, with such composers as Jannequin and Sermisy.

Similarly, in Spain and Portugal there were no composers of note until the near the end of the century, when Peñalosa, Escobar and the secular composer Encina came into prominence. In musical style they were all basically Flemish, although Encina adopted popular Spanish musical forms such as the villancico, and, as a poet and playwright, he became notable as the founding father of Spanish secular drama.

Likewise polyphonic composition did not take root in Germany until the end of the century, with composers such as Agricola and Finck, both of whom composed in the Flemish style. However, German music took an independent track in the creation of a strong indigenous tradition of keyboard music, as evinced by Conrad Paumann (1410-1473) and the composers of the Glogauer Liederbuch (c.1460). As we have noted elsewhere, German culture has always favoured instrumental music.