Jan 12

Kyrie II: Stile Antico

In the last post, we looked at the major shift in thought and practice at the beginning of the Baroque period: the rejection of the complex polyphony of composers like Palestrina, and the embracing of the clear and simpler monody of composers like Monteverdi.

But of course, once an artistic form exists, it exists.  On a lighter level, we see this all the time in contemporary pop culture.  For example, ‘50s rock-and-roll was rejected by the hippie and folk music culture of the ‘60s, only to re-emerge in Grease and Happy Days a decade later.

But when an earlier genre re-emerges, it comes back with its own set of associations.  In its second iteration, 1950s pop music didn’t just come back as pure rock-and-roll: it returned as an anodyne, sentimentalized reminder of a simpler time, before the tumultuous ‘60s.

The same thing is true of the return of Renaissance polyphony in the late Baroque period.  It didn’t come back in a pure form; it came back as a self-conscious reminder of the old, with all of the related associations.

In a sense, that music never really left, at least in the church—even in the Lutheran church.  In Bach’s own Thomaskirche, the choirboys sang regularly from a collection of Latin and German motets, including works by many Italian composers, including Gabrieli, Croce and Marenzio.

Dresden court and chapel

Dresden court and chapel

George Stauffer, who gives the opening lecture in the Dessoff Refracted Bach festival, reports that the composers in the Dresden court, for whom Bach wrote the Kyrie and Gloria, routinely wrote in this Renaissance style—now dubbed the ancient style, or stile antico—for certain parts of their Mass settings.

In his B Minor Mass, Bach writes a number of movements in the stile antico:

These movements are identifiable by a number of characteristics.  Most important is the fact that there is no separate orchestral part; instead, the instruments double the vocal parts.  Also, the kind of writing is not the typical style of Baroque counterpoint, which was typified by the fugue.  Instead, the polyphony, which is more like a series of canons based on new motives for each section of text, resembles the seamless texture of Renaissance polyphony.  Finally, the phrasing it much less periodic and “square”, giving the music a certain “timelessness” and unpredictability, especially compared to the stock chord progressions found in concerto-style Baroque techniques.

The perfect example of stile antico compositional style, though not from Bach, can be found in one of the most beloved pieces in the choral repertoire, Antonio Lotti’s Crucifixus.  I remember singing this piece in high school and being surprised, many years later, to discover that Lotti was a Baroque composer, so convincing is his faux-Renaissance style!

In our journey together through the Mass, which strives to find meaning behind Bach’s choices, the real question is: what is the theological significance of his use of the stile antico in these settings?

St Peter's Basilica dome

We will look at the specific cases as they arise, but in general, I believe that Bach the Lutheran uses this style to refer to the capital-C “Catholic” church in a more global sense of the Christian church.  Mind you, this doesn’t mean that he’s extending an olive branch; the Lutherans of that period were strongly anti-Rome (or at the very least, anti-papist), all the more so since the various religious wars of the 17thcentury were very much in people’s memories.

But from a musical standpoint, in the same way that the compilers of the Christian bible subsumed the Hebrew “Old Testament” as if to claim it as their own possession, Bach seems to be claiming the musical tradition of the Roman church as the inheritence of the Lutheran church.  Gregorian chants, Renaissance polyphony and even the very liturgy of the Mass—the appropriation of these ancient traditions by Bach seems to rewrite history in a way, with the Protestant church emerging as the true successor to St. Peter.

Luther's inheritance?

Luther's inheritance?

In this way, the stile antico represents the continuity of tradition, as well as representing the church itself.  As we look as the four different stile antico movements, we’ll search for the possible theological meanings behind Bach’s very deliberate choice of an outdated technique, rendered new again through the genius of his craftsmanship.