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Hard Songs

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“Artifice and complexity” is the phrase commonly used to characterize the aesthetic world cultivated by fifteenth-century composers. Their music employs dense contrapuntal structures, extensive intertextuality, and elaborate transformations like retrograde and mensuration canons. Viewed from the vantage point of the sixteenth century (following the advent of music printing and the religious reformations), the fifteenth century would seem to represent the last flowering of artifice for artifice’s sake.

What makes something difficult in this period? Is complex music difficult to compose, perform, or understand? Where should we set the bar for calling something “hard”? What cultural or intellectual work did the category of “difficulty” perform in this repertoire? And is “difficulty” the right concept at all? Surely what we find difficult is not the same as what late-medieval musicians did; and surely the values and judgments surrounding difficulty are not universal.

Through scholarly presentations, a workshop with professional singers of early music, and a roundtable discussion, this symposium addresses an issue fundamental to understanding the musical cultures of the fifteenth century.

This symposium is hosted by Assistant Professor Emily Zazulia with generous support from the Hellman Fellows Fund.