COMMONPLACES, IMITATION, AND INVENTION: THE ART OF BORROWING AND TRANSFORMATION IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY KEYBOARD MUSIC
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A commonplace book is a notebook used to record excerpts collected in the course of reading, often organized by topics or headings. While known and used in antiquity and medieval times, the practice was renewed across Europe as humanist educators revised school curriculums to encourage proficiency in language skills. Every pupil at grammar school in the sixteenth through early eighteenth century was surrounded by commonplace books: the textbooks in which texts were read, the notebooks in which phrases and anecdotes were collected, sometimes even the wall decorations of the classroom were all in the form of a commonplace book. The same method of commonplacing was used in the study of music as well, and treatises of this time period routinely instruct the student to extract passages, formulas, cadences, and other useful material from the works of master composers. Manuscript evidence suggests that learning (and memorizing) a repertoire of short segments of music—contrapuntal combinations, canonic patterns, figurations—was essential training for counterpoint both written and unwritten. Commonplacing required judgment on the part of the scholar, who had first of all to identify which masters should be imitated and which passages to copy into a notebook or learn by heart. Learning to reuse this material in new and inventive ways developed skill and ingenuity. Printed commonplace books of music, like the Nova Instructio of Spiridione of Monte Carmelo, provided students a curated selection of excerpts, obviating the need to acquire and study a large quantity of keyboard music. In addition to their pedagogical value, commonplaces had a profound influence on the composition and style of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century keyboard music. In a cultural context in which imitation had a privileged status as a means of artistic production, borrowing small fragments of another author’s work and then recycling and transforming that material was a routine procedure. Collections of commonplaces were the sources of invention, for inventio, from the Latin invenire (to find), needs a place from which to start. For those with sufficient skill and imagination, common patterns could be transformed in seemingly limitless ways, with copious inventiveness. Disguised by new forms, material borrowed from other composers would be detectable (and appreciated) only by true connoisseurs. Analysis of keyboard music by Girolamo Frescobaldi and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck reveals the frequent reuse of short segments or common patterns which could be elaborated in endless numbers of variations. Commonplaces are also tied linguistically to the fantasia as the highest form of keyboard art, one founded on the variation of contrapuntal formulas and closely linked with improvisation. This method of composition derives from rhetorical practice, in which the art of memory was crucial to skill in composition and performance. Understanding the fantasia as a manner of playing based on the rhetorical commonplace tradition provides a framework for interpreting the evolution and continuity in style of keyboard music in the seventeenth century, and a new hypothesis regarding the origin of the stylus phantasticus.
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