Ben Ory (Stanford)

Benjamin Ory
Date Range
Wed May 24th 2023, 12:00 - 1:15pm

"The Aesthetics of Some 'Difficult' Music: Analysis of Polyphony from the 1520s"

Please note that this is a pre-circulated paper. Those with Stanford-affiliated emails can access the paper here. There is also an audio clip that accompanies the work, you can access that here. For those outside of the Stanford community, email cmemsinfo [at] (cmemsinfo[at]stanford[dot]edu) to receive a copy of the paper and audio clip. 


Sometime during the 1520s, a new aesthetic paradigm for sacred European art music took hold. Musical sources from this decade evince a decisive stylistic change: in place of the contrastive aesthetic preferred by earlier composers, with individual lines coming and going, we now find nearly pervasive sonic saturation—that is, music for five or six independent voices with relatively few rests. Music in this new style circulated widely during the sixteenth century; writers had no trouble making positive evaluations of these works. But modern scholars have long struggled to appreciate these repertoires and have singled out music from the 1520s for particular criticism. They have labelled this polyphony as aesthetically difficult, or more often have simply ignored it altogether.

This paper examines our inherited musical historiography for the period. It contextualizes this "in between" decade in light of long-standing musical trends; it presents newly identified characteristics that set the music of the 1520s apart from its immediate predecessors; and it suggests concrete steps towards a more productive relationship with an influential musical style. With sufficient intellectual engagement, we should not be troubled by this aesthetic.

Responses by Christina Kim and Jesse Rodin.