Isaac the Teacher: Pedagogy and Literacy in Florence, ca. 1488

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Music Education in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance


Twenty-five years ago, the late Howard Mayer Brown wrote about “emulation, competition, and homage” in Renaissance music. I was surprised to recently rediscover that his opening pages were essentially about pedagogy; surprised, because I had remembered the article to be about compositional process and theories of imitation. But Brown’s first example of “emulation” in fact illustrated a basic principle of pedagogy in that era: it centered on an inexperienced composer’s attempt, sometime during the second decade of the sixteenth century, to write a three-part chanson based on a model. This, I think, is a familiar experience to those of us who work in historical periods that predate the rise of formal pedagogical materials: we must turn to the music itself as the best evidence for how the craft of composition was taught and learned. Yet by the time we have moved beyond the scant surviving examples of student work and are looking at, for example, Isaac’s parody of Martini’s Martinella, we are looking at how mature composers practiced their craft, and not at how young ones learned it.


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