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UI Collegium Musicum celebrates the invention of music printing April 24

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Collegium Musicum will celebrate the invention and development of music printing in the 15th through early 17th centuries with a concert of music from early printed editions at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 24, in Clapp Recital Hall on the UI campus.

The concert, titled "The First Information Explosion: Printed Music in the Renaissance," will be free and open to the public.

The Collegium Music, the early music performance ensemble of the UI School of Music, is directed by Elizabeth Aubrey. A musicologist on the School of Music faculty, Aubrey is known internationally both as an expert in the performance of early music and as a scholar specializing in the music of the medieval troubadours and trouveres.

The invention of printing by Johann Guttenberg in the 1430s not only simplified the process of making books, it also made possible their mass distribution. For the first time in all of history, reliable and uniform copies were available across a wide geographical area.

In music, the time-honored but laborious process of writing out texts and music by hand yielded slowly to the new technology, over a period of many decades. Nevertheless, the development of printing changed the nature of musical performance and composition profoundly. The availability of uniform copies of a piece of music set in motion a trend away from a free, improvisational approach to music making and towards faithfulness to an established version of a work.

The April 24 concert by the UI Collegium Musicum will explore sacred and secular music that was printed in the late 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries, starting with an early German print of Gregorian chant from about 1473. The program will continue with music printed by Italian, French, Dutch and English printers from 1501 through 1615.

Composers represented will include Giovanni Gabrieli, Josquin Des Prez, Clement Janequin, John Dowland and Thomas Tallis, among others. In addition to a choir of 14 voices, the performance will feature ensembles of violas da gamba, recorders, sackbuts and cornetti.

Music printing developed more slowly than other printing technologies because of the special problems connected with reproducing music, which involves not only words but also musical staves, notes of many shapes that can be located anywhere on the staff, clefs, accidental markings and other special characters.

All of these separate elements of a written piece of music have to be laid out in proper alignment with one another, both horizontally and vertically. Thus it took several decades for printers to develop dependable technologies for music printing.

Some early attempts to solve these problems used music carved into wood blocks, but this was not practical for lengthy compositions. Soon printers were using multiple impressions, with the paper put through the press two or more times to accommodate the different elements of the music (text, staff, notes, etc.).

This was a tricky process, since the page had to be aligned exactly for the second and later times through the press. One printer who overcame these difficulties was Ottaviano de Petrucci in Venice, who published a collection of songs with movable type in triple impression in 1501. Petrucci went on to print an enormous number of publications that spread widely throughout Europe, spawning imitators in many other cities.

In the 1520s the French publisher Pierre Attaingnant began producing prints from a single impression. His process too was imitated across Europe. And a later innovation that further simplified the printing process was the technique of engraving music on copper plates. Developed in Italy, it caught on only slowly, but in the 17th century engraving began to supplant movable type.

Music printed by each of these different techniques will be included on the April 24 program.

The UI Collegium Musicum is an ensemble devoted to the study and performance of music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque. The members of the group are primarily music students and faculty of the UI. They learn singing techniques appropriate to early music as well as how to play reproductions of historical instruments.

Elizabeth Aubrey has directed the ensemble since 1982. Her book "The Music of the Troubadours," was recently published by Indiana University Press. Before coming to the UI in 1982, she taught at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where she was music director of the early music group "A Newe Jewell."