The Challenges and Rewards of Research

When I decided that I wanted to write about the L’homme armé tradition, I knew that I would need to narrow my focus significantly in order to come up with a definite and concise thesis topic. So as I surveyed the range of potential things to focus in on, Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses, written in the second half of the 16th century peaked my interest immediately. The fact that Palestrina composed two masses based on the tune is remarkable considering how much later he was composing them. It was nearly 80 years prior that the L’homme armé tradition was at its peak. And not many masses like those had been composed in the intervening time.

This proved an interesting, if not exciting possibility. Why would Palestrina have composed masses based on a tune that at that point was nearly outdated? Surely, I thought, this would have also peaked the interests of other scholars as well. Much to my chagrin, this proved not to be quite the case and it became an arduous journey to try and find much, if any, mention of Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses. Perhaps due to the fact he was writing with a tune almost anachronistically, much of recent musicological research on the L’homme armé tune seems to have forgotten about his contributions to the tradition.

This proved to be a disappointing find, and certainly posed a significant challenge to the research process. It taught me however, to be as persistent as possible in the research process. I learned to just keep searching and following bibliographic citations until you’ve gathered enough to start to piece together a picture of your research topic. And finally, after struggling to put together enough to start formulating possible ideas, I was able to stumble upon a few articles discussing Palestrina’s masses.

Of particular interest was an article by James Haar directly addressing Palestrina’s involvement in the L’homme armé tradition as an act of historicism. Such a notion was a promising and interesting act of historical speculation upon the part of Haar. And it led me to another realization about researching a topic such as this one. When it comes to trying to determine the background and conception of pieces five centuries in the past, it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty what might have motivated someone to compose an individual piece.

This was both a troubling and liberating realization. While it made my task seem a little more futile, because there was little I could do to come up with any definitive answers to my research question, it also freed me to approach the task from a broader point of view by synthesizing what historical analyses have been done on Palestrina’s historical situation at the time of the conception of these masses and the work done on analyzing what the L’homme armé tradition might have meant during its time in works such as the Kirkman reading for class. This synthesis was what finally led to my breakthrough in my direction for my own work, and gave me the reward of being able to not just add to a limited and narrow academic discussion of Palestrina, but also to the ongoing discussion of the tradition of the L’homme armé tradition as a whole.

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