Semibreves, dots, rotuli, and notational updatings

Wrocław, Biblioteka Uniwersytecka, Ak 1955/KN 195 (fragment 1 verso)

A fragmentary parchment rotulus, now housed at the Wrocław university library, but probably copied in France around the middle of the fourteenth century, is one of nine manuscript sources for Philippe de Vitry’s popular motet Colla/Bona. The notation in the rotulus is mostly ars nova, as it is in all the other manuscript copies of this motet, yet the Wrocław has a curious series of dots, highlighted here in the beginning of the triplum in the image above. The dots offer a tantalising clue indicating that the motet may have been copied from an exemplar in an older style of notation, not dissimilar to that found in Roman de Fauvel manuscript (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, f. fr. 146), where groups of semibreves that comprise a breve are separated by dots.

The Wrocław rotulus is not the only fourteenth-century rotulus that shows evidence of notational updating. In my newest article published online today in Early Music I analyse this example, and the evidence for notational updatings in two other mid-century rotuli that transmit ars nova motets (Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique, Ms. 19606 and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Collection de Picardie, 67).

Does the fact that the motets I identify were not originally copied in ars nova notation mean that they are not actually ars nova motets? This article begins to address this question, outlining some criteria by which we might begin to identify motets that must have been composed subsequent to the systematization of the ars nova notation system by Jean des Murs, Vitry and others during the 1330s. The ars nova then encompasses a variety of activities: scribes updating older motets into the new notation (as we find in these three rotuli), composers writing motets that fully exploited all the possibilities of ars nova notation, and theorists documenting (or in Jacobus’s case criticising) the theoretical underpinnings of the new system.

My article abstract follows, and, by kind permission of Oxford University Press, a free-access link to the online article (click here). Once you click the link, you can read the online HTML version, or click ‘PDF’ to download a PDF. OUP asks that this link not be distributed on social media, though you may link to my personal blog post with the link.

The 14th-century music theorist Jacobus devoted a complete chapter of his Speculum musicae (SM vii.37) to a critique of what he termed ‘solitary’ semibreves (semibreves solitarias). He listed several arguments against the moderns’ use of solitary semibreves. The present essay considers what this motet repertory that used solitary semibreves might be. The emergence of the Ars Nova is often identified with the newer motets copied in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France fr. 146 manuscript of the Roman de Fauvel, but solitary semibreves are not found in the motets of Fauvel. In this article, I examine some ambiguities of the semibreve notation in BnF fr. 146. I then consider the evidence of another group of motets classified as Ars Nova motets by music historians since they are explicitly notated in Ars Nova notation in manuscript sources copied later than BnF fr. 146. These motets contain clues indicating that they were originally copied in a notation similar to that used in the Roman de Fauvel. That is, these motets too (originally) had no solitary semibreves. To find the solitary semibreves of Jacobus’s complaint then, and per consequens, the music of Jacobus’s ‘ars nova’, we must identify compositions that appear to have been originally conceived in Ars Nova notation. This article closes with a brief consideration of some of these motets.

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