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.
The fourteenth-century moderni made a point of the ‘subtlety’ of their new art of music. Their comments on its subtlety (subtilitas) certainly got Jacobus worked up:
Some moderns consider those singers crude, uneducated, foolish, and ignorant who do not know the new art [of music], or who do not sing according to that art but according to the old art. And, consequently they consider the old art crude and almost irrational, yet the new art subtle and rational.
According to Jacobus, the musical subtleties embraced by the moderni were confusing, difficult, and malformed. In turn, the moderni appear to have dissed the old art, calling it crude. Critiquing up-and-comers for unnecessary complexity is a well-worn trope, and in the second chapter of Music and the moderni, 1300-1350, I step through this trope’s use by previous writers, including Seneca and John of Salisbury, who both warned of the dangers of bedazzlement with stylistic superfluities.
Many of the subtleties of modern music that irked Jacobus – the syncopations, the precise subdivisions of duration, the new metrical possibilities – were made possible through the new system of ars nova notation outlined in theory treatises of the time. But the undercurrent in both Jacobus’s critique and the moderns’ embrace of the aesthetic of subtlety is not only that the ars nova sounded new, and incorporated new notational techniques, but that it ‘felt’ new.
Mary Carruthers has written eloquently on how the sensory perception of surfaces contributed to the aesthetic of beauty in the Middle Ages (The Experience of Beauty in the Middle Ages, Oxford, 2013); similarly, Paul Binski highlights the surface motion of architectural curvilinear forms, whose flexible ‘undulation . . . inclines us by its wandering’ (Gothic Wonder: Art, Artifice, and the Decorated Style, 1290-1350, Yale, 2014). One of my book’s illustrations features this delicately (and subtly) crafted Parisian table fountain from 1320-40) as an example of this haptic quality of subtlety in the visual arts.
Becoming attuned to the surface aesthetic of ars nova music is one way into understanding its new ‘feel’. Most of my chapter steps through of a comparison of two motets (one old, probably written in the mid-1310s, and one new, possibly written c.1350) in terms of their surface sound, which I’ll highlight here with two short audio excerpts.
In the ‘old’ motet (Vitry’s Tribum/Quoniam), a sparse two-voice texture predominates, with the three-voice texture reserved for points of arrival on perfectly consonant vertical sonorities. The resulting texture is one of opposition and sharp contrast, as you can hear in the excerpt below, where moments of dialogue or movement between two voices are continuously and regularly interrupted by exclamations fo sustained sonorities in all three voices.
Excerpt from Tribum/Quoniam (sung by the Orlando Consort, Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova: 14th-century Motets)
In the ‘new’ motet (the anonymous Apta/Flos) the textural changes are less overt, and the two contrasting textures, complex hockets and contrapuntally directed melodic exchanges, combine in a denser variegation of ebb and flow. Listen especially for the voice that begins in the middle of the texture (at 00:23), and crosses to the top with the words ‘et a grata gratia linea‘ (‘and with a pleasing line of grace’).
Excerpt from Apta/Flos (sung by the Orlando Consort, Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova: 14th-century Motets)
One of the first mentions of the term ‘texture’ (which derives from the Latin ‘textus’- woven; see the beautifully woven gold threads above) in a description of music comes from an anonymous fourteenth-century music theory treatise, the stitching together of textural contrast in vocal polyphony is compared to a delicate textile (see Rob C. Wegman’s full translation of this treatise here).
Here, one hockets, here, one draws [the notes] like threads, another syncopates . . . so that, like a solemn silk cloth, stamped by a variety of lengths, figures, and depictions, it completely restores the soul and nourishes the whole hearing.
Perhaps he had in mind an ars nova motet like Apta/Flos.
Up soon: the rhythmic innovations of the ars nova and the role of astronomer/music theorist Jean des Murs . . .
The music notation developed by ars nova theorists in the first half of the fourteenth century ushered in possibly the most significant change in the way in which musicians and composers in western Europe thought of musical composition, that is, as an act facilitated by the visual forms of music notation. Brand new possibilities were afforded by the expanded variety of note shapes, rests, dots, and metrical combinations. Jean des Murs (fl. 1312-47), a leading French astronomer and mathematician who first appears on the Parisian scene in the 1310s, was one of the main developers of the new music notation. Of it, he claimed : “Whatever can be sung, can now be written down.” Ars nova notation precipitated a series of new compositional techniques that characterised fourteenth-century music, such as syncopation, counterpoint, and complex repetitive formal structures. It also generated heated debate, especially among music theorists based in Paris. The attitudes of its proponents – the so-called “moderni” – prompted laments like this from Jacobus, a vociferous critic of the ars nova:
Oh, so much abuse, so much illegality, so much vanity, so much insolence, so much uselessness, so much rudeness! Oh, so much presumption in the figuring of the notes, so much confusion! (Speculum musicae, book VII, chapter 27)
My new book Music and the moderni, 1300-1350: The ars nova in theory and practice, which was published by Cambridge University Press last month, explores the writings, music, and interactions of the main ars nova protagonists, and identifies and explains what was at stake for them (and the rest of us). Through contemporaneous accounts, I situate the musical developments of this crucial half century within the cultural and intellectual context of the time.
The discoveries I present in this book challenge prevailing narratives of the ars nova, which had previously coupled the emergence of the ars nova too specifically to the c. 1320 copying date of the famous Roman de Fauvel manuscript. I propose instead that the musical aesthetics of the fourteenth-century moderni, derided by older theorists like Jacobus, is bound up with ideas of subtilitas and mathematical precision in notation and style only exemplified in writings and music compositions from the 1330s and 1340s. Music and the moderni, 1300-1350 revisits broader questions about both the chronology and character of the ars nova, and how changes in theory and notation can engender changes in style and practice.
In series of blog posts of the next few weeks, I will introduce some of the ideas and music discussed in my book. Next up: the aesthetic of subtilitas (subtlety)–a surprisingly hard-to-pin-down term with both positive and negative connotations in the Middle Ages–and how it was embraced by the fourteenth-century moderni.
In book 7 of his Speculum musicae, the fourteenth-century music theorist Jacobus structures a defense of music as it had been practiced in the thirteenth century by such eminent musicians and theorists as Lambertus, Franco, and Petrus de Cruce against the practices of certain unnamed moderni active at the time of Jacobus’s writing. While Jacobus’s quotations from various theoretical works by Jehan des Murs have long been recognized, it previously had been supposed that the remaining quotations were jumbled references from many different theorists. With specific reference to Philippe de Vitry only two quotations from the text edited in vol. 8, Corpus scriptorum de musica, had been identified previously. In fact, there is substantial sustained treatment of a single author, whom I have termed the doctor modernus and who is not Jehan des Murs, that occupies at least five contiguous central chapters of book 7. Following Jacobus’s practice in the previous six books of commentary on a handful of specific works, the writing of Book 7 appears to have been structured around the written works of just four theorists: Lambert, Franco, Jehan des Murs, and the doctor modernus. Furthermore, Jacobus’s vehemence toward the doctor modernus was particularly pronounced and may indicate a personal relationship between the two men. His treatise is quoted with reference to some fundamental ars nova theories, such as extension of long notes beyond the duplex long, remote imperfection, the use of imperfect longs, and imperfect measure in general, and his treatise is described as outlining the precepts of both the old and new arts. The similarities between the treatise of the doctor modernus and many ars nova theory texts (some of which were attributed to Vitry) hints at the possibility that the treatise of the doctor modernus may have been the ancestor text that these other texts had in common, and hence also that Philippe de Vitry may have been the author of the text known to Jacobus, whose subject was the Ars vetus et nova .
As a two-year Banting Fellow at McGill University, along with finishing my monograph, I’m also working on a project to digitally encode a core repertory of French motets from c. 1300 to 1340. With members of the SIMSSA team based at the Schulich School of Music, we eventually plan to present these transcriptions in an online web application side-by-side with images from the manuscript sources (or at least those with publicly-available images), and also to provide some web-based analytical tools for this repertory. Because the motets will be encoded in a standardised machine-readable format, and made available for download to the general public, other researchers and programmers will be able to access this data to conduct their own digital analyses of this repertory.
SIMSSA’s web-based tools can display, search, and browse manuscripts containing neumatic notation, and analyse interval successions in countrapuntal music (using a programming framework based on Michael Scott Cuthbert’s music21 toolkit). These projects work with repertories written in neumatic notation and common practice notation: the goal of this project is to encode the details of the mensural notation of fourteenth-century motets. These specific notational details (such as note shape, mensuration, dots, plicas, etc.) and details of layout (such as staff or page ends) could eventually inform any online editions based on these encodings, and the subsequent digital analysis of this mensural repertory.
First things first, however. The initial phase of this project, already underway, aims to create critical encodings of a selected repertory of motets. The transcriptions are taken from a single manuscript source (and thus are diplomatic transcriptions and not editions), and the digital encodings of these transcriptions follow the MEI schema (a core set of rules developed for encoding music notation documents as XML). The MEI schema has a basic mensural notation module: some modifications and additions will probably have to be made to this module in order to capture and describe the features of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century mensural notations. Once the files are encoded in compliant MEI, it should be relatively straightforward to display the encoded transcriptions on the fly using a tool like Verovio, or to write programs to search or analyse the repertory using VIS or music21. At present, the encodings capture the following notational features:
the shape of each note (duplex long, breve, semibreve, minim, etc.);
rests as notated in the manuscript;
the actual duration of each note (whether notes are perfected, imperfected, or altered);
the implied mensuration (in some motets this is clearer than in others);
ascending and descending plicas added to longs or breves;
dots of division and perfection;
downward stems on semibreves;
staff breaks and page breaks;
ligature groupings and ligature type (c.o.p., with or without proprietas, with or without perfectio);
the underlaid text (in diplomatic transcription, expanding abbreviations, but without editing or standardising the spellings).
For the first phase of data entry, I’ve chosen to work with a representative sample of the French motet repertory dating from c. 1300 to c. 1340 (i.e., bridging the ars antiqua and ars nova). From the motets of the eighth fascicle of Mo, Fauv, and Br, I have chosen to encode those motets that have 3 or more syllabic semibreves in one or more voice parts. There are 23 motets in Mo 8 that fit this criteria, and 21 more that are in Fauv and/or Br. Added to this are six more motets specifically cited in the early ars nova theory sources (all six are also found in Iv and Trem). A final category comprises motets that are found in both Iv and Trem, and in one other of the following ars nova sources: either cited in a fourteenth-century theory treatise (other than the early ars nova treatises previously mentioned), or in one of the following music sources Cambrai, Durham, Pic, Strasbourg or Lbl 41667. This category adds a further 11 motets, bringing the total to 61 motets. These are listed at the end of this blog post.
These encodings, at present, capture the diplomatic transcription of each motet from one manuscript source: however, it would be possible at a later stage to overlay readings from concordant sources (through the Critical Apparatus module of the MEI schema) and thus produce online critical editions of these compositions. For example, a motet such as Tribum/Quoniam in this phase of the project is transcribed from a single source (in this case Fauv), and with all semibreves (whether in groups of two, three, or four) encoded simply as semibreves separated by dots of division (although those semibreves notated with a downward stem are specified in the encoding), if the concordant reading in Br were also to encoded, the semibreves minimae notated in this source (with upward stems) would be distinguished as such. Encoding the motets in this way allows for flexibility in imposing a mensural interpretation, for example, in those Fauv motets where it is unclear whether they are in tempus perfectum or imperfectum. One could envision an online edition where a performer could easily switch back and forth between different editorial interpretations of mensuration or rhythmic duration.
I would welcome any feedback regarding additional suggestions regarding the specific notational details to be encoded, or regarding the repertory chosen for this first phase of the project. We have already transcribed marked-up versions of 43 of these 61 motets into Sibelius, and are now working to convert them into MEI files, and to transcribe the remaining motets. Expanding the repertory in the future will simply be a matter of streamlining the process of transcription and conversion (for example, if we or others wanted to encode the remaining additional fascicles of Mo). Please feel free to leave your comments here, or email me directly.
Mo (fascicle 8)
Mout ai/Li dous/PORTARE (Mo 305)
O presul/ O virtutis/SACERDOTUM (Mo 306)
Dieus comment/ O regina/NOBIS CONCEDAS (Mo 307)
Par une matinee/O clemencie/D’un joli dart (Mo 309)
In sompnis/Amours/IN SOMPNIS (Mo 310)
Se je chante/Bien doi amer/ET SPERA(BIT) (Mo 311)
Au tans nouvel/Chele m’a tolu/J’ai fait tout nouveletement (Mo 312)
Dieus, comment puet/Vo vair/(TENOR) (Mo 314)
Se je sui/Jolietement/OMNES (Mo 316)
Aucun qui/Iure/[VIRGO] MARIA (Mo 317)
On parole/A Paris/ Frese nouvele (Mo 319)
De mes amours/ L’autrier/Defors Compiegne (Mo 321)
Marie assumptio/Huius chori /(TENOR) (Mo 322)
Li savours/ Li grant/Non veul mari (Mo 323)
Amor potest/Ad amorem/(TENOR) (Mo 328)
Virginale/ Descendi/ALMA (Mo 330)
Je cuidoie/ Se j’ai folement/SOLEM (Mo 332)
A maistre Jehan/Pour la plus/ALLELUYA (Mo 334)
Cis a petit/ Pluseur dient/PORTARE (Mo 335)
Amours/Solem iusticie /SOLEM (Mo 338)
Balam inquit/Balam inquit/BAL(L)AAM (Mo 340)
Huic ut placuit/Huic ut placuit/[HUIC MAGI] (Mo 341)
Qui d’amours/Tant me/VIRGA YESSE (Mo 342)
Fauv and/or Br
Trahunt/Ve qui gregi
Orbis orbatus/Vos pastores
La mesnie/J’ai fait nouveletement
Inflammatus/Sicut de ligno
Early ars nova theory (also in Iv and Trem)
Mon chant/Qui doloreus
Iv and Trem and one of the following (Cambrai, Durham, Pic, Strasbourg or Lbl 41667 or a later ars nova theory treatise)
Se grasse/Cum venerint
Fortune mere/Ma dolour
L’amoureuse flour/ En l’estat
Je commence/Et je seray
Mo Montpellier, Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire, Section Médecine, H196
Fauv Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, f. fr. 146
Br Brussels, Bibliothèque royale, Ms. 19606
Iv Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare, Ms. 115
Trem Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, nouvelles acquisitions françaises 23190 [olim: ms of the duchess de la Trémoïlle]
Cambrai Cambrai, Mediathèque municipale, Ms B 1328
Durham Durham, Chapter Library, MS C.I.20
Pic Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Collection de Picardie 67
At the recent 2015 International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I had a chance to present some of my new work on Jehan des Murs, astronomer and music theorist, that I’m working on as a chapter of my monograph Greedy for New Things: Novelty in Music c. 1300-1340. Serendipitously, I presented my paper on May 14. On the afternoon of that exact date 632 years ago, Jehan observed a solar eclipse in the presence of Jeanne de France, the twenty-one-year-old Queen of Navarre – I opened my paper with a description of this event. They observed the eclipse in a castle that Jeanne had commissioned to be built in Saint-Germain, Évreux, but reportedly had named ‘Navarre’ (this name might give musicologists pause, given that minims were supposedly ‘invented’ in Navarre!).
In my paper I addressed the chronology of Jehan’s writings on music theory in light of revised chronologies of his astronomical and astrological works, and I also considered two aspects of Jehan’s scientific orientation that contextualise his work in music theory-namely, how he negotiates the novelty of his work with respect to that of prior authorities (his auctoritates), and his propensity for continuously revising and recasting his writings in order to cater for particular audiences. An abstract of the paper follows, and stay tuned for more in my forthcoming book!
Although he wrote at least two and possibly four substantial music treatises in the 1320s, Jehan des Murs’s primary preoccupation at the beginning of his career appears to have been with figuring out and disseminating within Paris a new system of astronomy devised in the court of Alfonso X in Toledo. Recent scholarship on Jehan’s writings on astronomy offers a more accurate chronology of his output and activity than was the case in 1970 when Ulrich Michels published on the music treatises. We now have a greater understanding of Jehan’s central role in the introduction and development of Alfonsine astronomony in Western Europe—a system that was to hold say until the revolution of the Copernican heliocentric model. This paper reconciles the facts we know of Jehan’s biography with these new assessments of Jehan’s activity as an astronomer in the 1320s. Jehan’s tables of the stars’ and planets’ positions, based upon the experiential data gathered from his own observations made using the latest technologies, along with the new methods he devised for allowing others to easily calculate planetary longitudes, finally offered the possibility of a more precise and accurate calendar. And although Jehan nominally acknowledges his debt to older scholars (in much the same way as he does in Notitia artis musicae), he is more concerned with recording the true positions of the celestial bodies and precisely measuring reality than he is in ‘standing on the shoulders’ of those who have gone before. His writing betrays a confidence (and some might say arrogance) about the veracity and importance of his work and his conclusions. This paper contends that a similar attitude pervaded Jehan’s work as a music theorist where the aim is to more precisely measure, and indeed reform the entire system of musical time with one more clearly based upon the physical reality of sound and time as a sensibly perceived, and a lack of concern with appeasing those invested in older, less accurate, systems.