That ‘ars nova’ feeling

Detail of threads from “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” from Scenes from the Lives of Abraham and Isaac. Photo by Cristina Balloffet Carr, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Talking Heads, ‘New Feeling’ (Talking Heads:77, 1977)

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)

Click to see score

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 . . .