Music and the ‘Moderns’


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.

Medieval Notation Seminar at Brandeis

Guillaume de Machaut, Doulz amis (ballade) as copied in BnF fr. 1584 (Machaut A), fol. 456v

A quick post about one of the courses I’ll be teaching at Brandeis this Fall 2018: “Seeing Sound: The History and Practice of Notation to c.1500.” To the left is one of the songs we’ll work on–a two-voice fourteenth-century ballade by Guillaume de Machaut. This is an intense but fun course, and very hands-on. Each week students work on a different medieval notation–from chant through to keyboard tablatures of the fifteenth century–learning how to interpret and transcribe the notation directly from high-quality images of the original manuscript sources, and from the explanations given in contemporaneous theory treatises. Brandeis University is part of a cross-registration consortium within Boston that includes Tufts University, Boston University, and Boston College, so if you are a student in any of these institutions and are interested in taking the course, please get in touch. For a course flyer, click the link below.  The course blurb follows.

Notation Seminar Flyer

The late ninth century witnessed a major technological breakthrough in the transmission of music in western Europe that was to have far-reaching consequences. Chants that had been taught orally for several centuries began to be encoded on parchment using signs placed above text syllables that recorded the shape and contour of the chant melodies. Systems of music notation spread rapidly across Europe, and took root as the way to record, archive, share, and (eventually) compose music. This graduate seminar course examines the form and function of music notation, and how the writing down of music transformed music practice. Students will transcribe music from a variety of early notation systems, working with high quality facsimiles and online reproductions of the original manuscripts.