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Ars nova Digital Humanities Medieval Music Theory Motet Music notation

My JAMS review of the Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum (TML)

My review of the Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum (TML) for the “Digital and Multimedia Scholarship” reviews section of the Journal of the American Musicological Society is now out. Here’s a link to a PDF of my review, by kind courtesy of the University of California Press. The first paragraph follows:

The Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum (TML), subtitled an “Online Archive of Music Theory in Latin,” is among the handful of online resources that early music scholars consult with frequency—the other two being the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM, an image archive and catalog of manuscripts transmitting medieval polyphony) and the Cantus database (a searchable catalog of plainchant). All three were first developed in the earliest days of web-based scholarly resources, and all three have shed their HTML 2.0 look-and-feel courtesy of recent updates to their interface design. This review considers the newest version of the TML, released in 2017, focusing both on the improvements in usability and functionality of the 2017 version, and on the aims and scope of the TML project in general.

I’m also delighted to read Kate Helsen’s review of my “Measuring Polyphony” project, which is in the same issue (and in the same PDF linked to above). Here’s a brief excerpt:

The website Measuring Polyphony uses the most recent technology in digital transcription to “animate” upward of sixty of these motets as found in the pages of several well-known thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts. This project is more than simply a digital update to the more traditional format of the printed edition; each piece is linked to a high-resolution image of its appearance in the original manuscript, and an audio playback (in MIDI) is available for listening while watching the notes in the various voice parts turn red as they sound. These visual and auditory features lift these motets out of their traditional identity as academic notation exercises and imbue them with life, appealing to the “musician” within the “musicologist.” As a medievalist, my view is that we badly need this kind of revitalization, especially in the current academic climate, in which our field flirts increasingly with extinction.

Kate Helsen, “Review: Measuring Polyphony: Digital Encodings of Late Medieval Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 72/3 (2019), 912-920, at 913.

 

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Ars nova Jean des Murs Medieval Music Theory Music notation

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.

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Medieval Music Theory Music notation

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.