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.

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 . . . 

Did Philippe de Vitry write a music theory treatise?

My article titled ‘Did Vitry write an Ars vetus et nova?’ has just been published in the Journal of Musicology. By kind permission of the University of California Press, I have posted a PDF of the article on my personal page. The article abstract is as follows:

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 .

Digitally encoding early fourteenth-century motets

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 notationand 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).
Garrit gallus in MEI
This figure shows the opening of the motet Garrit gallus/In nova from the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, f. fr. 146 (hereafter Fauv), a marked-up transcription in Sibelius, with articulation marks indicating specific notational features, and the MEI file showing the content of the first long in the triplum voice. CLICK on the image for a larger version.












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

Quare fremuerunt/Tenor
Detractor/Qui secuntur
Trahunt/Ve qui gregi
Orbis orbatus/Vos pastores
Je voi/Fauvel
Se cuers/Rex
Servant/O Philippe
La mesnie/J’ai fait nouveletement
Inter amenitatis/Tenor
Inflammatus/Sicut de ligno
Garrit/In nova
Mater formosa/Gaude

Early ars nova theory (also in Iv and Trem)

Mon chant/Qui doloreus
Tuba/In arboribus

Iv and Trem and one of the following (Cambrai, Durham, Pic, Strasbourg or Lbl 41667 or a later ars nova theory treatise)

Cum statua/Hugo
O canenda/Rex
Se grasse/Cum venerint
Qui/Ha Fortune
Se pauor/Diex
Fortune mere/Ma dolour
L’amoureuse flour/ En l’estat
Je commence/Et je seray

Manuscript abbreviations

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

Strasbourg Strasbourg, Bibliothèque municipale, MS. 222.C.22

Lbl 41667 London, British Library, Add. 41667

Song and Competitive Citation

My review of Yolanda Plumley’s book The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut (OUP, 2013) has recently been published in Plainsong and Medieval Music, who have graciously provided a link to download a free PDF, available here:

The citation and first paragraph of my review follows:

Karen Desmond. Book review of The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut by Yolanda Plumley (Oxford University Press, 2013) in Plainsong and Medieval Music 24 (2015), pp. 99-103.

Anyone who listened to BBC radio broadcasts from the 1950s to the 1980s should remember the popular game show My Word. The last segment of the show featured the two team captains, Denis Norden and Frank Muir, competing to tell the best story that would explain, and end with, a famous phrase or quotation supplied by the game show host. Listeners delighted in the anticipation of the catchphrase, for as the clock ran down, it seemed that the phrase became more and more incompatible with the story unfolding. Norden and Muir endeavoured to outdo each other’s displays of erudition, constrained by the generic requirements of the show’s format, the imposed time limit on their story’s length, and the need for the story to end with the supplied quotation. Such competitive composition, or ‘poetic jousting’ as Yolanda Plumley terms it, between medieval poets and composers, is at the centre of her new book on fourteenth-century song, The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut. In it, through a virtuosic display that traverses almost a century of song, and considers almost 350 works (as listed in the ‘Index of Cited Compositions’ at the end of the book), Plumley examines the circumstances in which, and the processes by which, fourteenth-century faiseurs plucked material from other contexts and ‘grafted’ it—to use Plumley’s horticultural metaphor, derived from the medieval verb enter (p. 10)—into new works.

Greedy for New Things

I am very grateful to have been awarded a one-year NEH Research Fellowship for my book project on music and music theory in the early fourteenth century. I commenced the fellowship in January of this year (2014) and I’m happy to report that research and writing has been proceeding apace. By way of outlining what I’ve been working on, I’ve pasted below the ‘Abstract’ and ‘Research and Contribution’ sections of the my grant proposal. These are written for a general audience, but give some idea of the scope of my project.


The literary theorist Terry Eagleton once observed: “All periods are modern, but not all of them live their experience in this mode.” Musicians and composers of the early fourteenth century did appear to live their experience in this way: their contemporaries labeled them as “the moderns” (“moderni”) and their compositional art as “new” (Ars nova) in opposition to that of the thirteenth century, which they called “old” (Ars vetus). My book Greedy for New Things: The Meaning of Novelty in Early Fourteenth-Century Music will explore novelty as a concept in music and other intellectual endeavors in Europe during the later Middle Ages, and identify the moments when fourteenth-century musicians sought out novelty, why they might have done so, and how their music was judged when they did.

* * * * *

The Ars nova was the equivalent of a medieval “avant-garde” movement with a sound that combined new rhythms, harmonies and texts in complex structural and formal layers. The complexity was made possible by the emergence of a new system for writing down musical rhythms. There are relatively few compositions that survive from this time: the most well-known are in the Roman de Fauvel (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 146), a manuscript compiled c1317-1318. Two theoretical treatises mark the advent of the new style: the Notitia artis musicae (“A Short Introduction to the Art of Music”) by Jehan des Murs (c1321) and another treatise from around the same time by the composer Philippe de Vitry, or at least based on his teachings. The actual circumstances in which the music of the Ars nova emerged, however, remain murky. It seems likely – and this is rare in the history of western music – that the notational system of the Ars nova was worked out in theory before it was applied in practice. As Richard Taruskin has remarked: “Never before nor since has theory ever so clearly – or so fruitfully – outrun and conditioned practice.”

In the 1990s there was a flurry of activity around the Roman de Fauvel and its cultural contexts (Roesner et al., eds., Leech-Wilkinson, Bent and Wathey, eds., Dillon), and more recently Elizabeth Eva Leach and Anna Zayaruznaya have made major contributions to our understanding of the Ars nova composers Guillaume de Machaut and Vitry. Ars nova music theory, on the other hand, has suffered some neglect (see, however, Gallo, Haas, Fuller, Hentschel, Tanay). In the last few years, there has also been a resurgence of interest in thirteenth-century music (the Ars antiqua) – witness the two major international conferences on the Ars antiqua in Princeton (2011) and Southampton (2013) – yet traditionally there has been a tendency for scholars to focus on either the Ars antiqua or the Ars nova, and the transitional period, which saw the emergence of the new style, has often been given short shrift. Given its historical significance, much also remains to be done on the music notation of the Roman de Fauvel manuscript and other contemporaneous manuscripts. Building on my previous work on medieval music theory, my monograph will analyze the music theory and notation of this transitional period, in the context of how medieval intellectuals in many fields articulated and evaluated notions of the “new.”