Humor in the 14th Century, or “Europe’s Funniest Home Versus”

It’s all too easy to attribute modern comedic sensibilities to modern people only. But if the comedic impulse comes out of suffering, as Lenny Bruce claimed when asked why so many comics were Jewish (“All my humor is based on destruction and despair”), then the Middle Ages should be the Age of Hilarity. This is an insight Monty Python understood well. (“I’m not dead yet!”)

As our reading progresses, a prominent new stylistic feature is beginning to emerge – humor. Earlier repertories, while fascinating and beautiful, can hardly be called funny. But with the motet, we find examples of music that is – even to modern ears – quite clever and witty. This is somewhat surprising given the solemn treatises on the genre (remember dour Grocheio) and its status as an elite art. But just as frisky motet texts often belie the technical complexity and esotericism of the form, so too do the complex forms belie the essentially comedic and playful nature of some of these pieces. The more progress occurred in notational technology, moreover, the more composers were free to experiment with ever more elaborate (and hilarious) techniques.

Take the motet Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili. Its text is in Latin, not exactly the typical conduit for comedic expression in those days. (As opposed to today, when Latin comedians are all the rage. Think Carlos Mencia. *rimshot, cymbal*) In fact, the text is straightforward and dignified enough: the triplum takes the voice of an anthropomorphized Music: “The science of music sends greetings to her beloved disciples…” Music goes on to instruct the singers to respect the rules and “not to offend against rhetoric and grammar by dividing indivisible syllables.” The motetus text (remember, each voice has a different text in the double motet), conversely, is the voice of Rhetoric: “Rhetoric sends greetings to learned Music.” This voice warns against faults like rhythmic hockets. Simple enough, right?

The zinger comes when you notice that the music doesn’t in any way follow the advice of our friends Music and Rhetoric. In fact, the music is actively undermining the stentorian declamations of the poetry – indivisible syllables are divided, a strict violation of the rules; and what’s more, the voices engage in a complex series of hockets. I imagine two stern old teachers in a classroom telling a group of students not to use their cell phones while all the while the kids are texting furiously under their desks.

What we have here is an early case of irony in notated music. Perhaps if the composer of this motet was alive today he would frequent hipster bars and sport a mullet, gas station attendant jacket, and mustache.

All joking aside, this is pretty amazing. As Taruskin astutely points out, in order to poke fun at a style, one has to be fully conscious of the codes and forms that are typical of said style. Irony is essentially a self-aware form of humor, and the recognition of the fundamental constructed-ness of musical practices represents, I think, a small breakthrough in the Western notated tradition.

I’ll close with Taruskin: “Every one of the ‘faults’ for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer. The piece is a kind of satire. But such satire requires an attitude of ironic detachment, a consciousness of art as artifice, and a wish to make that artifice the principal focus of attention. These are traits we normally (and perhaps self-importantly) ascribe to the ‘modern’ temperament, not the ‘medieval’ one. Only we (we tent to think), with our modern notions of psychology and our modern sense of ‘self,’ are capable of self-reflection. Only we, in short, can be ‘artists’ as opposed to ‘craftsmen.’ Not so.” (I, 270)


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