Week 6 in Review

The Week in Blogging: Week 7 kicks off with some good news. It’s official – Mark passed his doctoral comp exams! A hearty congratulations!

We started the week off with a video clip of an amazing “real life” motet (and the frustration of losing the Week 5 review..). From there, Mark returned from the dead to discuss the psychological implications of the switch from orality to literacy, as well as share a little koan about the motet. The week continued with posts on humor in the motet and the ever-important role of politics in the creation of new music. We closed with Du Fay’s crazily complex numerological motet and a Machaut sneak peak. The week also saw another exciting development: Alex Ross, the amazing music critic for The New Yorker, added the Challenge to the reading list on his new blog, Unquiet Thoughts.

The Week in Reading: Chapter 8 – Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova

  • A New Art of Music? (247): New music treatises began appearing around 1322 that radically altered the course of literate music making. These theoretical manuals launched an even more sophisticated notational technology for rhythms.
  • Music from Mathematics (248): A breakthrough occurred when musicians began adapting the theory of exponential powers for use in notating rhythms. Thus, every rhythmic value could be subdivided as follows: 3 minim = semibreve; 3 semibreves = breve; 3 breves = long; 3 longs = longa triplex. Furthermore, this method of subdivision allowed for the same breakdown of “imperfect” (2) values.
  • Putting it into Practice (250): Further discussion of the implications of the above.
  • Representing It (252): Time signatures (or mensural signs) were created to specify the four rhythmic modes (corresponding to 9/8, 3/4, 6/8, and 2/4).
  • Establishing the Prototype: The Roman de Fauvel (255): The story of Fauvel, a political satire featuring a corrupt deerlike creature, provided the first documented consolidation of a few ars nova features, including: 1) Latin text; 2) Lyrics relating to public morality; 3) Delayed tenor entrance for dramatic effect.
  • Taking a Closer Look (260): More discussion of this new rhythmic system
  • More Elaborate Patterning (261): The deep architecture of many ars nova motets reflects an inherent tension between triple and duple subdivisions. There was no way of mixing these two levels at one time, so composers used “rubrics” (or “canons”), including performance notes and color changes, to show a shift in metrical value.
  • Isorhythm (266): This combinatorial technique drew from the concepts of “color” and “talea”: recurring rows of notes and rhythms overlap to produce independent but overlapping periodicities. These large structural patterns reflected the rhythm of the cosmos.
  • Music about Music (267): With formal practices codified, musicians were able to subvert the rules in a playful and ironic way. There’s a lot of wit in these self-referential motets about the art of motet composition!
  • Machaut: The Occult and the Sensuous (270): This is our first glimpse of the immense creative vision of Guillaume de Machaut, particularly in reference to his gnomic treatment of rhythm as a reflection of hidden, occult truths. Of course, these structural densities were belied by sensuous surface textures.
  • Musica Ficta (273): Literally “false music.” Machaut was able to utilize a level of chromaticism heretofore inaccessible to notated music by exploiting the natural tendencies of pitches to magnetize towards other pitches. Musica ficta is a system of implied accidentals according to context. Its reach was to extend well into the 17th century.
  • Cadences (276): Major style feature – the “double leading-tone cadence.” Approaching the tonic and fifth by half-step was enabled by musica ficta.
  • Ciconia: The Motet as Political Show (277): See this post.
  • Du Fay: The Motet as Mystical Summa (281): The symbolic value of numbers played a major role in the structure and meaning of many motets. Du Fay’s mind-blowing Nuper rosarum flores juggles at least 4 levels of numerological meaning.
  • A Final Word From Dante (286): Dante wrote about the power and beauty of the motet, actually using it as a metaphor a world government of perfect justice. The chapter closes with Taruskin’s answer to the riddle of polytextuality: motets were intended to awe people, not to be understood.

We read about 10 pages into Ch.9, but for the sake of organization I’ll leave that for next week’s summary. Look out for more Machaut, including his famous mass, a return to sacred music, ars subtilior and more in Week 7!

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Zach! Writing for this blog definitely helped me prepare for the exam. I engaged with the material, was able to have discussions about it, and got lots of practice writing up my thoughts quickly and (usually) coherently. I’m convinced that blogging can be a beneficial pedagogical tool. I can’t wait to use it as such when I teach my own classes.

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