Ars Subtilior and the Problem of “Chunking”

That kind of showy overcomplexity is just the sort of excess – an excess of fantasy, perhaps, or maybe just an excess of one-upsmanship – that earned the ars subtilior its reputation as a “mannered” or “decadent” style. (I, 342)

At the tail end of the ars nova era, a new breed of composers – none of whom are known today outside of the academy – began taking the rhythmic and chromatic innovations of Machaut and his cohort to dazzling levels of technical complexity. This was “the subtle art.” Arguably, the technical feats that came out of this movement were unrivaled in sheer difficulty until the 20th century.

Why did the ars nova lead to, in Taruskin’s words, a “technical arms race” in the form of the ars subtilior? A couple of threads from the last month or so of reading come together to provide a few hypotheses. For one, composers in this new style were fiercely competitive, with many of them claiming to be the true heir to Machaut. Polymeter, hyperchromaticism and the like enabled these elite composers to playfully duel for supremacy. The harder the nut to crack, the more “subtle” the music was perceived to be. And, as Mark recently pointed out, many of these pieces were actually conceived as musical riddles. They were game pieces, elaborately conceived to flummox all but the most supple of musical minds. With ars subtilior we see perhaps the most ferocious manifestation yet of the old “trobar clus,” the closed style intended only for the cognoscenti. This was subtle music (in the sense of “ornate and obtuse”) for subtle ears only.

It’s also perhaps the first musical movement to become so flamboyantly complex as to alienate people and provoke a historiographical backlash. For many years, music historians referred to ars subtilior as “the mannered style,” a term that denotes excess, self-indulgence, and decadence. (Interestingly, the word also came to describe the style of Gesualdo at the radical tail-end of the Italian madrigal, circa 1600.) While the standard terminology since the 1960s has changed to “the subtle art,” modern scholars (Taruskin writes) still find it “annoying as well as fascinating.”

Why is that? It seems that historians’ rebuke of “mannered” and “decadent” music is out of character, since every technical innovation up to this point has been greeted with approval. That the ars subtilior, one of the most complex Western styles of the millennium, would be met with disapprobation seems odd for a discipline that is often quick to heap praise on anything that smacks of innovation. Music historians, to my knowledge, have not labeled Perotin and Machaut as “decadent.” Why the ars subtilior?

This is a tough problem. It’s true that a certain level of scorn has accompanied many vanguard, destabilizing movements in music history. For the hidebound music historiographer, however, an even bigger problem comes with musical movements that seem to defy their era. As we’ve been discussing (with Ralph Locke’s help), the “chunking” of music history into periods can have the effect of closing off the diversity of musical activities in a given era and reducing the time to a few monolithic style features and composers. What, then, to make of a style that defies many taxonomical notions of its period? As mentioned, the term “mannerist” is still used to describe Gesualdo, Rore, and the madrigal composers who wrote their highly experimental music (some would call it “bonkers”) towards the end of the Renaissance. For many years, historians didn’t quite know what to make of these fringe guys – they certainly didn’t conform to ars perfecta notions of the Renaissance, but they weren’t fully Baroque either. In an effort to contain and defang subversive styles, historians have long employed derogatory terms like “decadent” to explain away inconvenient exceptions to the periods of music history.

I think that part of the fraught historical reception of the ars subtilior and Gesualdo comes down to the fact that these “mannered” styles can strike the modern ear as Modern. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that sets in when listening to Fumeaux fume – it defies expectations of what “Medieval music” should sound like. Similarly, Stravinsky famously reeled at listening to Gesualdo, finding in his music the soul of a fellow modern composer. That Solage in the 14th century could write music in the same subtle manner as Milton Babbitt in the 20th is a cup of cold water in the face of many deeply ingrained historical prejudices. “Mannered” movements like these are so fascinating because they vividly help us to see through the myth of linear creative evolution; they help explode the separation between the musical (and historical) Us and Them. They can be quite subtle indeed.

5 Comments

  1. Very interesting points… that technicality and propensity for “musical riddles” is mirrored in the compositions of the Second Viennese School.

    Mark will probably remember my undergraduate affinity for “solving” Schoenberg’s twelve-tone logic puzzles.

  2. Your post gets me thinking on a lot of different levels—the mark of a great post! My thoughts may spill over into the body of the blog as a separate post, but I’ll get started here.

    You ask why historians seem to pick and choose which technical innovations to laud and which to castigate. And I think that you’re right that some of the blame has to lie on our self-imposed constraints of historical/stylistic periodicity. The notational innovations prior to ars subtilior are lauded because they fall within the bounds of the (hi)story of the medieval period. But by the time we get to the ars subtilior, the temptation is to shift our focus as historians forward to what was to come: John Dunstable and the contonance angloise, with its simpler, “sweeter” style. In light of what was to come, the ars subtilior sticks out as decadent and lavish. We have a tendency to impose our historical position on guys like Solage—”they should have seen it coming!” The fact of the matter is, however, that we can _look_ to the future, but we can only _see_ the past. It was the same for Machaut and his progeny.

  3. Great article, I’m genuinely fascinate with this period, with its short but fruitful history. It jus blows my mind that this kind writing went on in the 14th century!

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