Du Fay and Machaut

Guillaume Du Fay, Nuper rosarum flores

This motet, composed for the dedication of a cathedral in Florence, features a staggeringly complex architecture based on certain symbolically important numbers. In fact, numerological patterning functions in overlapping systems to produce different simultaneous significations. For instance, the metrical signatures throughout form a ratio of 6:4:2:3, which happens to be the Pythagorean proportions. The ratio also corresponds to architectural descriptions of the great temple in Jerusalem found in the second book of Kings. (This was also a particularly apt numerological pattern to draw, as the motet was written for the dedication of a new cathedral.) In addition to all of that, the number 7 plays a prominent role in the piece, both structurally and poetically (7-syllable lines). Seven is a number associated strongly with the Virgin Mary, to whom the new cathedral was being dedicated. The mind spins.

Taruskin ends Chapter 8 with a theory that answers our quandary about why multiple texts were used in the motet genre, even though they couldn’t possibly be understood: “The mind-boggling effect of the fourteenth-century ceremonial motet, confirmed by numerous witnesses, may have actually depended on the sensory overload delivered by its multiplicity of voices and texts. If so, it was not the first time that what we would call aesthetic value and power would be extracted from the inscrutable. (A large part of the aesthetic value, as well as the sacredness, of the earliest melismatic chant derived from what Dante might have called its slipperiness.) And it certainly will not the be the last. Whenever the ‘sublime’ is valued as an artistic quality, so is awe. And what produces awe must be unfathomable as well as thrilling.”  (I, 286-287)

I’ll close this post with a sneak peak preview to Machaut. This is his motet/virelai hybrid Lasse/Se j’aime/POURQUOY. Expect more on this towering figure of the 14th century in Week 7.

Why Petty Politics Can be a Good Thing

What drives musical innovation and complexity? We’ve discussed a couple factors so far, including artistic play, technological advances influencing practice, and competition. I’d like to return briefly to the last of these (competition), although I’ll leave rap battle analogies out of this one.

The motet was the most sophisticated, dense, and – as Taruskin points out – occult genre of its day. It was also the most prestigious in the halls of power. (In today’s terms, the motet might be the equivalent of combining the intellectual rigor of total serialism with the patriotic fervor of “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”) Suffice it to say, the motet did a lot of cultural work. It is important to remember, however, that the great feats of complexity that played such a prominent role in the genre’s success were not purely the result of aesthetic considerations. One of the things I admire the most about the OHWM is that Taruskin adamantly refuses to approach pieces of music as disembodied, pure aesthetic objects. It would be easy and alluring to see the motet as just another evolutionary step forward, as a product of composers’ innate drive for greater expressive power. Taruskin doesn’t let us off this easily.

The fact of the matter is that politics played a major role in the complexity arms race of the motet, especially in Italy. During the 13th and 14th centuries, small principalities broke up the boot into a balkanized patchwork of power centers. Even the church got in on the factionalization when the great papal schism lasting 40 years led to a multiplicity of popes all vying for legitimacy. And what does music have to do with all of this? Taruskin: “This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music. That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts.” (I, 277)

Despots used music as a competitive tool to project their own superiority over their rivals. Despite the somewhat ignominious nature of this arrangement, their deep pockets made for some of the best-paid, most respected gigs of the day. (That is, until your patron’s fiefdom gets sacked by the next town over.) Composers from France and Flanders – the birthplace of ars nova – flocked south to write music for these powerful patrons, including the great Johannes Ciconia. Ciconia worked for one Francesco Zabarella, an archpriest in line for the papacy, setting to work to glorify the achievements of his boss. Here are some sample lyrics from his hagiographic motets: “O Francesco Zabarella, glory, teacher..,” “O Francesco Zabarella, protector….”

Music of this sort is about as far as you can get from “music for music’s sake.” Yet the competition between rival Italian courts and religious authorities led to cross-pollination of regional styles, a secure paycheck for the composers involved, and the explicit instruction for them to go out and innovate. Thus, while the pretenses for this music were hardly what we today would call “purely aesthetic,” political competition profoundly enriched the musical culture of the day.

It’s a bit like the space race. While it’s certainly true that the US and the Soviet Union were essentially engaged in a multi-billion dollar pissing contest, it’s hard not to recognize the positive (and unintended) outcome of the race. Our species endeavored into outer space, we developed amazing new technologies, we educated an entire generation in the hard sciences. The photo of the earth from the moon is pretty nifty, if existentially exhausting. At a certain point, the petty political posturing at the root of space race funding sort of fades into black. What we’re left with is that photo of our perfect planet earth.

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)

Seeing Music

I’m back from a short hiatus. Many thanks to Zach for keeping the ship pointed in the right direction!

As I go through this week’s reading, I see more and more evidence of a major shift in literate music from this time period. Rather than existing largely as a way to record oral tradition, the technology of notation had developed to a point where it can increasingly generate new musical techniques. Now is as good a time as any to compare where we started in this history of literate traditions, with the earliest form of neumes, to the notation of Phillipe de Vitry, with a focus on the directional flow of anatomical priority: from ear to eye, or eye to ear.

The earliest neumed music, as we have repeatedly seen, relied first on the ear, that is, on the performer’s aural knowledge of an existing oral tradition. Only secondly and subordinately do they count on information received by the eyes. The visual signs were only gestural, and not able to be read at sight by one who was a stranger to the repertoire.

How different this is from one of this week’s examples, Phillipe de Vitry’s motet Tuba sacre/In arboris/VIRGO SUM. We are now working with music on a five line, cleffed staff, with notation that imparts to the reader specific rhythmic information. Two basic components of music—pitch content and rhythmic information—are accounted for in notation. The manuscript version of this piece that Prof. Taruskin reproduces in the text* is beginning to have some real resemblances to the notation we continue to use today.

Technology engenders experimentation; which brings me to the main reason for writing this post: coloration. The tenor line in Tuba sacre/In arboris/VIRGO SUM has a funny little quirk: some of the notes are in red ink instead of black. And beneath the tenor de Vitry wrote these words: Nigre notule sunt imperfecte et rube sunt perfecte (“The little black notes are imperfect and the red ones are perfect”). As de Vitry’s contemporary readers would know, this little rule (“rubric,” or “canon”) means that a change of color means a change of rhythmic proportion, specifically by the ratio of 3:2. And although de Vitry set this out as a special rule for this particular motet, it subsequently became common practice.

Coloration is a striking example of the generative influence of which notation was capable by this time. When a scribe’s change of inkwell can so drastically alter the way music is performed, we know for sure that we are no longer in a musical world monopolized by oral/aural tradition. Neither are we, however, in a world monopolized by the visual. But as a result of this notational coming-of-age, the visual impetus in music has emerged as a true contender.

*Ivrea, Biblioteca Capitolare, MS 115, fols. 15v-16. See Vol. 1, p. 262 for the plate, pp. 263-265 for a transcription of the entire motet.

“On parole/A Paris/Frese nouvele” [Review Update]

This is the exquisitely frolicsome motet referenced in the Week 5 review (although not the highest quality video clip). I’ll let Taruskin set the scene:

By now the fun and games aspect of discordia concors has so burgeoned as to invite free choice of found objects in all parts including the tenor, and the more extravagant the better. The motet [here] is one of those racy things Grocheio particularly recommends for his “feasts of the learned.” Semibreves permeate all parts. The triplum and motetus texts are descriptions of just such medieval fraternity parties as Grocheio describes, at which young literati gathered to gorge on capons and guzzle wine and nuzzle girls and despise manual labor, and particularly to praise Paris, the fount of the good life for budding intellectuals. And the tenor? It consists of a fourfold repetition, prescribed by an early use of ditto or repeat marks in the notation, of a fruitseller’s cry – “Fresh strawberries, ripe blackberries!” – possibly drawn directly “from life” as lived on the Parisian streets. (I, 236)

The spirit of this playful piece is best summed up in the last line of the triplum’s text: “… And all of this is to be had in Paris.”

[Week 5 in Review Update]: Those who checked the blog this morning will have noticed a review post for week 5 that is currently missing. (Although comments to this post pertain to the review.) I am realizing now that I must have accidentally deleted the content of the review and filled it up with this post instead. My apologies! If you have any suggestions for how to retrieve old posts, please let me know. I’m resolutely not in the mood to rewrite the review at this time, but we might get around to it next weekend, perhaps with a “Weeks 5-6 in Review” post. That should be enough time to defuse the frustration that always goes along with losing work into the electronic maw.

Clus or Clar II: The Motet

This kind of song ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts. — Grocheio, about the motet, c. 1300 (I, 226)

One major theme of the book so far has been the complex relationship between description and prescription as it relates to newly-developed notational styles and theories. Do theories and notations actively affect music composition, or are they the handmaiden to preexisting practices? Of course, they paradoxically do both. The relationship reminds me of that M.C. Escher drawing of two hands drawing themselves into existence (below).


With newly developed Franconian notation came a greater level of rhythmic complexity to notated music, and the motet was the first genre to fully capitalize on this potential. As Taruskin writes in reference to a motet from this era: “Such a piece was a triumph of literate contrivance, one whose craftsmanly intricacy depended utterly on the written medium.” (I, 228) Indeed, there is a playful quality to much of this music, as if composers were experimenting with novelties just because, for the first time, they could.

The hyper-literate nature of the early motets made the genre an ideal showcase for the elite, literati classes. However, the more technically complex and bound to written notation the motet became, the more out of reach it grew for those unschooled in music theory/notation, the people Grocheio endearingly labeled “the vulgar.” It’s quite the irony, therefore – as Taruskin points out – that many motet texts were pastoral love poems about shepherds and other ordinary folk. Motet singers sang earthy poetry about the exact types of people who “that kind of song ought not be propagated among.” We’re back to the questions raised initially by the trobar clus and trobar clar, the “closed” and “clear” song styles of the trouvéres. (And back to Mark’s first post on the question.) Should music be for all or for the few?

Of course, setting the tales of the shepherd lovers Robin and Marion as the lyrics for a double motet doesn’t automatically show sympathy for the “types” these ordinary folks represent. Moreover, I’m skeptical that the average listener would be able to decipher the lyrics in the first place, seeing as they are polytextually amalgamated into an impenetrably dense web of words. In this intricate, clever musical structure, Robin and Marion disappear entirely, existing only on the written page.

“Aucun ont trouvé”

In the 13th century, composer Petrus de Cruce developed a unique style of motet that exaggerated the stratification of rhythmic levels. In “Petronian” motets, the top voice (triplum) is incredibly fleet; the middle voice (motetus) uses rhythms of intermediate duration; and the low voice (tenor) plods along in longs (dotted half notes). This effect was made to be heard – the listener can clearly discern the layering of rhythmical levels according to range.

Also note the text(s): as mentioned in the previous post, polytextuality is a defining (and definingly odd) characteristic of the motet. “Aucun ont trouvé” is composed of two love poems in French. The first poem (in the triplum) is considerably longer, as that voice functions at a higher rhythmic level. And underpinning it all is the tenor, which annunciates only one single word.

The Motet’s Bizarre Relationship with Text

The genre of the motet came about simply enough. Early practitioners added text to preexisting pieces of discant (polyphony with wordless melisma) and voila. In effect, the addition of texts – some Biblical, some glosses on Biblical passages, and some straight-up secular poetry a la trouvéres – brought the sureness and stability of language back into the polyphonic endeavor. (Remember, in the music of the Notre Dame school, the text was slowed down to such an extent as to render it abstract.) Where N.D. organum cum alio featured the free, text-less flow of voices, the motet composers, like in earlier chant, put the text front and center.

Or did they? Despite the triumphant Return of the Words to this repertory, language functions in an incredibly idiosyncratic way in the motet. One of the most bewildering features of this new genre is its juxtaposition of different texts. But not just cut-and-paste linear combinations of different poetry like we saw in the tropes. Many motets actually employ different texts in different voices at the same time (polytextuality). This is what is meant by a “double motet” (or “triple motet,” etc when additional texts/voices are combined). Furthermore, the texts in question don’t even have to be in the same language! Thus, in one motet, we might have a well-known text plus its explication at the same time.

I can think of no other instance in Western music where different texts are sung simultaneously (except opera, for dramatic reasons). In this respect, the motet is sui generis. But instead of occupying the position of a freak show in Western music, the motet was once of the most flexible, enduring, and sophisticated musical developments of its age. Its influence stretched for the next few hundred years.

How did such an enigmatic musical phenomenon come about? The problem of text is an ancient one in the history of our art. St. Augustine saw a threat in the seductive music of  his day since it distracted him from the meaning of the text. Our earliest repertory, chant, is a musical delivery system for religious texts – even when early notation adumbrated and obfuscated the melodies (neumes aren’t terribly precise), the written word stood clear on the page, unambiguous and stable. When the chant was put in the tenor and slowed down to accommodate torrents of melisma, however, the text was unseated in its central position. This might be seen as the beginning of a purely musical impulse in the Western notated tradition. In the Notre Dame school, this impulse intensified, as evinced by such pieces as “Viderunt Omnes,” which, as discussed, runs some three minutes on just five syllables of text.

The relationship between text and music has always had an ebb and flow dynamic. There have been eras, composers, genres, schools that tend towards clear declamation and others that tend towards the more purely musical (“purely musical” sounds like an unfair term. Let’s use the neutral if bland “non-texted”). This dynamic, of course, cannot be said to affect any sort of linear progression of music – it’s inaccurate to say that text was ahead in the 9th century, textlessness in the 13th, like a horse race. Rather, musics until the development of instrumental genres struck different balance betweens the poles of clear textual declamation and voice-as-sonic-matter. (Rhetorical concepts, prosody, and other linguistic elements guided the development of instrumental music as well, so even the “purely musical” isn’t entirely free from language.) The relationship between text and music has sparked a number of famous quarrels in music history, perhaps most notably the Artusi/Monteverdi scuffle: 16th century madrigals relied on the text for their meaning but did not for the most part make the words understandable in the dense web of polyphony. Seeking to rectify this, more representational, uni-directional forms such as opera were created (and with this genre, it’s fair to say that is was created.) The text was once again heard.

The double (triple) motet is a strange beast. It puts the text in the center of its organization – indeed, text is what differentiates motets from plain discant – while simultaneously undermining the importance of text by making it impossible to understand. There might be a performative element to this: motets were written for the individual performers, all of whom would of course understand the text they themselves are singing. There are also a couple of other forces at work in this genre. Double motets were enabled by notation. This sort of dense interlocking of different texts (languages!) into a polyphonic structure would have been exceedingly difficult without a way of capturing it all on parchment. It might have even been totally unimaginable in a purely oral tradition. Moreover, notational advances (Franconian notation) allowed for text and rhythm to be captured together without the ligature patterns necessary to modal rhythm. Taruskin: “It is a notation specially tailored to the requirements of motets, that is musica cum littera.” (I, 214)

Text in the double motet was clearly not meant to be heard by an audience. It provides an abstract conceptual underpinning to a piece, and is clearly legible in print but not in sound. This was a major step in the ever-increasing power and influence of written notation over musical practice.

“Viderunt Omnes”

This clip features Perotin’s 4-voice organum cum alio setting of the words “viderunt omnes.” The original chant, which appears as the sustained tenor, is slowed down to a veritable crawl here – it takes over three minutes just to intone the syllables “vi-de-runt om-nes.” In the earliest scraps of notated polyphony the chant appeared as the melody; it’s dramatic to hear what happened when this process was turned on its head and the chant was put in the lowest voice. This sort of organum isn’t at all about the intelligibility of the text, for the surface level activity of the composition consists of highly coordinated melismatic (wordless) activity in the three upper voices. A few things strike me when listening to this repertory:

– The modal rhythms (trochaic, to be precise) lend “Viderunt Omnes” a rhythmic consistency and patterned regularity unavailable to composers up until the development of this notational technology. It’s not inaccurate to say that this trochaic meter actually grooves.

– The periodicity of Viderunt is patent – it utilizes repetition to amazing effect. It’s no wonder that Steve Reich counts Perotin among his major influences.

– The three upper voices all function in the same range, frequently crossing over each other and weaving in and out of the texture. It reminds me of three birds racing through the air in play.

For more of this piece, see the Hilliard Ensemble performing a particularly juicy section (the conclusion, with final chant) here.