That English Sound

One of England’s greatest contributions to the burgeoning transnational musical language at this time was the liberation of the major 3rd as a consonant interval. Grant it, the major 3rd wasn’t afforded full rights as a member of the consonant club – cadences and finals still consisted of perfect 5ths only – but it functioned prominently in the “English Descant” texture. Indeed, if a music history 101 student is given a listening example from the 13th century and it’s chocked full of MA 3rds, it’s a safe bet that it’s English (or English inspired).

This snippet (recorded in Finale) is the first 13 measures of the English conductus/motet “Beata viscera,” from the Worchester fragments. (This source is regrettably one of our only documents preserving the English descant style due to the wholesale purging of all “popish ditties” over the course of the Anglican reformation.) Listen for all the parallel 3rds and 6ths. It’s a texture quite unlike anything we’ve encountered so far. Note too the way these sweet harmonies give way to steely, open 5ths at points of cadence. It would be a while yet before the 3rd would earn this privilege.

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