Week 9 in Review—Some Island Music

Last week we crossed the channel to listen in on the music of the British Isles.

This Week in Blogging: The week began with a change of header art that brought us into the 15th century. Throughout the week, we tried to get the English sound in our ears by posting an audio clip of Beata viscera, and Zach found a recording of Dunstable’s seminal, euphonious Quam pulchra es. And in the only mini-essay of the week, Zach guided us through the bog-ridden terrain of trying to determine cultural and musical influence in history.

  • Viking Harmony (392): Where did the English preference for thirds come from? From Scandanavian lands perhaps. Based on a lone musical example from Sweden, the hymn Nobilis, humilis, which shares the tendency for harmonization in thirds; and on the political presence of Nordic peoples on the British Isles from 875, Taruskin posits a possible connection between the two cultures.
  • England and the Continent: Though the English were much touted as having a “new,” “sweet” style all their own according to chroniclers of the early 14th century, they were by no means isolated from the continent or its trends: the Normans invaded in 1066; England and France were engaged in a (more than) Hundred Years War, after which Northern French lands were occupied by the English; and intellectuals from England studied in French universities (witness our old friend Anonymous IV).
  • Nationalism? (403) and “English Descant” (406): The English style of descant is considered by some historians to be more homogeneous than other nations during the same time, and therefore “may suggest the beginnings of something comparable to what we now call nationalism” (405), though nationalism at this point was not connected to ethnicity but to the crown. The quintessential style can be found in the opening measures of Beata viscera (a conductus/motet): an 8/5 “chord”*, proceeding to a string of 6/3 “chords” moving in parallel motion, and cadencing on (or passing through) 8/5. This musical profile is also traditionally what music historians consider to be the definition of “contonance angloise,” (as RT puts it, “that English something-or-other”).
  • Old Hall and Roy Henry (409): The Old Hall Manuscript is a treasure for its collection of polyphonic mass movements, many with attributions of composers. It also contains the attribution of two pieces by “Roy Henry,” or King Henry, which could have been Henry IV or Henry V.
  • John Dunstable and the “New” Music: John Dunstable, an English composer, became, in his day and in successive generations, the fountainhead of the English style to continental composers.
  • Faburden, the English procedure of improvising harmony over a pre-existing monophonic melody (à la English descant), had a continental counterpart in fauxbourdon. The latter was often used by such composers as Guillaume Du Fay and Gilles Binchois, who used it as a compositional technique rather than an extemporizing procedure.

*Numbers represent intervals above the lowest note of the texture, from top to bottom. For example, “8/5” denotes an octave and a fifth above the lowest note. “Chord” is in quotes to denote that I am using a modern term.

Non avrà ma’ pietà

We can’t go the whole week without hearing some music from the trecento’s most famous composer (at least to history), Francesco Landini. This is a polyphonic ballata, “Non avrà ma’ pietà.” Landini, a blind musician known for his organ playing as well as his music, has occupied an important place in music history partly because so much of his music was recorded and has survived.

She will never have mercy, this lady of mine,
if you do not see to it, Love,
that she is certain of my great ardor.

If she knew how much pain I bear—
for honesty’s sake concealed in my mind—

only for her beauty, other than which
nothing gives comfort to a grieving soul,

perhaps by her would be extinguished in me
the flames which seem to arouse in
me from day to day more pain.

She will never have mercy, this lady of mine,
if you do not see to it, Love,
that she is certain of my great ardor.