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.