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Contents

Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

BACKLASH

Chapter:
CHAPTER 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova
Source:
MUSIC FROM THE EARLIEST NOTATIONS TO THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

Just as the technology-minded theorists of the “Ars Nova” represented the first self-conscious avant garde faction in European literate music, so they inspired the first conservative backlash. It is found in the seventh and last book of the mammoth Speculum musicae (“The mirror of music”), at 521 chapters the largest of all medieval music treatises, completed around 1330 by Jacobus (or Jacques) de Liège. The author was a retired University of Paris professor (thus Jehan des Murs’s senior colleague) who had returned to his birthplace in Belgium to work on this grandiose project, which he intended as a summa summarum—a universal compendium—of musical knowledge. The young innovators of the “Ars Nova,” by extending the boundaries of musical theory, threatened the completeness of Jacobus’s account, so he tried to discredit their advance and thus neutralize the threat.

The basic ploy was to dismiss the Ars Nova innovations as so much superfluous complexity, and to show that their art, by admitting so much “imperfection,” was thereby itself made imperfect when compared with what Jacobus called the “Ars Antiqua,” represented at its unsurpassable zenith by Franco of Cologne. The term Ars Antiqua has also entered the conventional vocabulary of music history to denote Parisian music of the thirteenth century; it is a bad usage, though, since the term has meaning only in connection with its antithesis, and using it tends to ratify the notion that not just technique but art itself makes progress.

Citing a passage in Jehan des Murs’s treatise in which the author explained the use of the term “perfection” in music by saying that “all perfection does in fact lie in the ternary number” (beginning with the perfection of God Himself, who is single in substance but a Trinity of persons), Jacobus maintained that “the art that uses perfect values more often is, therefore, more perfect,” and that “the art that does that is the Ars Antiqua of Master Franco.”4 But of course basing an argument on what amounts to a pun is the very essence of sophistry. And besides, the innovations of the Ars Nova, while demonstrably a breakthrough, and controversial to boot, were in no sense “revolutionary.” The granting of full rights to the imperfect was no challenge to the perfect. Rather, it was an attempt to encompass more fully the traditional “medieval” objective of translating number into sound, thus the more fully to realize the ideal significance of music as cosmic metaphor. By radically increasing the number of disparate elements that could go into its representation of harmony, moreover, the Ars Nova innovations only made the more potent the musical representation of discordia concors, the divine tuning of the world.

Notes:

(4) Jacobus de Liège, Speculum musicae, Book VII, Chap. 43, trans. R. Taruskin.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008005.xml