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Contents

Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

“ENGLISH DESCANT”

Chapter:
CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Source:
MUSIC FROM THE EARLIEST NOTATIONS TO THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
Author(s):
Richard Taruskin

In any case, the composers of the “Worcester school” rang many attractive changes on their parallel-triad (or, to put it in less anachronistic terms, their parallel-imperfect-consonance) style. Where Flos regalis featured parallel motion at the third and fifth, producing strings of chords in what we would call the (or “close-spaced”) root position, a Marian conductus with a text that parodies the communion Beata viscera (“O blessed womb”) shadows its tenor more rigorously with imperfect consonances. Doubling at the third and sixth produces what we would call strings of “six-three” (or “first-inversion”) triads (Ex. 11-9). For reasons that will soon become apparent, Beata viscera has become the most famous individual item from the Worcester fragments. Its style exemplifies what is often called “English descant.”

“English Descant”

ex. 11-9 Beata viscera (conductus/motet), mm. 1-13

When English descant was based on a plainsong, the cantus firmus was usually carried in the middle voice, following an English practice of “improvising” counterpoints above or below, and sometimes simultaneously, by the use of prescribed intervals. (Actually, this sort of “improvisation”—though it was known, oddly enough, as using “sights”—is exactly what we would call “harmonizing by ear.”) When such settings were composed in writing, the cantus firmus often “migrated” between the middle and lower voices, so that the voices themselves did not have to cross. This seems to indicate an interest in chordal harmony as such: when the cantus firms is allowed to migrate to the lowest part instead of crossing it, the various parts are kept distinct in range. More significantly, the part written lowest in score can always maintain its function as “bass,” making it easier for the composer to keep track of the harmony. In Ex. 11-10, a setting of a votive antiphon to the Virgin Mary that was often performed after Compline in Britain before the present selection of “Marian antiphons” became canonical, the voices cross once only and only for the duration of a single note (on “genuisti,” near the end). The harmony is more mixed, between chords containing only perfect consonances and those admitting imperfect ones, than in the more popular “parallel” style, though there are local progressions that still bear traces of the English “oral” habit of extemporizing long sequences of full triads. But the general level of consonance is pervasive—far higher than in contemporary continental music.

“English Descant”

ex. 11-10 Sancta Maria virgo, intercede (Marian antiphon)

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 26 Sep. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 26 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 26 Sep. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011007.xml