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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova

Notational and Stylistic Change in Fourteenth-Century France; Isorhythmic Motets From Machaut to Du Fay

CHAPTER 8 Business Math, Politics, and Paradise: The Ars Nova
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


And yet (to pick up immediately on the closing thought of the previous chapter, and perhaps pick a fight with it) one can certainly point to times when changes in composing practice did take place for a definite composerly purpose, whether to enable specific technical solutions to specific technical problems, to enlarge a certain realm of technical possibility, or to secure specific improvements in technical efficiency. Why not call that progress?

No problem; but let us distinguish technical progress from stylistic evolution. The one affects the making only; the other is also the beholder’s business. Technique is an aspect of production; style is an attribute of the product. Style, one might therefore say, is the result of technique. Hence stylistic evolution can be, among other things, a result of technical progress. But although all makers constantly try to improve their techniques, until quite recently no one ever thought deliberately to change his or her style as such. And whereas new techniques can replace or invalidate old ones, new styles do not do this, so far as the beholder is concerned. The fact that so many of us still listen to old music as much as (if not more than) to new music is sufficient proof of that.

To seek or abet style change in the name of progress means merging the concepts of technique and style. To do that required a sea change in the way artists (and not only artists) thought about means and ends. That change began to happen only near the end of the eighteenth century, but the question needs airing now, because the fourteenth century was indubitably a time of intensive and deliberate technical progress in the art of the musical literati—of those, that is, who made and used the music of the burgeoning literate tradition. Its result, inevitably, was an enormous change in musical style.

The best evidence we have that fourteenth-century technical progress in music was a highly self-conscious affair are the titles of two of the century’s most important technical treatises, and the nature of the debate they sparked. The treatises were the Ars novae musicae (“The art of new music”), also known as Notitia artis musicae (“An introduction to the art of music”) by Jehan des Murs (alias Johannes de Muris), first drafted between 1319 and 1321, and the somewhat later, even more bluntly titled Ars nova (“The new art [of music]”), a torso or composite of fragments and commentaries surviving from a treatise based on the teachings of Philippe de Vitry (1291–1361), known by the end of his life as the “flower of the whole musical world” (flos totius mundi musicorum), to quote a British contemporary.1 The Ars Nova treatises began appearing around 1322–1323.

The authors, both trained at the University of Paris (where Jehan des Murs eventually became rector), were mathematicians as well as musicians—not that this should surprise us, in view of music’s place alongside mathematics and astronomy in the traditional liberal arts curriculum. The new mensural notation that had been pioneered in the thirteenth century by Franco and company could not help but suggest new musical horizons to scholars who were accustomed to thinking of music as an art of measurement. And yet “Franconian” notation, geared toward an already existing rhythmic style and limited to supplying that style’s immediate needs, only scratched the surface of the number relationships that might conceivably be translated into sound durations, whether for the sake of sheer intellectual or epicurean delight or as a way of bringing musica practica—or musique sensible, “the music of sense,” as translated by Philippe de Vitry’s younger contemporary Nicole d’Oresme2—into closer harmony with musica speculativa (the music of reason).

Though spurred originally by a speculative, mathematical impulse, the notational breakthroughs of Jehan and Philippe had enormous and immediate repercussions in the practice of “learned” music—repercussions, first displayed in the motet, that eventually reached every genre. So decisive were the contributions of these mathematicians for the musical practice of their century and beyond that the theoretical tradition of Philippe de Vitry has lent its name to an entire era and all its products; we often call the music of fourteenth-century France and its cultural colonies the music of the “Ars Nova.” Neither before nor since has theory ever so clearly—or so fruitfully—outrun and conditioned practice.


(1) John of Tewkesbury, Quatuor principlaia musice (1351); see M. Bent, “Vitry, Phillipe de,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XXVI (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 804.

(2) Maistre Nicole Oresme, Livre de Politiques d’Aristote, ed. A. D. Menut (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1970), p. 347; quoted in Julie E. Cumming, “Concord Out of Discord: Occasional Motets of the Eearly Quattrocento” (Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1987), p. 14.

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. 30 Nov. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-008.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 30 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-008.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 30 Nov. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-008.xml