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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century

CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low

The Fifteenth-Century Motet and Chanson; Early Instrumental Music; Music Printing

CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Over the course of the fifteenth century, the cyclic Mass Ordinary, a new genre, displaced the motet from its position at the high end of the musical style spectrum. That is one of the reasons why the motet, of all preexisting literate genres, underwent the most radical transformation during that time. From an isorhythmic, tenor-dominated, polytextual construction, it became a Latin “cantilena,” a sacred song that primarily served devotional rather than ceremonial purposes. Connection with plainchant was retained but modified. Paraphrase—the technique pioneered in fauxbourdon settings, whereby an old chant was melodically refurbished and turned into a new “cantus”—began to dominate the motet just as the cantus-firmus technique was being appropriated by the Mass. Textual and expressive factors began to weigh more heavily than before both in the structure and in the detail-work of the newly renovated motet. The aim was lowered, so to speak, from the altogether transcendent to somewhere nearer the human plane. The result was the perfect embodiment of Tinctoris’s stylus mediocris, the “middle style.”

It became all the more fitting, then, that the middle style should continue to address the “middle being,” the nexus and mediatrix between the transcendent and the human, especially as votive appeals to the Virgin Mary continued to burgeon in the liturgy. Accordingly, the latter fifteenth century witnessed the zenith of musical “Mariolatry.” Its chief expressive outlet became the polyphonic arrangement of the Marian antiphons. For composers of the “Tinctoris generations,” that was the basic motet category.

A wonderful introduction to the “classic” fifteenth-century Marian motet is a Salve Regina setting by Philippe Basiron (d. 1491), mentioned in chapter 12 as the composer of one of the numerous satellite Masses that surrounded Busnoys’s enormously influential Missa L’Homme Armé. The original melody, signaled by the little crosses (“+”) in Ex. 13-1a, has been familiar to us since the third chapter of this book (see Ex. 3-12b). As pointed out then, it resembles a troubadour canso—or, in terms more contemporary with the polyphonic setting, a ballade—in its repeated opening phrase. That repeated opening phrase is in fact identically paraphrased in Basiron’s superius up to its cadence on both of its appearances in the motet, pointing up the composer’s awareness of the melody’s resemblance to a secular love song, and his wish to preserve that resonant resemblance in his cantilena setting.

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ex. 13-1a Philippe Basiron, Salve Regina, mm. 1–25

Basiron builds other generic resonances into his setting as well. The opening line of the chant paraphrase is accompanied by the altus only, creating the kind of duo one often finds in Mass Ordinary settings—or, more to the point, in the older isorhythmic motet—during the introitus that preceded and heralded the entrance of the all-important tenor. The repetition of the opening superius phrase takes place over that entrance—and sure enough, the tenor behaves on entering just like a cantus firmus voice, in note-values outstanding for their slowness vis-à-vis the note-values of the introitus. The tenor seems to identify itself as—indeed, to impersonate—the bearer of the holy relic, the preexisting chant, when all the while the chant-bearing voice is the superius. The long-note tenor “melody” has never been identified, and in all likelihood will never be. It is a decoy.

What we have, in short, is a deliberate play on styles and genres by a supremely self-conscious composer-literatus: a paraphrase motet disguised as a cantus-firmus motet. The disguise is light and not seriously intended to deceive, of course: by the time the superius has descended its fifth between sal- and -ve in the first measure everyone in Basiron’s envisaged audience would have surely recognized the most famous melody in all the liturgy. It is just a playful disguise, meant to amuse in an edifying sort of way. The deliberate playfulness—what we might call the “thematization” of genre—has a serious point. Incorporating elements of “low” (the superius in “pseudovernacular” style) and “high” (the tenor in “pseudoplainchant” style), the motet pitches itself, or balances itself, right in the middle, showing the composer’s awareness of the rhetorical categories available to him, and his ability to exploit them meaningfully.

The secunda pars (“part two”) of Basiron’s Salve Regina shows a budding concern for choral “scoring.” The cantus firmus migrates into the second and even the third voice from the top, and there is a great deal of interplay among various duos and trios drawn from the full four-part texture, with full four-part “tuttis,” as we might call them, assuming in such a context a rhetorical, emphatic role. Particularly calculated for oratorical effect is the concluding triple acclamation to the Virgin—O clemens, O pia, O dulcis (“O thou gentle, O thou holy, O thou sweet”)—in a progression from two to four voices, with the three-voice passage in the middle cast as a slightly modified fauxbourdon (note the altus and tenor in parallel motion at the fourth), the musical emblem of gentle sweetness (Ex. 13-1b).

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ex. 13-1b Philippe Basiron, Salve Regina, mm. 98-end

For a remarkable contrast within a similar general approach, and certainly with no loss of expressivity, compare Ockeghem’s grander setting of the same triple acclamation at the end of his Salve Regina (Ex. 13-2). The cantus firmus is now in the bassus (transposed down a fourth), paraphrased decoratively like Basiron’s superius but nevertheless “held out” in tenor fashion. The rhetorical progression of intensity is achieved here not by augmenting the vocal complement, the way Basiron had done, but by an expanding melismatic luxuriance. The idea of “sweetness” is conveyed in harmonic terms, by means of melting cadences (or, to be grammatically precise, “half-cadences”) to full triads with the third in the highest voice. Also noteworthy, for its bearing on the “prehistory” of tonally functional harmony, is the placement of the successive cadence chords—E minor, A-minor, D-minor—on a circle of fifths to the final. But notice that the sweet imperfect consonance over the final at the very end is treated as unstable; the piece cannot end until it has been “cleared” by the superius motion from F (third) to A (fifth).

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ex. 13-2 Johannes Ockeghem, Salve Regina, “O clemens, O pia, O dulcis”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Middle and Low. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Feb. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-chapter-013.xml