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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite
Richard Taruskin
“Franconian” Notation“Franconian” Notation

ex. 7-1 Double motet on Ex semine (transcription of Fig. 7-3)

As one can see at a glance, the manuscript from which Fig. 7-3 has been reproduced uses a different kind of notation from the one that had been devised at and for Notre Dame. It is a notation specially tailored to the requirements of motets, that is musica cum littera. (It would have served nicely for conductus, too; but by mid-century the conductus was moribund.) It supplies the very thing that Notre Dame notation lacked, namely a means of specifying the rhythmic significance of individual “graphemes,” or written shapes. Notation that does this is called “mensural” notation, from mensura, Latin for measurement. Its invention was a watershed, not only in the history of notation but in the wider history of musical style. The new resources of mensural notation greatly lessened the dependency of “literate” music (here, literally, the music of the literati) on oral supplements. From now on, literate genres could pursue a relatively autonomous line of development. We will never finish discussing the consequences of this turning point—some foreseen, others not; some indubitably “progressive,” others more equivocal. Their repercussions continue to affect musical composition, musical practice, musical attitudes, and musical controversies right up to the present day.

Like the melismatic notation that was developed to specify the rhythms of Notre Dame organum, the syllabic notation that was developed later in the thirteenth century to specify the rhythms of the motet was very efficiently fashioned out of the existing fund of “quadratic” plainchant neumes. The first prerequisite was to come up with single note-shapes to represent the longa and the brevis. The solution will seem obvious to us, who have lived with its consequences since birth, but at the time it was a considerable feat of imagination.

As we have known since chapter 1, chant notation already possessed two different notae simplices or single-note shapes: the point or punctum (simple square) and the rod or virga (square with tail at right). The distinction between them had to do with pitch: the virga represented a melodic peak. What some audacious soul had to do was re-imagine the distinction in rhythmic terms: the virga would henceforth represent the long and the punctum the breve. So it is in Fig. 7-3, which comes from the so-called “Bamberg codex” (known familiarly as Ba), a collection of exactly one hundred double motets that was put together at some point between about 1260 and 1290, to judge by its notational style.

Thanks to the explicit differentiation of longs and breves, it is now possible to indicate the trochaic rhythm of the familiar clausula without the use of ligatures. Because the individual notes now had intrinsic rhythmic values, and because there were no longer any indefinitely held-out notes like those in organum tenors, it was no longer necessary to align the parts in score. The layout first used in the motet manuscripts of the late thirteenth century, in which all the parts are entered on the same page but in their own separate locations, was a great space-saver and remained standard until the end of the sixteenth century. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries most of the music that was notated in this way was choral music, so this distributional layout came to be called “choirbook style.” The Bamberg Codex is one of the earliest examples of it.

We do not know exactly when or where the virga and punctum were first used to represent the long and the breve. It happens in practical sources, like Ba, before any surviving theoretical source discusses it. (In fact, hints of such a distinction can be found in chant manuscripts as far back as the tenth century.) The earliest known theorist to prescribe the practice was Magister Lambertus, probably a University of Paris instructor like Garlandia but of a later generation, in a treatise of ca. 1270. His description of mensural shapes and their relationship closely accords with the notation found in Ba, which probably means that Ba, though possibly copied in Germany, contains a Parisian repertoire. (The piece in Fig. 7-3 is obviously Parisian, of course, since it is just a texted version of a Notre Dame clausula.)

The fullest discussion of early mensural notation is found in a famous treatise called Ars cantus mensurabilis (“The art of measured song”) by a German writer, Franco of Cologne, whose name has become attached to the notation he so definitively described. The principles of “Franconian” notation, first formulated by ca. 1280, though much supplemented and modified over the years, basically held good for the next two to three centuries.

Despite the mensural breakthrough, and not to take away from it, Franco’s rhythmic notation did not absolutely transcend or replace the contextual aspects of “modal” notation. It represented a compromise of sorts between the intrinsic and the contextual (which is why there had to be all that supplementing and modifying over the years). A virga unambiguously represented a long rather than a breve, but that long could either be a perfect (three-tempora) long or an imperfect (two-tempora) long, depending on the context. In Fig. 7-3, the longs that alternate trochaically with breves in the motetus (texted duplum) and triplum parts are imperfect, while the longs that congregate spondaically in the tenor are perfect. A punctum unambiguously represented a breve and not a long, but that breve could be a normal one-tempus breve (brevis recta) or a two-tempora “altered” breve (brevis altera) as originally devised for the dactylic or “third mode” meter at Notre Dame, depending on the context. The contexts, which can be complicated, are spelled out to a degree in the accompanying table (Fig. 7-4), which outlines the basic principles of Franconian notation.

One of the cleverest Franconian innovations had to do with ligatures, where some apparently new graphemes were introduced. The new shapes, however, were based very systematically on the old. As observed in the previous chapter, the usual Gregorian binariae—the pes (ascending) and the clivis (descending)—happened to assume the rhythm BL in the first and second rhythmic modes as specified by Garlandia. Under the Franconian rules this rhythmic assignment was made intrinsic to the shapes irrespective of context. Then the fun began.

When written in their familiar pes () and clivis () forms, binariae were “proper” and “perfect.” The former word applied to the appearance of the first note, the latter to the appearance of the second. If the first note in the ligature departed from its normal shape, whether by adding a tail to the pes () or taking it away from the clivis (), then the first note received the opposite meaning and the ligature became LL. If the second note in the ligature departed from its normal shape, whether by reversing the termination of the pes () or making the square termination of the clivis oblique (), then the second note received the opposite meaning and the ligature became BB. If both notes were affected—whether () or ()—then the whole ligature received its opposite meaning and became LB. That covered all possible two-note combinations. Additional notes were considered interpolations and were always read as breves.

“Franconian” Notation

ex. 7-2 Principles of Franconian notation

And that is why the tenor in Fig. 7-3 is notated in notae simplices (longs and duplex longs, now called maximas) throughout. The three-note ligatures or ternariae that had represented spondaic or fifth-mode ordines in the Notre Dame style could no longer represent a group of three longs since middle notes were now breves by definition.

The remaining Franconian innovation was the division of the breve (or tempus) into semibreves, so that three note values were available. For the semibreve, too, an existing grapheme was co-opted. It was represented by the diamond shape that had originally been part of the climacus, the three-note descending neume in Gregorian chant notation. (For an example see the peak of the “omnes” melisma in the Gradual Viderunt omnes near the beginning of Fig. 6-3a in the previous chapter.) It had previously been adapted by the Notre Dame scribes to represent currentes, long descending “runs” of quick notes. (For the all-time champion run of currentes see the duplum voice in the organum on Viderunt omnes, right under the illuminated capital in Fig. 6-3b.) Although the semibreve shape was derived, logically enough, from the quickest notes in the Notre Dame sign-system, the use of the semibreve in motets was not simply a way of speeding things up. Rather, the introduction of the semibreve made it possible to distinguish a third level of rhythmic activity. As we shall see, this was something that the development of the motet demanded.

Theoretically, the division of the breve into semibreves was similar to that of the long into breves: the longer value was assumed to be “perfect,” meaning divisible by three. In practice, the division of the breve was duple from the first, and semibreves generally appeared in pairs. As the table shows, there was even a ligature shape to represent a pair of semibreves. Therefore most scholars assume that the notes in the pair were effectively equal in duration as performed, even though theorists called the first of them the semibrevis recta (one third of a breve) and the second the semibrevis altera (two thirds of a breve), implying a rather fussy lurching rhythm.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-007003.xml