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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


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

That cosmological speculation was the aim, or at least the effect, of the Ars Nova project is apparent from the music that first issued from it. The earliest genre to be affected by the Ars Nova, and the most characteristic one, was—almost needless to say—the motet, already a hotbed of innovation and already the primary site of the discordia concors. The fourteenth-century transformation of the motet gives the clearest insight into the nature of the Ars Nova innovations and their purposes.

The earliest surviving pieces in which elements of Ars Nova notation are clearly discernable are a group of motets found in a lavish manuscript, compiled in or just after 1316, which contains an expanded and sumptuously illustrated version of a famous allegorical poem, the Roman de Fauvel. The poem, by Gervais du Bus, an official at the French royal court, is found in about a dozen sources, but this one, edited by another courtier, Raoul Chaillou, provided the poem with a veritable soundtrack consisting of 126 pieces of music ranging from little snippets of chant through monophonic rondeaux and ballades (the last of their kind) to “motetz à trebles et à tenures,” meaning polyphonic motets, of which there are twenty-four. These musical items are meant as appendages or illustrations to the poem, on a par with the luxuriant manuscript illuminations. They were probably meant to adorn recitations of the Roman at “feasts of the learned,” most likely at the home of some particularly rich and powerful “church aristocrat.” What links all the musical numbers despite their motley variety of style, genre, text-language, and date is their pertinence to the poem’s theme.

That theme is ferocious civil and political satire. The name of the title character, Fauvel, roughly meaning “little deerlike critter” who is faus and de_vel (false and furtive, “veiled”) and of dull fallow hue (fauve), is actually an acrostic standing for a whole medley of political vices, apparently modeled on the list of seven deadly sins (the ones that are not cognates below are translated):

  • F laterie
  • A varice
  • U ilanie (i.e., villainy, U and V being equivalent in Latin spelling)
  • V ariété (duplicity, “two-facedness”)
  • E nvie
  • L ascheté (laziness, indolence)
The manuscript illuminations represent Fauvel as something between a fawn and a horse or ass. Indeed, everyone “fawns” on him, from garden-variety nobles and clerics all the way to the pope and the French king. (Our expression “to curry favor” was originally “to curry favel,” meaning to coddle Fauvel and win his base boons.) Fauvel is practically omnipotent; his feat of placing the moon above the sun symbolized the secularism and the corruption of court and clergy. Now he wants to pay back Dame Fortune for the favors she has granted him and proposes marriage—but this, too, is a trick; once married to Fortune Fauvel will become her master as well, and truly all-powerful. Fortune refuses but gives Fauvel the hand of her daughter Vaine Gloire, through whom he populates the earth with little Fauveaux.

Establishing the Prototype: The Roman De FauvelEstablishing the Prototype: The Roman De Fauvel

ex. 8-1 Philippe de Vitry, Tribum/Quoniam/MERITO, mm. 1–40

The motet, whose first half is transcribed as Ex. 8-1, appears in the section of the Roman de Fauvel manuscript containing the description (accompanied by an illustration; see Fig. 8-3) of the Fountain of Youth, in which Fauvel, his wife, and his entourage—Carnality, Hatred, Gluttony, Drunkenness, Pride, Hypocrisy, Sodomy, and a host of others just as attractive—bathe on the day following the wedding. (In the illustration, the bathers enter from the right, clearly aged, and emerge rejuvenated from the bath, of which the topmost decorative spouts are miniature Fauvels.)

Establishing the Prototype: The Roman De Fauvel

fig. 8-3 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Français 146 (Roman de Fauvel), fol. 41v–42, showing most of Philippe de Vitry’s motet Tribum/Quoniam/MERITO and an allegory of the fountain of youth.

The triplum and motetus texts are laden with Fauvel-related allegories that have been associated by historians with the fate of Enguerrand de Marigny, the finance minister to King Philippe IV (Philip the Fair) of France, who was hanged following the death of the king, on 30 April 1315. His death is held up as an object lesson (admonitio) concerning the whims of Fortune and the dangers of concentrating political power. (The texts thus reflect the interests of the feudal nobility who opposed and sought to limit the power of the throne and forced concessions on Philip’s successor Louis X.)

Because it corresponds so closely to the rhythmic and notational features soon to be set forth in the treatise Ars Nova (where a passage from it is actually quoted), the music of this little political tract in tones is thought to be an early work of Philippe de Vitry, who was the contemporary of Gervaise du Bus and Raoul Chaillou, and like Gervaise a court notary in his youth. With this work and the others that he composed in his twenties, Philippe established the fourteenth-century motet as a genre and provided the prototypes for a century of stylistic development. The differences between Philippe’s motet and the one by Petrus de Cruce excerpted in Ex. 7-10 will virtually define the prototype.

To begin with, the text is in Latin, not French; its tone is hortatory, not confessional; and its subject is public life, not private emotion. Moralizing texts—allegories, sermons, injunctions—such as were formerly the province of conductus, would henceforth dominate the motet repertory. In keeping with the rhetorical seriousness of the texts, and to enhance it, the formal gestures of the fourteenth-century motet became more ample, more ceremonious, more dramatic than those of its progenitor.

Whereas thirteenth-century motets, like the discant clausulae on which they were generically based, began with all the voices together, the fourteenth-century motet tended to dramatize the tenor entrance. In Tribum/Quoniam/MERITO (Ex. 8-1), the voices enter one by one (seriatim), with the tenor last. The introductory section preceding the tenor entrance became so standardized that it was given a name, one with which we are familiar in another context: it was called the introitus, suggesting that the entering voices formed a procession. And just as in the case of the “introit” procession at the beginning of Mass, the most important participant (the celebrant, the tenor) enters last.

The tenor is the most important voice in the motet—the dignior pars, to quote one theorist, the “worthiest part”—because it is literally the “fundamental” voice.5 In fourteenth-century motets it is chosen with care to reflect its liturgical dignity on the texted parts, although the fourteenth-century motet, even when in Latin, was by no means a liturgical genre. All of this is just the opposite of the situation that obtained in the early days of the motet, when such works were clausula-derived and performed in church. In the oldest motets—“prosulated clausulae,” as we called them on their first appearance—the motetus and triplum texts were ancillary glosses on the tenor in the course of an ongoing liturgical performance of the item from which the tenor was drawn. Now it is the tenor that is chosen to support and gloss the orations up above. As the theorist Aegidius of Murino put it around 1400 in a famous motet recipe, “first take for your tenor any antiphon or responsory or any other chant from the book of Office chants, and its words should accord with the theme or occasion for which the motet is being made.”6 In Ex. 8-1, the tenor is drawn from the beginning of a matins responsory that is sung during Lent, the most penitential season. Its implied words—Merito hec patimur (“It is right that we suffered thus”)—are plainly an extra comment on just desserts, and amplify the censorious allegories running above on the fate of corrupt politicians. The fact that the tenor is not a melisma from the chant but its incipit shows that it was probably meant to be recognized, at least (or at best) by the elite initiates for whose edification or solemn entertainment the motet was composed.

One final point of comparison: Whereas the tenor in Ex. 7-10, our “Petronian” motet, was allowed to “degenerate” into an undifferentiated sequence of longs during its second cursus, the tenor in the “Vitrian” motet maintains a strong, preplanned rhythmic profile from beginning to end. (As Aegidius instructs, “then take your tenor and arrange it and put it in rhythm” as a first composing step.) The tenor in Ex. 8-1 is cast in easily recognizable (even if slowed down) “second mode” or iambic ordines.

In the thirteenth century, its constituent note-values would have been breves and longs arranged BLB(rest). Here, the note-values have been doubled in keeping with the increased rhythmic ambit of the Ars Nova style, so that the ordines are not “modal” but “maximodal,” proceeding in longs and maximas. In the transcription, the tenor is barred according to the maximodus, with one measure equaling the perfect maxima. The upper parts are barred according to the modus, with one measure equaling the long. As one can see from the time signatures employed, the modus level here is imperfect, with the long (represented in transcription by the half note) divided equally into two breves (quarters). The mensuration of the breve (i.e., the tempus) is also imperfect, with the breve dividing equally into two semibreves (eighths).


(5) De musica libellus (Anonymus 7), in Coussemaker, Scriptorum de musica medii aevi nova series, Vol. I (4 vols., Paris, 1864–76), no. 7.

(6) Aegidius of Murino, Tractatus cantus mensurabilis, in Coussemaker, Scriptorum de musica medii aevi nova series, Vol. III, pp. 124–5; trans. R. Taruskin in Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 57.

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 Apr. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008006.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 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008006.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 Apr. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008006.xml