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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

Before turning to the most exalted specimens, however, let us have another look at the playful side of Ars Nova composition, for it will cast light on the earliest emergence within musical practice of “art” as we know it. Art, as we know it, is a self-conscious thing, as concerned with manner as it is with matter. Its Latin cognate, ars (as in Ars Nova) simply means “method” or “way.” The title of the treatise attributed to Vitry simply means “a new way [of doing things].” That is the sense of “art” that is implied by words like “artful” and “artificial.” They mean “full of method,” hence “full of skill,” and ultimately “full of style.” What makes an artist, in the familiar, current sense of the word, therefore, is high consciousness of style.

The earliest musical compositions that seem to exhibit this sort of awareness on the part of their makers emerge out of the Ars Nova milieu. In the previous chapter we observed deliberate compositional tours de force, to be sure, and we have been observing high artistry (in the sense of high technical prowess and rhetorical eloquence) since the very beginning. But nowhere yet have we observed the kind of self-regard exemplified in Ex. 8-4, which shows the end of an anonymous motet roughly contemporary with the works of Vitry that we have been examining.

It is found in a rotulus, a scroll-manuscript from about 1325. Little scrolls of this kind, of which very few survive, were the sort of manuscripts from which the proudly literate singers of motets actually performed, as opposed to the lavish codices, the illuminated presentation manuscripts, that preserve most of what we call our “practical” source material (to distinguish it from “theoretical” sources like treatises). In their day such codices were not practical sources at all, but items of wealth to be stored away—which is why we have them now. Rotuli, meant for use, were used up.

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fig. 8-5 Lorenzo d’Alessandro, Musical Angels, a wall painting from the church of Santa Maria di Piazza, Sarnano, Italy. The angel at right is reading from a rotulus, or scroll manuscript of the kind used by singers in actual performance during the late Middle Ages.

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ex. 8-4 Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili, mm. 121-67 (Paris, BN, Coll. de Picardie 67, f. 67′)

In terms of dimensions and complexity of structure, Musicalis Sciencia/Sciencie Laudabili is a fairly modest motet. It has no introitus. The tenor, which enters immediately, is the Christmas Alleluia, Dies sanctificatus (“A hallowed day has dawned for us”), one of the most famous of all Gregorian chants, which may be why the composer or the scribe did not bother, in this unassuming practical source, to identify it. It is laid out in a single incomplete cursus, so that there is no color repetition. There is plenty of talea repetition, though: seven in all, of which Ex. 8-4 contains the last two. The syncopation at the end of each talea is produced, like the tenor syncopation in the previous example, by the use of red ink: the final maxima and long are counted in “imperfect mode.” A second glance shows that the triplum and motetus voices are likewise governed by an eight-bar talea, so that the entire piece is “pan-isorhythmic” in seven rhythmically identical sections or strophes. Each of these strophes ends with a sort of cauda consisting of a melisma on the last syllable, which is held through an especially blithesome—and because of the melisma, an especially hiccupy—bunch of hockets, in which the singers have to emit single minims on open vowel sounds, without any consonants to assist in articulation. The line between virtuosity and clownishness can be a fine one.

Here are the triplum and motetus texts, abridged to eliminate a lengthy honor-roll of famous musicians:

Triplum: The science of music sends greetings to her beloved disciples. I desire each one of you to observe the rules and not to offend against rhetoric or grammar by dividing indivisible syllables. Avoid all faults. Farewell in melody. Motetus: Rhetoric sends greetings to learned Music, but complains that many singers make faults in her compositions by dividing simple vowels and making hockets; therefore I request that you remedy this.

Every one of the “faults” for which singers are berated by Music and by Rhetoric are flagrantly committed by the composer. The piece is a kind of satire. But such satire requires an attitude of ironic detachment, a consciousness of art as artifice, and a wish to make that artifice the principal focus of attention. These are traits we normally (and perhaps self-importantly) ascribe to the “modern” temperament, not the “medieval” one. Only we (we tend to think), with our modern notions of psychology and our modern sense of “self,” are capable of self-reflection. Only we, in short, can be “artists” as opposed to “craftsmen.” Not so.

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. 21 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008010.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 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008010.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 21 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008010.xml