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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

As seems altogether fitting, and in retrospect inevitable, by the late fourteenth century the motet had become preeminently “a vehicle for propaganda and political ceremony,” to quote Peter Lefferts, a historian of the genre.9 That crowning period in the history of the Ars Nova motet is best exemplified by works written not in France but in Italy, albeit by composers who had emigrated there from northern Europe.

Italy at the end of the fourteenth century was a checkerboard of city-states, many of them ruled by despots who had seized power violently, and who wished to establish legitimacy by an ostentatious display of power. Legitimacy was also a major issue for the church, since this was the time of the great papal schism (1378–1417), when two (and from 1409, three) rival claimants vied for the papacy, and when all subordinate clergy had to declare their allegiances to one, to another, or (as happened briefly in France) to none. This period of political and ecclesiastical chaos was a gold mine for the arts, and especially for music.

That is because one of the chief means of asserting political power has always been lavish patronage of the arts. Music received special attention at this time (writes Julie Cumming, another motet historian), because

Nothing made as good a show or traveled as well as musicians ready to perform in public. Dignitaries of church and state traveled with their chapels, and put on the best show possible; they also listened to the music sung by the chapels of other dignitaries, and tried to hire the best possible musicians. Musicians met, exchanged repertoire, and looked for more lucrative and comfortable employment.10

Composers who had training in the techniques of monumental musical architecture, and who could produce works of grandiose (and somewhat archaic, therefore venerable) design, could put on the best of all such legitimizing shows for their patrons, and found a rich market for their skills. Such composers came from the north, the land of the Ars Nova, where such techniques had been chiefly developed. That is one of the reasons why the most sought after, the best paid—and therefore in retrospect the most typical—court and cathedral musicians of northern Italy in the fifteenth century were immigrants from France and Flanders.

The first of this distinguished quasi-official line was Johannes Ciconia. His surname, Latin for “stork,” is probably a Latinized (that is, cosmopolitanized) version of a more prosaic French or Flemish family name. He was born in the Belgian town of Liège during the 1370s and received his basic training there, but by 1401 he was employed by the municipal cathedral in the north Italian city of Padua, where he died in 1412.

His chief Paduan patron was Francesco Zabarella (1360–1417), the cathedral archpriest or chief canon, and a famous university professor of canon law, who reached the height of his career as the chief negotiator of peace between Padua and Venice after the Venetian conquest of his native city. Thereafter he served both Venice and the Roman pope John XXIII as a diplomat. John made him bishop of Florence, and later a cardinal. Zabarella played a major role at the Council of Constance, where the end of the schism was brokered. It was he who finally persuaded his own patron, Pope John, to resign in the interests of church harmony. (John, the loser in the resolution of the schism, is not a pope but an “antipope” in the official history of the Catholic church, which is why his number could be reused by a much later pope, the illustrious John XXIII who convened the second Vatican council in 1962, at which the Latin liturgy, and with it the Gregorian chant, were decanonized.) At the time of his death, Zabarella was widely regarded as being next in line for the papacy.

In honor of this illustrious statesman and churchman, Ciconia composed two exceptionally grand isorhythmic motets. Their style is somewhat influenced by Italian secular genres to be described in a later chapter, but their culminating place in the development of the Ars Nova motet, and their consummate embodiment of the aesthetics of their genre, make this the appropriate place to analyze Ciconia’s work.

It has been suggested that Doctorum principem super ethera/Melodia suavissima cantemus (excerpted in Ex. 8-7), the second and more ample of Ciconia’s two Zabarella-inspired motets, was composed as a send off from Padua when Zabarella left to assume his bishopric at Florence. The triplum and motetus texts are of equal length, sung at equal rates, and they actually spell one another at times so that the two texts seem to interlock like a hocket in a single encomium to the honored patron. But the tenor layout and the mensural scheme are a virtual summation of Ars Nova practices, and in their combination of diversity and comprehensiveness they symbolize the harmonizing of competing interests—the discordia concors—that is the primary undertaking of any diplomat, as well as any motet. This motet, then, is emblematic both of its recipient and of the genre itself, especially in this phase of its history, when it had become primarily a political instrument.

Ciconia: The Motet as Political ShowCiconia: The Motet as Political Show

ex. 8-7a Johannes Ciconia, Doctorum principem super ethera/Melodia suavissima cantemus, mm. 1-14

Ciconia: The Motet as Political Show

ex. 8-7b Doctorum principem super ethera/Melodia suavissima cantemus, mm. 45-58

Ciconia: The Motet as Political Show

ex. 8-7c Doctorum principem super ethera/Melodia suavissima cantemus, mm. 89-100

The texts are laid out in three strophes, each of which is given the same highly ceremonious treatment: first a textless introitus in fanfare style, suggesting outdoor performance by wind instruments, perhaps in the Paduan cathedral square, followed by an almost homorhythmic tenor/contratenor complex in longer note-values (semibreves, breves, longs) that presents the same color and talea three times in notationally identical form.

In fact, the tenor/contratenor pair is written out only once, with a “canon” or special direction that specifies how it is to be altered on repetition. Although the tenor carries a Latin label (Vir mitis, “gentle man”), this seems to be nothing more than another encomium to Zabarella, not a text incipit. There is no known chant—and no conceivable chant—that bounces up and down by fifths, stutters through so many repeated whole-step oscillations, or descends by step through an entire octave the way this “melody” does. Clearly, the tenor and contratenor in this particular motet are not melodies at all, but harmonic supports.

The canon instructs the performers of the tenor and contratenor to read their parts each time under a different mensuration sign — , and , respectively. Thus despite their notational congruence, the actual rhythms of each presentation not only differ but undergo a progressive compression from perfect to imperfect time that resembles a traditional tenor diminution, but in three stages instead of two. The texted parts, meanwhile, are written chiefly in semibreves and minims, note values that are radically affected by the changing mensurations.

And yet the three stanzas are deliberately set so that they resemble each other melodically as much as possible in terms of contour, prosody (text distribution), and overall form, progressing each time from textless introitus through syllabically texted stanza to melismatic, hocket-ridden cauda. The result is a virtual set of strophic variations that in their fascinating interplay of sameness and difference symbolize the ideal of a harmoniously integrated society of free individuals—the ideal to which every northern Italian city state (or res publica, whence “republic”) nominally aspired. Ex. 8-7 shows the fanfare-like introitus to each of the three strophes in turn.


(9) Peter M. Lefferts, The Motet in England in the Fourteenth Century (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986), p. 186.

(10) Cumming, “Concord Out of Discord,” p. 173.

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. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008014.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008014.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 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-008014.xml