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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

As an example of the standard cantilena texture “just as it is, without adding or taking away,” we can look at yet another Machaut virelai, Tres bonne et belle (Ex. 9-6), the only one to come down in all its sources, exceptionally, as a three-voice composition. The final is C, putting the song in what we would call the major mode (and what Machaut, if he thought about it at all, would probably have called a transposition of the Lydian mode, normally pitched on F). The texted part or cantus has a plagal ambitus that puts the final smack in the middle of its range. The lower tenor and contratenor share a single authentic ambitus, from c to d’.

Functionally Differentiated CounterpointFunctionally Differentiated Counterpoint

ex. 9-6 Guillaume de Machaut, Tres bonne et belle (virelai a 3)

Although they occupy the exact same pitch space, however, the tenor and contratenor are not equivalent parts. Each of them behaves, so to speak, according to its station within the textural hierarchy. It is the tenor and only the tenor that makes the true discant cadence against the cantus, moving out from sixth to octave, whether on the final (mm. 3–4, 23–24, 34–35) or on some subsidiary degree (D in mm. 8–9 and 13–14, E in m. 32–33, the “open” cadence of the middle section). At such moments the behavior of the contratenor is also mandated: it invariably fills in the middle of the double leading-tone cadence. That is what defines it as a contratenor. A contratenor (or a tenor, or a cantus) is as a contratenor (or a tenor, or a cantus) does.

Thus, even if Machaut wrote all the parts in one sitting, and there is no reason to suppose that he did not, he nevertheless provided three grammatically viable or correct performance possibilities. Writing in this way—so that the cantus can be sung either alone, or in a duet with the tenor, or in a trio with tenor and contratenor—is often called “successive composition.” We imagine the composer writing the cantus first, then adding the tenor, and finally the contratenor. We have already seen lots of evidence that this was often enough the actual procedure. But it does not follow that the composer had to write the parts separately, or that he could not conceive of a three part texture in a single act of composing.

Interpreting the idea of “successive composition” too literally can lead us into making unwarranted and probably fallacious assumptions about the way in which people “heard” music in those days—for example, that they did not “hear” harmony the way we “hear” it, but only an interplay of contrapuntal voices that just happens now and then to produce (as if by accident) what we call “chords.” (The quotes around “hear,” of course, are there to show that what is meant is not just hearing but conceptualizing on the basis of hearing.) What we call “successive composition,” then, is merely the process of assigning strictly defined roles to the various parts in a contrapuntal texture. The reason for it does not seem to have much to do with how one “heard,” but rather with the fluid and practical attitude that demanded not a single idealized text but a variety of performance possibilities for any song.

And that is why, even if he conceived all the parts in a song like Tres bonne et belle as a single harmonic unit, Machaut needed to differentiate the tenor and the contratenor in terms of function, if not style. For them to alternate roles on successive cadences, for example, would preclude a two-part performance of the piece, for in that case not all of the cadences would be properly enunciated no matter which of the two accompanying parts were used. And yet the fact that the tenor and contratenor had to be functionally distinct seems to have led to their being stylistically distinct as well. The contratenor, being in quasi-architectural terms the least “structural” voice (in that the other two voices could perform the piece without it), became willy-nilly the most “decorative” one—at once liveliest in rhythm (replete with hockets and syncopes) and most capricious in contour (leaping freely by sixths).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny." 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-div1-009005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny. 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-div1-009005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 Machaut and His Progeny." 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-div1-009005.xml