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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 9 Machaut and His Progeny
Richard Taruskin

As unpredictable as the final of Fumeux fume was the location of the other main center of ars subtilior composition. Cyprus, the most easterly of the major Mediterranean islands, off the southern coast of Turkey and the western coast of Syria, had been conquered during the Third Crusade in 1191 by an army under Richard Lion-Heart, who then bestowed it as a sort of consolation prize on Guy of Lusignan, the deposed ruler of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. The French-speaking Lusignan dynasty ruled Cyprus until 1489 when the island fell under the rule of the city-state of Venice. The highpoint of Cypriot French culture was reached at the end of the fourteenth century under King Janus (reigned 1398–1432), who in 1411 married the princess Charlotte de Bourbon whose entourage included a musical chapel.

The decade between their marriage and Charlotte’s death in 1422 was a period of intense musical activity on the island, memorialized for us by a huge manuscript containing plainchant Masses and Offices and 216 polyphonic compositions in every contemporary French genre—Mass Ordinary settings, Latin and French motets, ballades, rondeaux, and virelais. (The manuscript is now kept at the National Library of Turin in northern Italy.) Although produced entirely by imported French musicians, it was a wholly indigenous repertory, and (with a single exception) a wholly anonymous one. Not one composition from the Cypriot manuscript turns up in any other source.

Ballades are predictably the most numerous genre. The 102 specimens in the Cypriot manuscript are the handiwork of supremely sophisticated craftsmen; one of them, Sur toutes flours (“Above all other flowers”), is well known to generations of struggling musicology trainees as the single most ferocious specimen of ars subtilior puzzle-notation in existence. The most distinguished body of French-Cypriot music, however, is the group of Mass Ordinary settings, consisting entirely of Glorias and Credos, most of them in musically linked pairs that (unlike such pairs in Western European sources) are entered consecutively, as actual pairs, in the manuscript.

One pair is unified by more than the usual common mode, meter, tessitura and texture. In addition to these, there is also a recurrent pan-isorhythmic passage that crops up twice in the Gloria and three times in the Credo. All the parts go into a threefold talea, jam-packed with syncopations, hemiolas, and hockets between the triplum and the tenor, that lasts an asymmetrical five tempora, followed by a cauda whose rhythms also recur on each appearance of the passage. The tenor, which moves more slowly than the other voices and has a very well-shaped melodic line, is not known to be a cantus firmus, but it may well be a paraphrase of an indigenous French-Cypriot plainchant. Example 9–24 contains the first occurrence of the common pan-isorhythmic passage in the Gloria.


ex. 9-24 Pan-isorhythm in a French-Cypriot Gloria-Credo pair (MS. Torino, f. 32-33, 34-35)

Three Gloria-Credo pairs from a manuscript roughly contemporaneous with the Cypriot codex, by a composer who signed his name “Nicolaus de Radom,” bear witness to the spread of Ars Nova styles and genres to the northeast as well as the southeast. Radom is a town midway between Kraków and Warsaw in central Poland, and the manuscripts that contain the works of this Nicolaus (or Mikolaj, as he would have been christened) were associated with the royal chapel at Kraków, the seat of the joint Polish-Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty, one of the great ruling houses of Europe.

The reduced circumstances of present-day Poland—to say nothing of the periods of “partition” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when its more powerful neighbors divided its territory among themselves and the country simply disappeared from the map—make it all too easy to forget Poland’s time in the sun, under the Jagiello kings. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the joint kingdom of Poland and Lithuania was a great European power, maintaining an empire that reached from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.

As a result of its status, and its diplomatic ties with western Europe, Poland had for centuries been an avid importer of polyphonic music from the West. There is even an indigenous Polish manuscript containing Notre Dame compositions of the “Leonin” and “Perotin” generations. Beginning around 1400, however, native Polish musicians began to produce advanced polyphonic music as well as consume it.

Foreign travel in the service of the church may have given them their earliest opportunity to master new styles. Ties between the Polish court and the papacy—and during the Schism, with Rome—were particularly strong. Nicolaus Geraldi de Radom, it so happens, is the name of a priest who was a member of the Roman curia, the administrative arm of the papal court, under Pope Boniface IX (reigned 1390–1404). If that is the same Nicolaus de Radom who wrote the Glorias and Credos that were entered into the Kraków manuscripts two decades later, it would explain not only his mastery of the burgeoning international style of his day but several musical details as well.

It has been pointed out, for example, that certain Glorias written in Italy at the height of the Great Schism seem to call attention to it, and to efforts toward its reconciliation, by ejaculating the word pax (“Peace!”) as a hocket in three voices, each possibly standing for one of the rival claimants to the papal throne, or their negotiators. To the sue-for-peace Glorias in Italian sources—including one by Johannes Ciconia, whose connection with the conciliation of the schism we have already noted—we can add one by Nicolaus de Radom (Ex. 9-25).


ex. 9-25 Nicolaus de Radom, Gloria, mm. 1-20

Nor is this by any means the sort of provincial or primitive composition we might be inclined to expect from an “outlander.” Such expectations, being prejudices, need to be faced and fought along with all our other preconceptions about the “main stream” of culture. As if expressly to disprove them, Mikolaj’s Gloria is uniquely original among the Mass Ordinary settings we have encountered, for the clever—or should we say “subtle”—way it incorporates the characteristic opening gambit of the chace. But that very uniqueness is in its way typical—the typically playful Ars Nova attitude to genres and their potential cross-fertilization. Also typically playful is the rhythmic detail, especially the frequent hemiola shifts—three imperfect semibreves in the time of two perfect ones, indicated in the original with red ink and signaled in the transcription with brackets. Rhythms like these make implicit reference to the dance.

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. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009019.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009019.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 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-009019.xml