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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento
Richard Taruskin

But unlike the troubadours these Italian composers worked as polyphonists from the beginning: indeed, the earliest definition of madrigals, from a treatise on poetry dating from the early decades of the century, calls them “texts set to several melodies, of which one is primarily of longs and is called tenor, while the other or others is primarily of minims.”3 And unlike the troubadours, but like the Parisian composers of motets going back to the thirteenth century, the madrigalists seem to have practiced their art, at the beginning, largely as an aspect of university culture.

Jacopo of Bologna, universally recognized as the leading composer of his generation, came from the most venerable of all the Italian university towns. (The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, grew out of a school of Roman law that went all the way back to the fifth century ce.) The fact that Jacopo, in addition to his poems and songs, wrote a treatise on discant suggests that he may have actually been a university teacher. Bologna’s only rival for academic eminence was Padua, site of Italy’s second oldest university, founded in 1222 by refugees who had fled Bologna in the course of the long struggle between papal and imperial power known as the War of the Guelphs and Ghibellines. And thus it is probably no coincidence that the basic treatise on the theory and notation of trecento music was the work of a Paduan musician.

Madrigal Culture

fig. 10-3 Giovanni da Cascia, from the Squarcialupi Codex.

Marchetto of Padua (d. 1326) acknowledged the assistance of a Dominican monk, Syphans de Ferrara, in organizing his treatise, called Pomerium—“The Fruit Tree,” containing the flores et fructus, the “flowers and fruits” of the art of mensural music—along scholastic lines. It is not clear whether Marchetto actually invented the notational system he expounded in this text completed in 1319 or just systematized it. Although he himself was a cathedral musician (his three surviving compositions are all motets, two of them Marian), his notational system was appropriated almost exclusively by the madrigalists and their thoroughly secular successors, which again implies dissemination through “liberal arts” rather than ecclesiastical channels.

The differences between the Italian and the French systems of notation, and they were considerable, may be explained by viewing the Ars Nova as a direct outgrowth of the “Franconian” notation of the thirteenth century, while the trecento system continued and refined the somewhat offbeat “Petronian” tradition—the tradition of Pierre de la Croix, the composer of those late thirteenth-century motets (like Ex. 7-10) that divided the breve into freely varying groups (or gruppetti, as we now call such things) of semibreves.

Marchetto classified all the possible meters of music into varying divisions of the breve. The short–long “Franconian” pairing of semibreves within a perfect breve Marchetto called “natural divisions” (divisiones via naturae, “dividing things nature’s way”). Other divisions—long short, equal (imperfect), and the like—were classified as divisiones via artis (“dividing things up by way of art”) or “artificial divisions,” and were represented by modifying the “natural” note shapes with tails. A descending tail doubled the length of a semibreve; an ascending tail halved it, producing the equivalent of a French minim. When it came to grouping the minim-shaped notes, the basic distinction was between what the French called major and minor prolation, what we call compound and simple meters, and what the users of Marchetto’s system distinguished as gallica and ytalica—“French” and “Italian” styles.

Madrigal Culture

fig. 10-4 Francesco Landini wearing a laurel crown, from the Squarcialupi Codex. Although the piece that the portrait illuminates, the three-voiced motetlike madrigal Musica son (“Music Am I”), is one of Landini’s most complex, the great majority of his works were in the less venerable genre of the dance song (ballata).

When it came to varying the rhythms that occurred within a basic meter or divisio, the Italian system, with its wide variety of tailed note shapes, was exceedingly supple and precise. At least one of these special Italian note-shapes—the single eighth note with a “flag” (the unit value of the so-called octonaria meter that divided the breve by eight)—has survived into modern notation. The rarer Italian shapes were a major source for the novel signs used by ars subtilior composers—including, for example, the double-stemmed notes called dragmas, which we encountered in Fig. 9-5. But of course many of the ars subtilior composers (including Philippus de Caserta, their leading theorist) were Italians working in France. They were actually drawing to a large extent upon their native traditions. So what used to be called the “mannered” notation of the late fourteenth century was in fact a conflation of French and Italian practices that widened the possibilities of both.


(3) Capitulum de vocibus applicatis verbis (ca. 1315), quoted in Long, “Trecento Italy,” p. 248.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 “A Pleasant Place”: Music of the Trecento." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010002.xml