We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


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

Landini’s hilarious little madrigal Sy dolce non sonò con lir’ Orfeo offers an especially rich and witty merger of French and Italian genres, all most inventively adapted to one another. Its distribution of voices, with the part labeled “contratenor” sharing the range of the cantus rather than the tenor, harks back to the texture of the motet rather than the virelai. And sure enough, a motet it is, albeit one with only a single text. What makes it conceptually a motet is the fact that it is built up from a tenor that has been laid out, foundation-wise, in advance. This we can tell even though the tenor quotes no cantus firmus, because it is fully isorhythmic in the Ars Nova manner.

Yet for all its “Frenchness,” it is modeled exactly on, and illustrates, the structure of the Italian poem. A madrigal, we recall, consists of a number of three-line strophes called tercets—in this case three—followed by a contrasting ritornello. The tenor’s thrice-repeated 21-measure color coincides with the tercet, and within each color the thrice-repeated 7-measure talea coincides with each of the tercet’s constituent lines. The ritornello offers another surprise. It could also be viewed as isorhythmic in its tenor layout, with a twice-repeated color and a twice-repeated talea that happen to coincide. But since a coinciding color and talea amounts to plain repetition, we might also view the ritornello tenor as parodying a pair of piedi from a ballata, especially since the colores actually differ very slightly at their endings—one of them being “open” (cadence on G) and the other “shut” (cadence on F, the final). Ex. 10-8 shows the third tercet and the ritornello.

Late-Century FusionLate-Century FusionLate-Century Fusion

ex. 10-8 Landini, Sy do lce non sonò (madrigal in motet style)

Landini even manages to work a few jesting references to the chace into the ritornello. The first little rash of texted minims in the tenor is mimicked in turn by the other two voices in successive measures. And on the rash’s repetition, the other voices anticipate rather than follow the tenor, which now appears to have the last of three imitative entrances. The text is also a spoof, joshing the high-flown rhetoric of the early madrigalists, much given to classical and mythological allusions. Here no fewer than four mythological musicians—Orpheus, the prototype of lyric poetry (that is, poetry sung to the lyre); Philomel, the archetypal nightingale; Amphion, who could charm stones with his lyre; and the satyr Marsyas, master of the flute—are invoked, only to be compared with the poet’s little red rooster who can outsing them all. “Its effect,” the poet deadpans, “is the opposite of the Gorgon’s,” whose ugliness turned men into stone. The concluding, rather Gorgonesque melisma, piling hockets atop snaking syncopations, adds a final touch of satire.

But who is this “rooster”? In Italian, the word is gallo. Might Landini’s gallo not be a stand-in for a certain gallico—a certain Frenchman? If, as has been most plausibly proposed, we regard Sy dolce non sonò as a veiled tribute to Philippe de Vitry, the virtual (or, at least, the reputed) inventor of the isorhythmic motet, the whole concept of the piece and its affectionate parody of French genres takes on a new level of meaning.

The gallicization of the Italian style was matched, albeit a few decades later, by the Italianization of the French, both tendencies converging on an internationalized style that in fact became truly international. That was to be the great musical story of the fifteenth century. We can observe its beginnings from an angle opposite to Landini’s—that is, from the French perspective—by analyzing the very different mix of generic ingredients in Pontifici decora speculi, a motet in honor of Saint Nicholas by “Johannes Carmen,” a name we enclose in quotes because it is so obviously a Latin pseudonym (“John Song”) for a Parisian composer active in the first decades of the fifteenth century. A likely patron for such a musician would have been Nicholas of Clémanges, the rector of the University of Paris from 1393 as well as secretary and chief legal defender of the notorious Benedict XIII, the unsinkable Avignon antipope; the prayer on behalf of St. Nicholas’s “servants,” then, might well have been a name-day tribute to the ancient saint’s living namesake. Ex. 10-9 shows the first and second of its five quatrains.

But for the language of its text, this motet looks in its manuscript source for all the world like a chanson. Only the cantus part is texted, and there are an accompanying pair of voices (tenor and contratenor) that share the same pitch-space. The text, divided into five quatrains of iambic pentameters, all in the same rhyme scheme but with different actual rhyme-words (thus: abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh/ijij) resembles the conductus texts of old (or the new-fangled sonnet) far more than it does the typical motet text of its day. So why is the piece called a motet? Because it is isorhythmic: each texted stanza is sung by the cantus to the same talea. (There is no color—unless one is content to describe the nonrepetitive melody of the cantus as a single continuous color, which rather defeats the meaning of the word.) Thus, what usually characterizes the tenor in an isorhythmic motet here characterizes the cantus.

All of this is indeed unconventional for a French motet, but where is the Italian connection? It comes in the inconspicuous little “sign of congruence” (signum congruentiae) that directs a second singer to enter at the beginning when the first has reached the end of the first phrase. The work, in short, is a canon. But it is not just any sort of canon; it is a two-part canon for a cantus over a tenor. In other words, it is a caccia—but not an entirely conventional caccia, either, since it has a “French” contratenor in addition to the tenor.

Late-Century FusionLate-Century Fusion

ex. 10-9 Johannes Carmen, Pontifici decora speculi (motet in caccia style)

Nor are conventional caccie isorhythmic. But like a motet, a caccia does have to be composed “successively.” The canonic pair of voices have to be worked out in advance of the accompanying voices, just as an isorhythmic tenor, with or without a corresponding contratenor, has to be worked out in advance of the upper parts. So the motet and the caccia have a genuine affinity; the addition of isorhythm to the canonic part(s) of a caccia emphasizes that affinity. As in Sy dolce non sonò, Landini’s madrigal motet, the result is a genuine stylistic synthesis—something more than a stylistic juxtaposition or a hodgepodge of genres—and a step toward genuine internationalization.

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. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010007.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010007.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-010007.xml