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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

The examples given so far are enough to show that English polyphonic music pursued a somewhat different line of development from the one we have traced on the European mainland. Indeed, it is tempting to look upon England as a sort of musical Australia, an island culture inhabited by, and sustaining, its own insular fauna—musical kangaroos, koalas, and platypuses. That, however, would be very much to exaggerate England’s musical isolation or independence. It is also a considerable exaggeration to view the English preference for thirds as something altogether alien or opposed to continental practice, as if only in remote geographical corners (and behind closed doors, among consenting adults) could harmonies unsanctioned by Pythagoras or the Musica enchiriadis be furtively enjoyed.

We’ve seen plenty of thirds in music previously studied, and not even the English thought thirds so consonant that they could be used to end a (written) piece—assuming that a piece has an ending, as a rota does not. This very chapter, moreover, has already shown the British Isles to have been no isolated territory but a site of repeated invasion and colonization, with substantive musical effect—and we have not yet even mentioned the most momentous invasion of all, the Norman Conquest of 1066 that brought the English into an intense, long-lasting, and all-transforming intercourse with French language, society, and culture.

By the late thirteenth century, English and French culture were so thoroughly intermixed that their disentangling is no longer feasible. Nor was their intercourse a one-way street. England was politically subject to France, but culturally the shoe was often on the other foot. The English college at the University of Paris was a strong contingent, particularly around the turn of the thirteenth century—precisely, that is, when the “Notre Dame school” was consolidating. (Remembering that puts an interesting, possibly significant spin on all the voice-exchanging we observed in chapter 6 in the organa quadrupla attributed to Perotin.) And so it is not surprising to find occasional French pieces from the period exhibiting traits reminiscent of the Sumer canon.

Consider the conductus Veris ad imperia (Ex. 11-6), from the Florence manuscript. Though famous, it is an odd conductus. Yet no one would claim (or at least no one has claimed) that its peculiarities mark it as an actual English piece. And that is because its chief peculiarity is that its lowest voice (as written) is, most unusually for a conductus, a cantus firmus. More unusually yet, that lowest written voice is actually the highest sounding one, so that for the first fourteen measures this ostensible conductus is actually a sort of harmonized tune or cantilena—a tune that the reader may remember, because it has already appeared in this account as Ex. 4-2: the troubadour dance-song or balada entitled A l’entrada del tens clar, defined on its earlier appearance as “a sophisticated imitation folk song.”

Insular Fauna?

fig. 11-3 William the Conqueror setting sail for England, from the Bayeux tapestry (eleventh century).

Insular Fauna?

ex. 11-6 Veris ad imperia (conductus)

What marked A l’entrada as folklike was its repetition/refrain scheme: aa’aa’B, where the “prime” signs stand for “closed” endings, on the final. A peek at the “tenor” of Ex. 11-6 shows that one of the closed endings has been replaced by an open one, so that the scheme is now the stuttering aaaa’B. Another way of accounting for the “stutter,” of course, is to say that the “a” phrase has been turned into a pes. And now look what happens in the “upper” parts “over” that pes: what the triplum has the first time, the duplum has the second, and vice versa. Another way of putting this is to say that the two parts have made a voice-exchange. And they immediately repeat the exchange over the third and fourth repetitions of the pes, allowing for a different (closed) cadence the last time.

Voice-exchange over a pes—shades of the Sumer canon! And all the more so if we reflect that a round, shorn of its mock-imitative beginning, is just a perpetual voice-exchange disguised as a canon. (Gather three companions and sing “Row, row, row” or “Frère Jacques,” beginning with the fourth entry!) But the use of an Occitan cantus-firmus tune (as well as the source situation) suggests that this is not an English piece, but a French one that uses similar devices. Is that an example of English “influence,” then? Maybe, but why couldn’t the English practice be an example of French “influence”?

That, too, is possible. There is no need to decide. This much can be agreed upon: what is only a sporadic and short-lived device, or set of devices, in French music became definitive in English music over the course of the thirteenth century. Again, there are at least two ways of interpreting this (or any) fact. One can assert, as some historians have done, that the musical predilections of the English contingent exerted an influence on French university musicians in proportion to their numbers; when their numbers declined, so did their musical influence. Or one can assert, as other historians have done, that certain French pieces especially appealed to the English imagination because their distinctive features recalled to the English their local oral practice—a practice previously inflected by the habits of their Viking overlords, but now reencountered within a literate context sanctioned by “mainstream” (read: French) cultural authority. And that is how the English were led to a national “school” of artistic, literate music making all their own. Guess which view is favored by English historians and which by French (as well as some influential Americans).

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." 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-div1-011003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Island and Mainland. 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-div1-011003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." 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-div1-011003.xml