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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

Whatever their way to it, the English did develop their own “insular” ways of inflecting French genres of literate music. One of those genres was the motet. The English loved to use sequence melodies as tenors, as in the famous “Balaam” motet (Ex. 11-7a), which adopts for this purpose a versicle from the Epiphany sequence, Epiphanium Domino, that happily incorporates an internal repeat into each of its repeated strophes (Ex. 11-7b).

The text of the sequence verse is a paraphrase of Balaam’s fourth prophecy from the Bible (Numbers 24:17) “A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall arise from Israel that shall smite the brows of Moab”—placed in a context that turns it into a forecast of the Star of Bethlehem that proclaimed the coming of Christ. And the motet text is a paraphrase of the sequence verse.

Pes Motets and RondellusPes Motets and Rondellus

ex. 11-7a Balaam inquit, vaticinans

Pes Motets and Rondellus

ex. 11-7b “Balaam” verse from sequence Epiphanium Domino

Inserted into a performance of the sequence, the motet text would be the kind of thing we might (very loosely) call a trope. And the likelihood that the piece was meant to be inserted in this way seems good, since the text in question is the scantiest we have ever seen in a motet. It consists of a mere four lines of Latin verse, enunciated twice: first in the triplum and then in the motetus. While the triplum has the text, the motetus has an untexted melody. When the motetus gets the text, it takes over the melody to which the triplum had already sung it, and the triplum takes over the untexted countermelody: voice-exchange! And that is why a sequence melody served so well: with its double versicles it has a built-in pes to support the voice exchange. The particular manner of voice-exchange shown here, in which only one voice is texted at a time, is described by only one theorist, Walter Odington, a monk at the Benedictine abbey of Evesham, near the cathedral town of Worcester in the “West-country,” who wrote around 1300. “If what one declaims, all others declaim in turn, this is called rondellus,”2 he informs us, divulging a sure sign of English authorship, even when, as here, the music in question is found in a continental source (the famous Montpellier codex, alias Mo, familiar to us since chapter 7).

The texted exchange only comes at the repetition of the sequence’s double versicle. But the first tenor statement also supports a textless exchange that counts, in Odington’s definition, as a rondellus (for rondellus, he tells us, can be cum littera or sine littera). And then the whole double versicle is repeated in the tenor to support an extended cauda in hocket style, in which the voices exchange not only their tunes but their relative positions the second time around. The text and its liturgical tie-in have served as little more than a pretext, clearly, for the kind of elaborate musical game we have been reading about since the beginning of this chapter. Giraldus would have understood.


(2) Walter Odington, De speculatione Musicae, in Coussemaker, Scriptorum, Vol. I, p. 245, trans. R. Taruskin.

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-div1-011004.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-div1-011004.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-div1-011004.xml