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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

There is an English source for the Balaam motet as well as the French one, but like almost all the English sources of the period, it is fragmentary—just a scrap containing the motetus voice. The wholesale destruction of “popish ditties”—manuscripts containing Latin church music—in the course of the Anglican reformation was a great disaster for music history. Between the eleventh century, the time of the staffless Winchester Tropers, and the beginning of the fifteenth, not a single source of English polyphonic music survives intact. All we have, for the most part, are individual leaves, or bits of leaves, that chanced to survive the holocaust for a seemingly paradoxical reason: having become liturgically or stylistically obsolete, the books that contained them had already been destroyed. The surviving leaves had been recycled, as we would now put it, for lowly utilitarian purposes. Some had been bound into newer manuscript books as flyleaves (the heavier protective leaves in the front and back of bound volumes), or as stiffeners for the covers or spine. Some had even been rolled up and inserted into organ pipes to stop little leaks that were causing the pipes to sound continuously (what organists call “ciphers”).

As we can tell from the folio numbers on the surviving leaves and from tables of contents that have outlived their hosts, many of the manuscripts from which these shards remain were originally massive tomes, comparable to the Florence or Montpellier or Ivrea codices that so abundantly preserve the French repertory of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. And the surviving shards come from so many different parent sources that most historians take it as a fact that pre-Reformation Britain produced more manuscripts of polyphonic music than did any other country during those centuries. But all we have to go on now, if we want to reclaim memory of what appears to have been an exceptionally rich literate culture of music and sample its fruits, are these pitiful fragments from which no more than a few dozen whole pieces, or even self-contained sections, can be salvaged.

Many of the extant manuscript bits originated or at least were used at Worcester Cathedral, which confirms and supports Walter Odington’s authority as a witness to the repertory he described, and the importance of “West-country” monastic centers as a hub for all that was most distinctive in English “popish” polyphony during these (to us) dark centuries. In the early part of the twentieth century, when systematic musicology was gathering steam in Britain, the loose leaves and strips from Worcester were collected and bound into three main codices—one kept in the Worcester Cathedral library itself, one at Oxford, and one at the British Library in London. These are now known as the “Worcester fragments.” About three-quarters of this repertory can be dated to the last third of the thirteenth century, and confirms Odington’s remarks about the prevalence in England of “pes” and “rondellus” techniques. We can be reasonably sure that the vast vanished body of music from the period reflected similar preoccupations.

Over and above the pes-motets like Balaam (or like Alle psallite cum luya—“Hey, come sing and play Alleluia”—its better-known companion in Mo), the Worcester fragments contain many rondellus-type compositions in conductus style. Odington’s description of rondellus technique harks back unmistakably to Franco of Cologne’s recipe for conductus, given in chapter 6. Where Franco wrote that the composer of a conductus must “invent as beautiful a melody as he can, and then use it as a tenor for writing the rest,” Odington’s instructions for composing a rondellus are these: “Think up the most beautiful melody you can, arrange it to be repeated by all the voices one by one, with or without text, and fit against it one or two others consonant with it; thus each sings the other’s part.” A circulation of parts in which all voices (usually three) participate is the quintessential “West-country” style, in which the age-old oral practices described by Giraldus Cambrensis are most fully absorbed into the developing literate tradition.

Flos regalis, a conductus in honor of the Virgin, is one of the largest and most characteristic pieces that can be salvaged from the dark centuries. It vividly reflects the way in which the English crossbred continental genres with indigenous performing traditions and harmonic idioms. It begins with a magnificent flourish of a cauda in the familiar trochaic (“first mode”) rhythms of Notre Dame, grouped the French melismatic way into phrases of varying length. The first four lines of text are set in the “Franconian” conductus style, built from the ground up (tenor in “fifth mode”) in regular four-bar phrases with occasional fast flourishes in the higher parts. The next two lines, however, in a slightly more lilting meter, are set as a three-part rondellus that runs through its entire cursus of voice-exchanges twice (once per line of text, as Odington implied). The remainder of the poem is cut up in the same way: four lines declaimed in longs à la française in a somewhat decorated homorhythmic texture, and the last two lines in purely English rondellus style. This last section is shown in Ex. 11-8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011005.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 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011005.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 28 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011005.xml