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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

As a marvelous summation of everything we have learned to identify as English, consider the motet Thomas gemma Cantuariae/Thomas caesus in Doveria (“Thomas, jewel of Canterbury/Thomas, slain in Dover”). Ex. 11-11 shows its beginning. Discovered by fortunate accident in the flyleaves of an English (non-musical) manuscript from the fourteenth century that was acquired by the Princeton University Library around 1950, it is a dual martyrs’ commemoration. The motetus celebrates Thomas de la Hale, a monk from the Benedictine priory at Dover, the chalk-cliffed English channel port, who was slain in a French raid that took place in August 1295, prefiguring the protracted conflict that became known as the Hundred Years War. The triplum celebrates another Thomas, the most eminent of all English martyrs: Thomas à Becket (1118–70), known since his canonization in 1173 as St. Thomas of Canterbury, who was murdered in the Canterbury Cathedral at the behest of King Henry II. The two texts in conjunction draw parallels between the two martyred Thomases, often sharing or paraphrasing each other’s lines.

As might be guessed, the triplum and motetus, each representing a Thomas, are “twinned,” sharing the same range and indulging in frequent voice exchanges and hockets. And they are accompanied by a tenor and a contratenor (the latter actually labeled “secundus tenor”) that are twinned in the same ways, thus producing a double twinsong texture. That is already an English trademark, the first of many.

The whole piece is laid out, like the Sumer canon, as a set of variations over a pes. But that pes, even more explicitly than the one in the Sumer canon, is essentially a harmonic rather than a melodic idea. It is never literally restated even once, but its harmonic framework is restated some twenty-eight times. That framework consists of the same alternation or oscillation we have observed in every other English pes we have considered, between the final F (the “shut-cadence” note) and its upper neighbor G (the “open-cadence” note). They alternate in a regular four-bar pattern, as follows (where “I” means F and “ii” means G): I/I–ii/ii/ii–I.

The Beginnings of “Functional” Harmony?

fig. 11-4 The murder of St. Thomas of Canterbury in 1170, from a Latin psalter made in England ca. 1200.

The reason for using the roman I and ii (reminiscent of harmonic analysis) instead of the claves (note-names) F and G to represent the pes is that G is not invariably the lowest note in the “ii” portions. When G is the lowest note, the cadences are of the familiar “double leading tone” type. But sometimes, when one of the twinned tenors has G, the other one takes the C a fifth below, producing against the upper-voice leading tone not a “six-three” harmony but one of those characteristically English “ten-fives” we first encountered in Beata viscera. At such cadences the actual “bass progression” is not ii–I but V–I. No one reading this book will fail to take notice of the first occurrence in its narrative of a “V–I” cadential pattern, the most familiar and decisive of all harmonic closes to our modern ears. Just what the historical significance of that (to us) striking and significant progression may have been on its debut is a matter of considerable debate among historians—a debate that cuts very deep into the question of what the word “historical” really means. We will return to it.

For now, it will be enough merely to take note of the freedom with which the “ten-five” open-spaced triad is deployed in this motet, along with all the other full-triad sonorities we have been tracking in “English descant.”

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-div1-011008.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-div1-011008.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-div1-011008.xml