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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

A caveat: Nothing that has been said about the distinctiveness and insularity of English music in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, or about its stylistic continuity, should be taken to imply that English composers were unaware of continental developments, or hostile to them. On the contrary, by the end of the fourteenth century, when evidence of English musical activity becomes much more abundant, it is clear that there were plenty of English composers who kept well abreast even of the most arcane ars subtilior techniques and paraded them proudly in their own work. Even they, however, were sure to put an English spin on whatever they appropriated.

A piquant case in point is a Gloria by a composer known to us only as Pycard. It comes from the earliest English source of decipherable polyphonic church music to come down to us relatively intact, a magnificent codex known as the Old Hall manuscript because at the time of its discovery by scholars it was owned by the College of St. Edmund in the village of Old Hall, near the town of Ware, to which it had been willed by a private owner in 1893. It had been previously owned by the composer John Stafford Smith, whose song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” adapted to new words by Francis Scott Key, became “The Star-Spangled Banner”; in 1973 it was sold to the British Library. The fact that it had been in private ownership since the sixteenth century, and more or less out of sight, was probably what saved it from destruction.

The manuscript was compiled and copied during the second decade of the fifteenth century, but its repertory probably extends back at least a generation before that and represents the state of English music at or near the end of the fourteenth century. It is now thought to have been copied for the chapel of Thomas, Duke of Clarence, second son of Henry IV and younger brother of Henry V. Its contents consist predominantly of Mass Ordinary settings organized in sections according to category: first Kyries (a section now lost), then Glorias (followed by a few antiphons and sequences, the one major non-Ordinary portion, but appropriately placed), then Credos and so on. Within each section there are, first, some “English descant” settings notated in score, then some more modern (that is, motetlike) pieces notated in separate parts. Pycard’s Gloria is of the latter type.

The piece is planned out in a very French sort of way. It apportions the text (the standard Mass Gloria “farced” with a Marian trope—Spiritus et alme orphanorum—that was very popular in England) into four sections, each consisting of a double panisorhythmic cursus. The lower parts have a recurrent color and talea that unite all eight cursus; the upper parts have four different taleae, one for each major section, each repeated once. As this description already begins to suggest, the four “real” voices in the texture are “twinned” just as they are in Ex. 11-11, the “Thomas” motet. The two upper parts, spitting out the text in rapid-fire bursts like fanfares, share a single range and a great deal of melodic material as well. Their very frequent if irregular imitations are clearly related to the old voice-exchange technique. The lower parts enunciate in tandem an old-fashioned English pes that oscillates between G and F as stable points. One of the parts is broken up “stereophonically” between two hocketing lines, so that the two-part pes actually requires the participation of three voices or instruments. (That is why there are four “real” parts even though the piece requires five players.) The combination of a popular English trope and the old English pes technique with isorhythm already justifies the remark about English “spin” on continental procedures. What justifies the reference to the ars subtilior is the changing rhythmic relationship between the upper voices and the pes. In the second pan-isorhythmic section (coinciding with the beginning of the trope) the upper parts continue singing as before, while the pes shifts over from longs equaling twelve minims (eighths) in the upper parts, to longs equaling nine minims. But the hocket-like splitting of notes in the pes means that in reality each note in the hocketing parts equals of the minims running in the treble parts above. At the same time, by the use of red ink, those upper-voice minims are grouped by twos, hemiola-fashion, into semibreves, so that the actual ratio of lengths between the notes of the trebles and the notes of the pes is . Now that is subtilitas! This remarkable stretch is shown in Ex. 11-12.

Complications mount: during the next pan-isorhythmic section each pes note equals eight of the trebles’ minims, but in the trebles those minims are grouped by threes. And so it goes, the pes steadily contracting in a series of “Pythagorean” proportions (12:9:8:6) until the voices at last come back into mensural alignment, but with the pes moving at twice its original speed. What makes the piece not only intelligible but palatable, even delightful, despite all cerebral complications is the mixture of all these artful linear subtleties with the typically English full triadic sonority and the use of jolly dancelike tunes to carry it through. Giraldus Cambrensis and his Welsh toddlers still lurk in the background.

So sophisticated is this music, so given was Pycard to mathematical and canonic wizardry in the other eight pieces preserved under his name in Old Hall, and so suspiciously Gallic is his name (cf. the ancient northern-French province of Picardie), that it has been suggested that he was actually a French composer whose works are preserved for some reason in an English manuscript (and in only one other, a fragment, also English). One scholar has even proposed identifying him with a chaplain named Jean Pycard (alias Vaux), not otherwise identified as a musician, who served John of Gaunt (d. 1399), Duke of Lancaster and Aquitaine, fourth son of Edward III, and progenitor of the English house of Lancaster, during his residence at Amiens, the Picard capital, in 1390.3

Old Hall and Roy HenryOld Hall and Roy Henry

ex. 11-11 Thomas gemma Cantuariae/Thomas caesus in Doveria, mm. 1-32

But a family named Picard or Pychard was prominent in England at this time, and it furnishes other possible candidates for identification with the composer. Nor is there any reason to suppose that a French composer would have been inclined to use a pes (or, before the fifteenth century, the Spiritus et alme trope). As to the Frenchness of Pycard’s style, compare another Old Hall Gloria, in a purebred French cantilena style, by Leonel Power, indubitably an Englishman. It easily rivals Pycard’s for sheer complexity and displays far fewer identifiable English traits (though the voice exchange followed by imitation at the very end of the excerpt in Ex. 11-13 is a giveaway, after all).

From the historian’s point of view the Old Hall manuscript is truly a feast after a famine. About a hundred of its 147 pieces carry attributions, naming no fewer than twenty-four composers, so that we have more English musical names from this period to conjure with (even if many of them are nothing but names) than we have from any other country. And of all these names, it is fair to say that one has conjured up a fascination to equal all the rest combined: “Roy Henry,” French for “King Henry,” a royal composer!

Old Hall and Roy HenryOld Hall and Roy HenryOld Hall and Roy Henry

ex. 11-12 Pycard, Gloria, mm. 25-48

Old Hall and Roy Henry

ex. 11-13 Leonel Power, Gloria, mm. 1-15

Old Hall and Roy HenryOld Hall and Roy Henry

ex. 11-14 Roy Henry, Sanctus, mm. 1-25

But which Henry? The three kings of the house of Lancaster—the son, grandson, and great-grandson of John of Gaunt—were all named Henry. Henry VI, who acceded to the throne in 1421 at the age of nine months, can be ruled out, but Henry IV and Henry V, the father and the brother, respectively, of the manuscript’s possible first owner, both reigned during the period of its compiling. Opinions still differ as to which of them may have composed the two pieces attributed to Roy Henry (and there is no guarantee that either attribution is anything but honorific), but as the two pieces differ radically in style it is not impossible that each of the two kings may have written one. An Alleluia setting in a different manuscript, attributed to “henrici quinti,” might seem to clinch the case for the younger man; but as Margaret Bent, a specialist in the period, has dryly noted, the piece “is no more similar in style to the two Old Hall items than these are to each other.”4 The Old Hall Sanctus setting (Ex. 11-14) is the older of the two, to judge by its style and notation. Like the English descant settings of old (in particular, like Ex. 11-10), it is written in score, is basically homorhythmic, and freely mixes “perfect” and “imperfect” consonant chords. (The other “Roy Henry” piece is a Gloria in an advanced ars nova cantilena style, entered choirbook fashion in separate parts.) As befits its status as a royal composition—or at least as a composition carrying a royal attribution—it stands at the head of its section in the manuscript. Smoothly and skillfully written, maintaining the English predilection for full triadic sonority without resorting to actual parallelism, it can be taken as representative of “normal” English style (as opposed to the ostentatious complications of Francophiles like Pycard) just before that style became widely known and momentously influential on the continent.


(3) See New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), s.v. “Pycard.”

(4) Margaret Bent, “Roy Henry,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 1980).

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 May. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011009.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 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011009.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 May. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011009.xml