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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

Here is Roy Henry again (assuming he is Henry V) in Ex. 11-15, this time doing what he did best and leaving the musical commentary to others:

Fortunes of WarFortunes of War

ex. 11-15 Deo gratias Anglia (“Agincourt Carol”)

Ex. 11-15 is a carol, the English version of the carole, the old French dance-song with refrain (here called the “burden”). Such songs had probably been sung in England since the Normans arrived in the eleventh century, if not before. But they left hardly a written trace until the fifteenth century, when they began to be composed by literate musicians using the latest polyphonic techniques. In the one shown here, the three-part writing in the “burden” (or refrain) has that distinctively English triadic sound first observed in the Sumer Canon, composed almost two centuries before.

By the time Ex. 11-15 was noted down, the genre to which it belonged had lost its necessary connection with the dance. It had become a “festival song,” in the words of John Stevens, the carol’s main historian.5 The festival with which most written-down carols were associated was, yes, Christmas, although the songs we now call “Christmas carols” (especially those sung door-to-door or around the tree) are really hymns, and were largely the creation of the nineteenth-century sheet music industry.

For another illustration of the form, and a witty one, look at Ex. 11-16, a monophonic carol in popular style that is actually quite a bit younger than the earliest polyphonic examples. It comes from a Glasgow manuscript that contains a number of similar “unaccompanied” carol tunes. There is no chance of their being transcribed folk songs, though; their texts are urbane and literary through and through. This one, which describes the Annunciation (the event, so to speak, that made Christmas possible) is macaronic. It matches a burden in Latin, possibly meant for a chorus to sing, with verses in the vernacular (though the last verse ends with another, very familiar, line of Latin, quoting Mary’s response to Gabriel’s greeting in Luke 1:38—“Behold the handmaiden of the Lord”).

The burden, sung at the beginning and end and in between each verse, is an elegant pun. “Nova, nova” means something like “Extra! Extra!” “Ave” (Hail) is what the angel said to Mary when telling her she was to bear the Son of God, and it reverses the word “Eva” (Eve), the source of the original sin for which the coming of Christ brought redemption. So the redemption revokes and negates the sin for those who accept Christ: for them, “Ave (the virgin birth) remakes Eva”—a second chance.

Fortunes of War

ex. 11-16 Nova, nova, ave fit ex Eva

Deo gratias Anglia (Ex. 11-15), the carol in honor of Henry V, celebrates not a festival but a great event—one well known to fans of Shakespeare’s history plays (or Laurence Olivier films). Found in a parchment roll copied some time during the first half of the fifteenth century, it commemorates the triumph of 25 October 1415, when King Henry and his small but well-equipped force of longbow men defeated a much larger French army on the field of Agincourt (now Azincourt) near Calais in the far north of France, near the point of shortest distance across the English Channel. It was the most important English victory in the Hundred Years War, a territorial conflict that actually lasted (off and on) for 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. In the battle’s aftermath, England conquered and occupied much of northern France.

By 1420 Henry was able to march into Paris and (with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Burgundy, his secret allies) claim—or, as he insisted, reclaim—the French throne. A treaty signed that year would have made him king of France after the death of the current ruler, Charles VI, whose daughter Catherine he agreed to marry. Henry died in 1422, before the terms of the treaty could be carried out (since Charles VI still lived). But the English armies continued to enjoy victories until by 1429 almost all of France north of the Loire River was in English hands. (It was at this point that the French rallied under Joan of Arc and eventually reclaimed most of their territory for the hereditary French heir, Charles VII.)

As the reader has surely guessed, there was an important musical repercussion from the political events just described. The English occupation of northern France in the 1420s and early 1430s brought a host of English “magnates” and administrators, both military and civil, to French soil. At their head was John of Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford, Henry’s brother. Henry left behind a nine-month-old son and heir, Henry VI, who as the grandson of Charles VI was also heir by treaty to the French throne. (He was actually crowned in Paris in 1431, during the English occupation, but never reigned in France.)

Bedford and his brother Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, were named joint regents until the king came of age. Bedford had primary responsibility for prosecuting the war with France and administering the English occupation, duties that required his continued residence on French soil until his ally the Duke of Burgundy turned against him and made a separate peace with the French heir. From 1422 until his death in 1435, four years after he ordered the burning of Joan of Arc (who had been captured by the Burgundians, everybody’s false friend, and sold to the English for a ransom), the Duke of Bedford was the effective ruler of France.

Bedford maintained a regal traveling household and retinue, including a chapel. Based largely in Paris, it was staffed by a substantial musical corps. The Duke also held many estates in Normandy, forfeited by French nobles who had been defeated and evacuated in the course of the English advance. One of these estates passed after Bedford’s death to a man named John Dunstable, who is named in the deed as a servant and household familiar to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (serviteur et familier domestique de Onfroy Duc de Gloucestre), but who is named in another document (a bookplate in an astronomical treatise), and on his tombstone, as “a musician with the Duke of Bedford” (cum duci Bedfordie musicus).

The man thus rewarded in 1436 with a lordship in France was famous in his day as “an astrologian, a mathematician, a musitian, and what not” (to quote from one of his epitaphs). The striking thing about the musical works attributed to Dunstable is that, out of more than fifty surviving compositions (all but five on Latin religious texts), three-fifths are found only in continental manuscripts. This cannot be explained solely by the scarcity of English sources, since previously there had been nothing approaching such an English presence in continental ones. And the other striking thing about Dunstable’s works is the enormous influence they had on continental composers—an influence readily, indeed enthusiastically, acknowledged by a number of witnesses. The only hypothesis that seems to unite all of these scattered facts and circumstances in a convincing pattern is one that places Dunstable in Paris at the head of the Duke of Bedford’s musical establishment at the time when English prestige was at its height. That political prestige, plus the novelty and sheer allure of the English style (as we have already come to know it, but which was a revelation to continental musicians) conspired to produce a stylistic watershed in European music, after which for the first time there was truly a pan-European musical style—a literate musical lingua franca—of which the English, with Dunstable at their head, had served as catalysts.


(5) John Stevens, “Carol,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (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. 29 Mar. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011010.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 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011010.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 29 Mar. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011010.xml