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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

For a dose of English newness at its most radical, let us briefly consider Dunstable’s most famous composition, then as now: Quam pulchra es (“How beautiful thou art”), a setting from the Song of Songs (Ex. 11-19). Verses from that book of the Bible had become exceedingly popular in England as a result of the burgeoning of votive services addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as “neck,” connecting (and mediating between) the Godhead and the body of the faithful. The love lyrics attributed to King Solomon, for which a long tradition of allegorical interpretation existed, now came into their own as votive antiphons.

Nevertheless, the Song of Songs remains an erotic poem, and its surface meaning no doubt conditioned the exceedingly sensuous settings its verses received from English composers, starting with the “Old Hall” generation and, through Dunstable and his contemporaries, eventually infiltrating the continent. A new style of discant setting emerged out of these Song of Songs antiphons; it is widely known in the scholarly literature as the “declamation motet,” but a better name would be “cantilena motet” because of its similarity to the texture of the continental courtly chanson. Its seductive sweetness is the result of a control of dissonance so extreme as to remind Manfred Bukofzer, the historian who christened the new genre, of a “purge.”7 The homorhythmic texture of the old conductus is adapted in them to the actual rhythms of spoken language rather than to isochrony or to any preconceived metrical scheme. But the naturalistic declamation is not pervasive; rather it is used selectively to spotlight key affect-laden words and phrases, chiefly terms of endearment and symbols of feminine sexuality.

In Quam pulchra es there are from beginning to end only nine dissonant notes (circled in Ex. 11-19), and they all conform to the highly regulated dissonance treatment still codified in academic rules of counterpoint. (In other words, they can be named and classified.) There is an “incomplete neighbor” or “escape tone” on pulchra; there are unaccented passing tones on ut and eburnea; there is an accented passing tone on videamus, and there are four 7–6 suspensions at various cadences. Such a refining-out of dissonance requires effort. It is indeed conspicuous, and therefore expressive, reminding us that we normally take for granted a much higher level of dissonance as the norm.

Voluptuousness and How to Acquire itVoluptuousness and How to Acquire itVoluptuousness and How to Acquire it

ex. 11-19 John Dunstable, Quam pulchra es

No less expressive is the declamation. The words singled out for naturalistic setting in strict homorhythm include carissima (“dearest”), collum tuum (“your neck,” perhaps symbolic as well as erotic), and ubera (“breasts”), the latter singled out twice, once by the male lover and another time, at the very end, by the female. Most dramatically set of all is the female lover’s command—Veni dilecte mi (“Come, my beloved”)—set off not only by homorhythm and by long note values but also by time-stopping fermatas. Whatever the allegorical significance of the Song of Songs verses within the Marian liturgy, the music achieves its telling expressive potency by literally, if tacitly, “telling”—that is, unmasking the allegory.

This, it is worth noting parenthetically, is only the first of many times that we will see music speaking the unspeakable and naming the unnameable, in many contexts of constraint. Its unique if largely unsung power to subvert the texts and occasions it adorns has already been given occasional notice in these pages, largely through the words of churchmen (Saint Augustine, Pope John XXII) who were sensitive to its potentially treacherous allure. In the case of the English declamation motet, the secret the music betrayed was as open a secret as could be.

One can well imagine the kind of impression music as voluptuous as this must have made on continental musicians when they finally had an opportunity to hear it. It opened up a whole new world of musical expressivity, and gaining access to it became item number one on the continental musical agenda. The first thing continental musicians must have noticed about the “English guise” was its luxuriant saturation with full triads, most conspicuous of all when they came in chains. Those chains, we recall, were a standard feature of English descant; now, in Dunstable’s work they were absorbed into a more varied and subtly controlled compositional technique.

The only kind of parallelism Dunstable allowed was the kind that avoided perfect consonances in favor of the more mellifluous, more characteristically English imperfect ones. Thus, for example, the phrases assimilata est palme (“like the palm tree”) and ubera mea (“my breasts”) are made to stand out by the use of an exhaustive parallel motion of imperfect consonances, the contratenor shadowing the tenor at the third, the cantus at the sixth, as in the English descant setting of the Beata viscera Communion motet sampled in Ex. 11-9. And that is why Beata viscera has become the most famous piece of fourteenth-century English descant. It fortuitously foreshadowed the fifteenth-century pieces that marked an epoch in European music history, and has therefore been singled out in retrospect as “typical,” which it was not.

The continental response to this exotic euphony came in surprisingly concrete form. Beginning in the 1420s—right on schedule, as it were, following the Council of Constance and coinciding with the Duke of Bedford’s regency in France—pieces like the one in Ex. 11-20 turn up in profusion. Like Beata viscera, it is a Communion antiphon, based on a gregorian chant (Ex. 11-20a). It is notated as a “duo” (a piece “for two”), but a very curious one (Ex. 11-20b). The only intervals employed are octaves and sixths, with the octaves at the beginnings and ends of phrases and the sixths dominating in the middles, moving in parallel.

Voluptuousness and How to Acquire it

ex. 11-20a Guillaume Du Fay, Vos qui secuti estis me (Communion from Missa Sancti Jacobi), original chant

Voluptuousness and How to Acquire it

ex. 11-20b Guillaume Du Fay, Vos qui secuti estis me (Communion from Missa Sancti Jacobi), as notated (chant notes denoted by ‘+’)

Voluptuousness and How to Acquire it

ex. 11-20c Guillaume Du Fay, Vos qui secuti estis me (Communion from Missa Sancti Jacobi), first phrase as realized in performance

Now sixths are strange intervals for music in the “mainstream” theoretical tradition; while nominally consonances, they had always been described by theorists as an interval normally avoided. Here, bizarrely, they seem to be the prevalent interval. But the duo carries a “canon” or rubric that says, “If you desire a three-part piece, take the top notes and start with them, but down a fourth.” When this is done, fifths are added to the framing octaves, and thirds are added to the sixths, so that the prevailing parallelism becomes exactly like the one in Beata viscera: an exhaustive parallelism of imperfect consonances amounting to a parallelism of triads, voiced for maximum smoothness with the “hard” and “hollow” perfect fifth avoided. In Example 11-20c, the beginning of the Communion is “realized” according to the given recipe; but any singer who can read the top part can deduce the unnotated middle voice from it by transposition, without any need for a special notation. Those handicapped by perfect pitch can substitute a different clef in their mind’s eye (using what fifteenth-century musicians called “sights”), but most can make the transposition “by ear.” Try it yourself with two companions: sing through Ex. 11-20b following the model indicated in Ex. 11-20c. When you do this, you will be simulating the “contenance angloise” just the way Martin Le Franc jokingly said Du Fay and Binchois did it: En fainte, en pause, et en muance, which roughly means “in faking, in relaxing, and in transposition [i.e., making hexachord mutations].”


(7) Manfred Bukofzer, “English Church Music of the Fifteenth Century,” New Oxford History of Music, Vol. III (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 185.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011012.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 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011012.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 23 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011012.xml