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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Island and Mainland
Richard Taruskin

Example 11-20 was actually composed by Du Fay himself. It is the concluding item in his Missa Sancti Jacobi, a “plenary” setting of the Mass for Saint James (that is, a setting that includes both the Proper and the Ordinary). Circumstantial evidence suggests that the Mass may have been written for the Church of San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Greater) in Bologna, where Du Fay was sojourning in 1427 and 1428. If that date is correct, then Du Fay’s Communion is the earliest surviving specimen of this technique for deriving three parts from two to achieve an instant-English effect. It would be rash, however, to call Du Fay the inventor of the technique or the year 1427 or 1428 the exact year of its invention on the basis of such scanty data. Still, Du Fay was one of the recognized specialists in the technique, with twenty-four surviving specimens to his name (four times as many as Binchois, the runner-up).

The other important distinguishing feature of the new style was that the cantus part, not the tenor, carried the original chant (transposed up an octave), as if reverting to the vox principalis/vos organalis texture of old. But that resemblance is fortuitous. By the fifteenth century, nobody remembered the Musica enchiriadis or any other treatise of its ilk. Their rediscovery had to await the zealous antiquarians of the modern age. Rather, the chant-bearing cantus was adapted by embellishment and rhythmic adjustment to the conventions of the contemporary “top-down” genre, the cantilena or chanson. The chant, in short, was disguised (or “paraphrased,” as we now usually say) as a contemporary secular song.

Du Fay’s ersatz-English Communion setting carries a label as well as a rubric. The setting is designated fauxbourdon, and the term became a standard one, sufficient in itself to take the place of the rubric. Singers seeing the word would know that the cantus part of the piece so labeled had to be doubled at the lower fourth, and that the tenor was so fashioned that a voluptuous array of parallel imperfect consonances à l’anglaise would emerge against the doubled line. The technique became understandably popular—faddish, in fact.

Just what the word fauxbourdon meant etymologically, or why it was coined (whether by Du Fay or some other French-speaking musician) to designate this particular manner of composing or arranging, remain enigmas. With only a handful of exceptions, the 171 surviving pieces so labeled are all based on chants that have been transposed and embellished like the one in Du Fay’s Communion. If fauxbourdon literally meant faux bourdon (“false bass,” from the French bourdonner, to drone or sing in an undertone), then it might have referred to this transposition, leaving in the bottom voice what was usually found above (that is, a discant to a cantus firmus). If that seems a farfetched etymology, so are all the others that have been proposed from time to time. One explanation associates the bourdon in fauxbourdon, which can mean a pilgrim’s staff, with St. James, who carried one, and who is depicted, staff in hand, in a miniature at the head of Du Fay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi (fig. 11-5).

Fauxbourdon and Faburden

fig. 11-5 Saint James with his pilgrim’s staff, depicted in an illumination from the single extant complete source of Du Fay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi, in which is the earliest fauxbourdon setting (Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS Q 15, fol. 121, copied in Padua in the 1420s).

The enigma is compounded by the existence of a near-cognate English term, faburden, which denotes something comparable to fauxbourdon but not identical with it. How (or indeed whether) the two terms and practices are related has been a matter of considerable speculation and debate.

To begin with, the term faburden is not associated with individual written compositions but with an English technique of harmonizing chants at sight (super librum, roughly “off the book,” or “off the page” in contemporary parlance). According to a treatise called The Sight of Faburdon, copied around 1450 and the sole surviving theoretical description of the method, two singers would accompany the singer of the chant with unwritten counterpoints, one (called the “deschaunte”) above the written part and the other (called the “counter note”) below. The “counterer” would sing thirds and fifths below the plainchant and the “discanter” would double it at the upper fourth. A didactic example of faburden that happened to be written in a Scottish treatise of the mid-sixteenth century shows the result (Ex. 11-21). It is based on Salvator mundi Domine (“O Lord, Savior of the World”), a frequent English contrafact of the Pentecost hymn Veni creator spiritus (already encountered as Ex. 2-7c). The original chant is carried by the middle voice—the one voice, ironically enough, that was not notated at all in fauxbourdon settings.

The result, so far as the listener is concerned, differs from the fauxbourdon settings of Du Fay and his continental contemporaries only in pitch range, if it differs at all. In the case of faburden the chant is thought of as the “meane” or middle voice and the doubling part as the “tryble” above it. In the case of fauxbourdon the chant is thought of as the “cantus” and the doubling part as the contratenor below it. But it is a distinction that makes no audible difference, just as it makes no difference whether the lowest voice is thought of as making fifths and thirds against the middle or octaves and sixths against the top.

The reasonable and simple assumption would be that fauxbourdon was just the continental written-down imitation of the English oral practice. But the actual evidence does not fit that easy explanation. For one thing, The Sight of Faburdon (or at least its extant source) is a good deal later than the probable date of Du Fay’s Missa Sancti Jacobi, in which the first use of the term fauxbourdon occurs. And for another, the word faburden is much more easily construed as a corruption of fauxbourdon than the other way around. (We can easily imagine etymologies for fauxbourdon, however flimsy; explaining faburden as “the bass that sings fa” (because it uses a lot of B-flats) is a rather desperate contrivance.) So what happened? Did the English borrow back a continental cookbook recipe for imitating the English? To believe that is neither simple nor particularly reasonable. What is likelier is that the term faburden, adapted from fauxbourdon, was applied retroactively by some English writers to one of many varieties of “sighting,” or ad hoc chant harmonization, which had been practiced by the English all through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This particular one happened to resemble, in a relatively crude and unembellished way, the very elegant written compositions from abroad that began to travel back to England, with their deft and graceful chant-paraphrases in the manner of the courtly chanson.

But faburden was and remained a “sight,” an older English practice and an oral one. It can be documented in principle as far back as Anonymus IV, the first treatise that mentions sights. Thus it differed in kind, despite its belated similarity in nomenclature, from fauxbourdon, a later continental practice and an elegantly embellished, written one. Later, the technique became the property of organists, who used faburden “counters” or bass lines (like the bottom voice in Ex. 11-21) as grounds for improvisation, and, beginning in the early sixteenth century, kept little books of them handy. You can almost always tell a “faburden,” as organists informally called the bottom line of a chant harmonization, by its initial rising fourth, the inevitable product of the “sight” technique. Since the “counter” had to begin at the fifth below the chant and proceed to the third below the chant, and since perhaps nine chants out of ten begin with a rising step progression, nine “faburdens” out of ten will begin with the rising fourth.

Fauxbourdon and Faburden

ex. 11-21 Salvator mundi Domine in faburden

Lots of questions regarding the reciprocal early histories of fauxbourdon and faburden remain unanswered. For instance, did the inventors of fauxbourdon actually hear English choirs (at Constance, say, or in Paris) singing super librum—i.e., singing what eventually became known as faburden? Or did they hear something much more impressive, found a simple way of counterfeiting it, and gave the author of The Sight of Faburdon an idea for simplifying the technique of “sighting”? This last possibility, with its intriguing suggestion of a true cross-fertilization of cultures, is supported by a sentence in The Sight of Faburdon that calls the practice so designated only the lowliest and most commonplace of sight techniques.

Really skillful British extemporizers, going all the way back to the time of Giraldus Cambrensis, could come up with much more impressive harmonizations, not only in three parts but in four or even more. Desiderius Erasmus (Erasmus of Rotterdam), the great humanist scholar and a great Anglophile, reported in amazement, following one of his many visits to England toward the end of the fifteenth century, that in English churches “many sing together, but none of the singers produce those sounds which the notes on the page indicate.” (This sounds a lot like Giraldus, in fact, except that the Welsh singers he described did not use books at all.)

Fauxbourdon and Faburden

ex. 11-22a Heir beginnis countering, presumed cantus firmus

Fauxbourdon and FaburdenFauxbourdon and Faburden

ex. 11-22b Heir beginnis countering, final example, mm. 1-6

We can share in Erasmus’s amazement if we travel forward in time a bit for a quick look at the latest and most advanced treatise on supra librum singing from the British Isles. A manual copied in Scotland around 1580, but summing up two or three hundred years’ worth of singers’ lore, ends with a final chapter on “countering” in which twelve rules are given that, when mastered over considerable time, enabled a quartet of singers to take a simple line of plainchant (like Ex. 11-22a) and from it work up on the spot a polyphonic realization like the one shown in the treatise’s final didactic example. The tenor sings a highly embellished version of the cantus firmus at the original pitch (each measure beginning and ending with the notated pitch, but with the middle filled most fancifully), and the other parts carol away even more ornately, albeit according to strict—and, no doubt, well-kept—secret formulas (Ex. 11-22b).

Compared to this, fauxbourdon (to say nothing of simple faburden) might seem like child’s play. But the point of fauxbourdon, as practiced by the continental composers, was not so much the contrapuntal amplification of the chant as it was the transformation and elaboration of “plainsong” into “fancy song” (or, to use contemporary terminology, cantus figuralis, “figured” or patterned song). The raw material of plainchant was processed in this way into the highly refined style of the courtly “art song.”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Island and Mainland." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011013.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011013.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-011013.xml