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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

But first, its history: one that, like so much in the history of fifteenth-century music, begins with the English. And it begins at the moment when the device of paired movements based on a common cantus firmus tenor, already found in the Old Hall manuscript, was expanded to encompass all the major components of the Ordinary.

We cannot tell when that decisive moment occurred; all we can know are its first preserved fruits. One of the earliest is a Kyrie-Gloria-Credo-Sanctus set somewhat shakily attributed to Dunstable, based on a tenor derived from Da gaudiorum praemia (“O grant the prize that brings joy”), a responsory for Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost). It is bound up with the family history of the Henrys of England and was very likely first performed at the wedding of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, his joyful prize and daughter of the French King Charles VI, which took place on Trinity Sunday, 2 June 1420. The same Mass seems to have been performed again at another royal occasion, the Paris coronation of Henry VI in 1431.

There, already, is a clue to the original purpose of the cyclic organization of the Ordinary: the use of a symbolic or emblematic tenor uniting its various sections renders the Ordinary “proper” to an occasion. The common cantus firmus acts like a trope, a symbolic commentary on the service. It was, or could be, a most potent device for insuring that there would be no separation of church and state.

More secure is the attribution to Leonel Power of a four-part Ordinary complex (a pair, so to speak, of traditional pairs: Gloria/Credo and Sanctus/Agnus Dei) all based on a tenor derived from the Marian antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater. This composition, found only in northern Italian manuscripts copied around 1430-1435, is one of the best witnesses to the prestige of English music at the time and the leadership that English composers were exercising over musical developments on the continent.

Unlike Dunstable, his (probably) somewhat younger contemporary, Leonel Power does not seem to have made much of an international career. It was his music that traveled. Except for a brief French sojourn between 1419 and 1421 with his employer the Duke of Clarence (brother of Henry V, in whose campaign the Duke was participating), the composer spent his whole professional life in England, first as tutor to the choristers in the Duke’s household chapel, and later as a member of the fraternity of Christ Church, Canterbury, where he died, probably aged around seventy, in 1445. One of his duties at the Canterbury church was to lead the choir that sang special votive services in the “Lady chapel,” and it was presumably for this choir that he composed, on a suitable Marian hymn, the Mass that, because it was so widely circulated in manuscript copies, now looms so large in history.

Unifying the sections of Mass cycles on the basis of common tenors meant laying out a foundation in advance and building from the ground up. This architectonic conception had previously been the special distinguishing characteristic of the motet. And indeed, that genre was the source of the idea, even as the motet itself was undergoing change in the fifteenth century, a change that implied a “lowering” of its style. What happened, in effect, was that the rigidly conceived, highly structured style if the isorhythmic motet—the “high style” or stylus gravis of the fourteenth century—passed from the motet into the domain of the cyclic Mass, which was potentially a kind of isorhythmic motet writ large, with five or so discrete sections replacing the multiple color-talea cursus of old.

All the characteristics thatmark a “high” style in the Ciceronian sense—weightiness, loftiness, nobility, vouchsafed by a highly rationalized, “artificial” idiom of “unnatural” intensity and complexity—became the property of the Mass, even as the motet loosened up under another strain of English influence to become more “naturally” declamatory, more personally expressive, more texturally flexible, thus assuming the position of a “middle” style. To appreciate this shift, keep Dunstable’s Quam pulchra es (Ex. 11-19) in mind as a “middle style” foil to accompany and contrast with the brief account that follows of Leonel’s Mass on Alma Redemptoris Mater.

The arbitrarily strict, the artificial, and the unnaturally formal—hallmarks of the high style—are very conspicuous in the fashioning and the treatment of Leonel’s cantus firmus. Ex. 12-2a shows Alma Redemptoris Mater as it is found in the Liber usualis, the modern chant book, with the major divisions as extracted by Leonel for the purposes of his Mass setting, amounting to roughly half of the original melody, indicated with bars and Roman numerals. These divisions do not conform at all to the given (text-based) structural divisions of the chant. The break between Leonel’s two major sections occurs in the middle of a ligature, and the end of the cantus firmus also comes in the middle of a word; nor is the last note of the cantus firmus even the final of the original melody’s mode.

Cantus Firmus as Trope of Glory

ex. 12-2a Alma Redemptoris Mater (eleventh-century Marian antiphon)

Thus there is no apparent rhyme or reason for Leonel’s selection or apportionment of his cantus firmus material. That is not to say that there was no reason, only that it is not readily apparent. Possible reasons might have involved numerology or some other form of occult symbolism, or might have had some other connection with musica speculativa. Sometimes modern researchers stumble on these things, and sometimes they don’t. In any case, the absence of an apparent rationale is not proof of the absence of a rationale. Nor is it proof of the presence of a rationale. Sherlock Holmes and his famous dog that failed to bark in the night notwithstanding, one can rarely make secure deductions from an absence. (It follows, then, that we can never know that a given piece of music has no preexisting cantus firmus; all we can know is that we have not yet discovered one.)

What is possible to say with certainty is that, whatever the reason for it, Leonel’s selection and apportionment of raw material for his cantus firmus was entirely arbitrary (that is, “at will”), unrelated to the formal or semantic content of the antiphon from which it came. Similarly arbitrary is the processing of the raw material. Ex. 12-2b shows the actual tenor of Leonel’s Mass in its entirety and in the original notation. The two sections marked I and II are cast in contrasting mensurations. (The first section, in accordance with an English custom for the use of major-prolation signatures in notating tenors that a few continental composers picked up, is meant to be performed “in augmentation,” that is, in durations twice as long as those written.) The rhythms show an effort to include maximum variety. There is a profuse and unpredictable mixture of note values, including such standard options as hemiolas in the first (perfect) section and syncopations in the second (imperfect) one.

Cantus Firmus as Trope of Glory

ex. 12-2b Tenor of Leonel Power’s Mass on Alma Redemptoris Mater

Once established, this arbitrary color/talea combo was cast in stone. It serves as the basis for all four extant sections of the Mass, without the slightest modification. This, of course, is the isorhythmic principle (though in somewhat simplified form, since the color and talea match up one to one), extended over a multipartite span that unifies the whole worship service. “Higher” than that one could hardly aim.

The beginnings of Leonel’s Gloria and Sanctus are given for comparison in Ex. 12-3. The only difference between them, so far as the tenor is concerned, consists of the little “introitus” that precedes the first tenor entrance in the Sanctus. This, too, is arbitrary and counter-intuitive, since the Gloria has by far the longer text, and could benefit practically from the use of an introitus to take up some of the verbiage. Clearly, the introitus to the Sanctus serves an ornamental rather than a functional purpose, possibly in keeping with the fact, often exploited by composers of Masses, that the Sanctus is supposed to be an imitation of the heavenly choirs.

More important than the small difference is the overall uniformity. Two liturgical texts, with inherent shapes that have practically nothing in common, have been forced into a musical conformity. Owing to the uniform tenor, moreover, the two sections take the same amount of time. It means, of course, that the Sanctus text is stretched out in luxurious melismas and the Gloria text is crammed in as if with a shoehorn. But the fixed bipartite musical format prevails, and became standardized over time, both for Mass sections and for many motets.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012004.xml