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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 12 Emblems and Dynasties
Richard Taruskin

The direct adoption from the English of the cyclic Mass as the standard “high” genre, and the way the “Tinctoris generation” of continental musicians further developed all its compositional techniques, can be illustrated with a trio of Masses all based on the same cantus firmus melody: a grandiose neuma or supermelisma on caput (“head”), the concluding word of an antiphon, Venit ad Petrum (“He came to Peter”), that was sung at Salisbury Cathedral for the ceremony of “washing the feet” on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week preceding Easter. “Do not wash only my feet, but also my hands and my head,” said Peter to Jesus in the Gospel according to John, in a line that became the antiphon that begat the Masses.

Sometime around 1440, an anonymous English composer (whose anonymity does not preclude his being a well-known personage) turned this magnificent melisma into a cantus firmus by following the procedures described above and produced a Mass similar in principle to Leonel’s Alma Redemptoris Mater Mass, but much, much grander in scale. The vastness of the conception suggests no mere chapel votive service but a cathedral Mass attended by dignitaries and magnates in force (precisely the kind of stellar occasion, in short, for which isorhythmic motets used to serve).

As in Leonel’s Mass, the cantus firmus of one “movement” is (with minor variables like rests between phrases) the cantus firmus of all. Each “movement” has the same overall bipartite structure articulated through the same contrast of perfect and imperfect mensurations. But each mensuration governs a full statement of the enormous cantus firmus, so that each “movement” embodies a double cursus of what is already a very lengthy melody. So this Mass would be twice as long as Leonel’s even if the apparently missing (and probably heavily trooped) Kyrie from Leonel’s Mass were restored.

“Caput” and the Beginnings of Four-Part Harmony

fig. 12-5 Salisbury Cathedral, home of the Sarum chant, the repertoire that included the Caput melisma.

In fact it is surely more than twice as long, because the “ideal” structure of this or any cyclic Mass (that is, the structure as composed) is not necessarily the same as its practical structure (the structure as performed). The two sections of the Kyrie from the Caput Mass are composed—”Kyrie” in perfect time and “Christe” in imperfect—to satisfy the requirements of its structural plan. But they do not satisfy the requirements of the liturgy. In the actual liturgical performance of any Mass the words “Kyrie eleison” must be repeated following the words “Christe eleison”; and so we may assume that in the liturgical performance of this Mass, either the missing words were shoehorned into the “Christe,” or the first section was performed da capo in order to complete the liturgical text.

But however impressive, length is not the most important dimension in which the Missa Caput has been magnified over and above its predecessors. More significant by far, historically speaking, is the amplification of the texture. The complement of voices has been increased to four—and that number of voices, in precisely the configuration found in this Mass, became the norm for a century or more of intense Mass Ordinary composition. Once something becomes normal it is quickly taken for granted; so let us seize this moment, while things we have long since taken for granted are still in the process of being formed, to witness the birth of “four-part harmony.”

“Caput” and the Beginnings of Four-Part Harmony

ex. 12-4a Missa Caput, Kyrie (sung with prosulas), mm. 11–25

“Caput” and the Beginnings of Four-Part Harmony

ex. 12-4b The Caput melisma

The Caput tenor is an unusually high-lying chant, making repeated ascents to the G that in the old eight-mode system was the highest theoretically recognized “scale note” of all. The original melisma is given in Ex. 12-4b for comparison with the tenor of the Kyrie, a portion of which is shown in Ex. 12-4a. The tenor’s high tessitura puts it in a range far closer to, and apter to cross with, the contratenor above it than the “second tenor” below. Indeed, at its peaks it even crosses the cantus at times—sometimes quite dramatically, as when it makes its first ascent to the high G (m. 15) while the second tenor descends to its lowest note to put a maximum distance of a twelfth between the two parts that in earlier music used to cross so freely.

Although the sources that include the anonymous Caput Mass retain the nomenclature of voice-parts with which we are familiar, scribes in the mid-fifteenth century responded to the newly standardized, newly stratified four-part texture by adopting a new nomenclature, as shall we from now on. The now-obligatory voice that stays consistently below the tenor, like the more accustomed “nonessential” voice above it, was now thought of as a second contratenor—a voice written against the tenor and (functionally if not literally) “after” it—rather than a second tenor. To distinguish the two contratenors, one was called “high” (altus) and the other “low” (bassus).

No one reading this who has ever sung in a chorus will fail to appreciate the significance of this new nomenclature. The term contratenor altus metamorphosed into the Italian contralto, and contratenor bassus into contrabasso—terms that have long since been anglicized as “alto” and “bass.” Moreover, once the word “high” became standard for a voice that was not in fact the highest one singing, the highest voice (till now the cantus or the triplum) became known as the “top voice”—superius, from which the word soprano is derived. And now we have our full familiar range of voice parts—soprano, alto, tenor, bass (SATB)—and can see how the word tenor, originally the “holding part” (which, in cantus firmus Masses, it still was), acquired the meaning that has since become standard: a high male range. (For that meaning to become primary, of course, a further major change was required—one that was still some centuries away: the substitution of mixed choirs for the all-male schola of the pre-Reformation Christian church.)

Now that both the range and the term for it have been established, let us take a close look at the bassus voice in Ex. 12-4a. It occupies a pitch space all its own and behaves in a new harmony-defining way. Like that of any contratenor, its movement tends to be disjunct—by skips—and it has a newly standardized role at cadences.

A cadence, we may recall, is defined theoretically as stepwise movement, by the “structural pair” (cantus and tenor), in contrary motion from an imperfect to a perfect consonance. That criterion is of course met here—and the original chant melisma is given in Ex. 12-4b just to show how the cantus firmus had to be modified at the ends of both its cursus in order to secure for the tenor a stepwise, properly “cadential” fall to the final. At the final cadences, both of the Kyrie and of the Christe, an A is interpolated in the tenor before the final to correspond with the subtonium F in the superius, preparing the cadence on G. The two voices make their resolutions in contrary motion, and that is the essential cadence (Ex. 12-4c).

“Caput” and the Beginnings of Four-Part Harmony

ex. 12-4c Missa Caput, Kyrie (sung with prosulas), mm. 50-52

Anyone who has studied counterpoint knows that the only way two additional voices can be added to the “imperfect” part of this cadence that will be both consonant with the structural pair and independent of it (in the sense that they will not be forced to double the “essential motion” of either cantus or tenor at the cadence) is to have them both sing D. At the resolution of the cadence the D above the tenor remains stationary, and the D below goes the only place it can—to G, doubling the tenor either at the same pitch or an octave below, depending on the available range. Because this cadence reinforces the effect of the tenor’s descent to the final from above, it emphasizes the “authentic” modal ambitus and has a particularly forceful closing effect. It is conventionally called the “authentic cadence,” probably because of its modal associations (but as with many terms in current, unambiguous and informal parlance, its etymology has not been researched, and its pedigree is uncertain).

At any rate, the progression in the bass, from the fifth scale degree (supporting the two “essential” pre-final tones) to the final, is congruent with what we are accustomed to calling a V -I or dominant - tonic progression. To call it that is to think of the motion of the lowest part as the essential cadential approach, and to associate the gesture toward closure with the “dominant” harmony. The question for historians is at what point such a way of conceptualizing cadences becomes justified (or to put it less prescriptively, at what point such a conceptualization matches that of contemporaneous musicians and listeners).

However they were conceptualized, such an approach and such a harmony were perceptually a part of virtually every final cadence from the mid-fifteenth century on. They admitted considerable variation from the beginning. For an idea of the possibilities, compare the lineup, in Ex. 12-5, of all the remaining sectional cadences in the Caput Mass (two per “movement”). In Ex. 12-5a and Ex. b, from the Gloria, both the superius and the altus are decorated with “Landini sixths,” producing pungent dissonances right before the resolution. A variation of the same configuration occurs at the end of the Credo (Ex. 12-5d), where the superius again has the Landini sixth but the altus has a simple lower neighbor, producing not a sixth but a seventh (the first “dominant seventh”?) above the bass.

Example 12-5g, from the Agnus Dei, is especially interesting since the bassus is modified so that the final chord is a richly sonorous full triad. Both the avoidance of the fifth progression in the bass and the presence of the third in the final chord, however, are justified by the fact that the chord in question is not actually a final chord. It is a sectional cadence only, immediately followed by the continuation of the Agnus Dei. The final cadence of the Agnus, Ex. 12-5h, returns to the concord of perfect consonances. The presence of an imperfect consonance in a final chord would not normally be countenanced in strictly composed polyphonic music (whatever may have gone on behind the closed doors of the oral tradition) until nearly the end of the next century.

“Caput” and the Beginnings of Four-Part Harmony

ex. 12-5 Missa Caput a. middle of Gloria b. end of Gloria c. middle of Credo d. end of Credo e. middle of Sanctus f. end of Sanctus g. middle of Agnus Dei h. end of Agnus Dei

As long as the perfect concord was required at full cadences, the theorists, our only direct witnesses to contemporary concepts, went on calling the superius/tenor motion the essential cadential motion, with the V-I in the bassus beneath playing a no more than a contrapuntally mandated supporting role. Just as surely, however, by the middle of the seventeenth century the dominant-tonic cadence, articulated by the V-I bass, was fully conceptualized and had become for contemporary musicians the primary means of defining harmonic closure, as it remains for us today (that is, in our practiced habits of “hearing”). Over the two centuries between 1450 and 1650, in other words, a gradual conceptual change took place in the wake of a new perceptual reality. Roughly speaking, it was the change from “modal” to “tonal” thinking.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 Emblems and Dynasties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012005.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012005.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 21 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-012005.xml