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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin
Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at LastInstrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-14 J’ay pris amours (anonymous rondeau)

The elegantly crafted J’ay pris amours seems the perfect late fifteenth-century chanson, and so it was evidently regarded at the time. Its popularity was something phenomenal, to judge by the usual standards of wide dissemination and emblematic or emulatory recycling in later music—so phenomenal, in fact, that its present-day status as an anonymous composition is something of a phenomenon in itself. Its nearest rival for favor was De tous biens plaine (“Full of all good things”), by the Burgundian court composer Hayne van Ghizeghem, whose surviving output consists entirely of rondeaux. Like J’ay pris amours, Hayne’s song was appropriated as a Marian emblem for cantus-firmus Masses and motets, including a famous motet by Compère that translated the opening words into Latin (omnium bonorum plena), addressed them directly to the Virgin, and called down her blessings on a whole honor roll of French and Flemish musicians.

J’ay pris amours is conceivably another song by Hayne, or one by his Burgundian colleague Busnoys, but any of the leading French-speaking composers of their generation would be a plausible candidate. Despite the song’s anonymous status, its quality leaves little doubt that its composer was a major figure. The opening phrase, in a manner that became increasingly popular (possibly as a result of this very song’s success), starts with a motto or devise, just as the text says: a five-note phrase, very strongly profiled in rhythm and contour, that is set off from what follows by a short rest.

It is set off in another way as well, since it is held immune from the systematic “structural imitation” that unifies the rest of the song. Starting with the second phrase, the superius and tenor move in pretty strict imitation at the octave, with occasional freer imitation at the fifth (as in mm. 8–10—the kind of thing one calls a “tonal answer” in a fugue), and with one ingenious spot where the tenor recalls a prior motif from the superius (compare mm. 20–23 with mm. 3–4). Structural imitation briefly becomes pervasive in the final “point”: the phrase initiated by the superius in m. 23 is matched not only by the tenor, as expected, but also by the contratenor (end of m. 25).

The paramount historical significance of favorite songs like J’ay pris amours and De tous biens plaine lay in the later work they inspired, which led to a new genre, born in the late fifteenth century without precedent in the literate tradition, but probably reflecting the longstanding practice of virtuoso improvisers. In his treatise called “On the invention and use of music” (De inventione et usu musicae), Tinctoris described the work of “two blind Flemings,” obviously barred by their handicap from involvement in literate repertories, who nevertheless put their learned colleagues to shame with their flamboyant improvisations on standard tunes, reminiscent in Tinctoris’s description of jazz solos: “At Bruges I heard Charles take the treble and Jean the tenor in many songs, playing the fiddle (vielle) so expertly and with such charm that the fiddle has never pleased me so well.”5

That would have been in the writer’s youth, before he went south to serve the king of Naples. Could these blind brothers have been the same blind fiddlers that, according to Martin le Franc in Le champion des dames, astonished and abashed the court musicians of Burgundy, including Binchois and Du Fay, with their amazing virtuosity? Probably not; the one description relates to the 1430s, the other to the 1460s; but that only strengthens our impression that virtuoso fiddling on the trebles and tenors of familiar chansons had a long history before its earliest reflections in the written sources.

Three such early reflections are found in a manuscript now kept at the municipal library of Perugia in northern Italy. It is a compendium of music treatises, including one, called Regule de proportionibus (“Rules of proportions”), that contains dozens of little problem pieces, mainly in two parts, of which so many are known to be by Tinctoris himself that the assumption is inescapable that so are the rest. Each one introduces some new difficulty of notation, preparing the way for a three-part monster called Difficiles alios (translatable in this context as “The hardest ones of all”) that Bonnie J. Blackburn, its discoverer, wittily describes as “the musical equivalent of a bar examination,” having passed which one could claim the title of musicus—a fully trained musician.6

Three of the study-pieces on the way to the exam are textless duos in which one part consists of the superius of J’ay pris amours—a well-known tune whose familiarity makes it an effective “control”—and the other consists of a virtuosic counterpoint to it, after the fashion of those blind fiddlers’ teams described above. The difference, of course, is that Tinctoris’s duo is a proving ground for literate, rather than “oral” virtuosity—virtuosity not just in singing and playing per se but also in reading and using complicated notation. The easiest and most straightforward of the three duos is given in Ex. 13-15.

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-15 Instrumental duo on J’ay pris amours

From duos that test and display virtuoso reading skills it is but a step to untexted chanson arrangements that test and display virtuoso compositional skills—and a familiar step indeed, given the tradition of competitive compositional tours de force with which we have been acquainted since the thirteenth century. The one by Henricus Isaac whose beginning is given in Ex. 13-16a is found in a late fifteenth-century Florentine manuscript, and must therefore date from the composer’s period of service to the great Florentine Duke Lorenzo de’ Medici (“il Magnifico”). The original treble is preserved against a new and very florid tenor that may represent the type of brisk and airy counterpoint with which the itinerant Flemish fiddlers used to wow their audiences. The compositional tour de force, however, is in the contratenor, which Isaac has fashioned entirely out of repetitions and transpositions of the opening devise, the memorable five-note motto that distinguished the original tune.

An even more ambitious tour de force is the one whose beginning is shown in Ex. 13-16b, by Martini, found in the same Florentine manuscript. It consists of the original structural pair, the treble and tenor together, with their many intricate imitations and motivic interrelationships, accompanied by a new contratenor that runs against itself in strict canon at the unison, at a mere minim’s time lag. Needless to say, the original notation is in only three parts with a rubric denoting the canon, so that the piece turns into a tour de force for the reading musicians as well as the composer. There is another bizarre canonic arrangement of precisely this kind by Josquin, based on the superius and tenor of that other great hit, De tous biens plaine. Obviously, the two pieces represent a sort of informal competition (“If you can do it on De tous, I’ll do it on J’ay pris!”) between friendly rivals.

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-16a Henricus Isaac, J’ay pris amours, mm. 1-13

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-16b Johannes Martini, J’ay pris amours, mm. 1-4

Besides these, there is a J’ay pris amours setting by a minor contemporary of Martini and Josquin named Jean Japart in which the original superius is actually performed as the bassus, transposed down a twelfth and sung back to front (the rubric simply says Vade retro, Sathanas: “Get thee back[wards], O Satan”). There is one by Busnoys, titled J’ay pris amours tout au rebours (“I have taken love the wrong way round”), in which the original tenor is inverted, so that all its intervals are turned au rebours. There is one by Obrecht, clearly meant to be the chanson arrangement to end all chanson arrangements, in which the superius and tenor are each used as the cantus firmus twice, migrating systematically throughout a four-part texture. There is even an anonymous arrangement in which the treble of J’ay pris amours is shoehorned into counterpoint with the tenor of De tous biens plaine.

What was the purpose of all this beguiling ingenuity? Amusement for the composer? Yes, of course, but not only for the composer. There was an audience to sustain it, a public audience that was soon to become, in the classic economic sense, a “market.” The existence of that audience is attested by a new kind of musical text-source called a partbook: a volume, or rather a set of volumes, each of which contains a single part—superius, tenor, contratenor, etc.—from a polyphonic texture. The earliest set of partbooks is the so-called Glogauer Liederbuch (“Songbook from Glogau”), a set of three books compiled and copied in the late 1470s in or near the town of Glogau in Silesia, a border district between Germany and Poland, which has often changed hands between the two countries. (Glogau is now Glogów, Poland, and the partbooks now belong to the old Royal Library in Kraków.)

The Glogauer Liederbuch contains a huge miscellany of Latin-texted, German-texted, and textless compositions, with which, evidently, the retired canons and brothers at the local Augustinian monastery amused themselves in convivial singing and playing. That has been the chief use of partbooks ever since. Nowadays we associate them with what we call chamber music—string quartets and the like—a genre that, while by now thoroughly professionalized, began as a convivial one. The music in the Glogauer Liederbuch, whether texted or not, can be regarded as the earliest extant chamber music—for chamber music can be vocal as well as instrumental, if it involves an ensemble and if its primary or original purpose was convivial. The genre of vocal chamber music has more or less died out, but there was an enormous literature of it, attesting to an enormous market for it, in the sixteenth century. We will take a close look at it shortly.

For now, though, let us concentrate on the textless and (presumably) chiefly instrumental repertory. Significantly, the Glogauer Liederbuch contains no fewer than three textless arrangements of J’ay pris amours. They are not found elsewhere and are thus probably the work of local composers, which testifies all the more strongly to the widespreadness of the genre and its attendant practices. These arrangements are identified not by the original French words but by a German tag, Gross senen (“Great longing”).

Their beginnings are lined up for comparison in Ex. 13-17. The first consists of the original superius and tenor plus a new contratenor, placed, very unusually, in the topmost position. The other two are based on the original tenor only, accompanied by two new voices. In Ex. 13-17b, the tenor is in the traditional tenor position, in the middle. Ex. 13-17c replaces the contratenor bassus of Ex. 13-17b with a contratenor altus, retaining both the tenor and the superius of the previous arrangement. There is even a fourth Gross senen piece in the Glogauer Liederbuch, as shown in Ex. 13-17d. It is based on the superius of the preceding pair of arrangements and thus contains no original J’ay pris amours material at all, but is still demonstrably a part of the famous song’s tradition. It is not the musical child of J’ay pris amours, but its grandchild. The family resemblance can be discerned only by those who are familiar with the middle generation.

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-17 Gross senen (J’ay pris amours) settings from the Glogauer Liederbuch

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-17b Original tenor with two new voices

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-17c Superius and tenor of the preceding with a new contratenor

cf. (original tenor)

Instrumental Music Becomes Literate at Last

ex. 13-17d Superius of the preceding with two new voices

So the chanson arrangement (or Liedbearbeitung, as the composer(s) of the Gross senen pieces would have called it) was a very important genre historically. A few scattered predecessors aside (like the “vielle players’ In seculum” given in the Bamberg motet manuscript discussed in chapter 7), it was the earliest form of instrumental chamber music, in effect the earliest form of “functionless” or “autonomous” instrumental music.

The word “functionless” should not be misunderstood: obviously, everything that is used has its use. If the Glogauer chanson arrangements were played for recreation and enjoyed, then recreation and enjoyment were their function. But providing the occasion for active (players’) or passive (listeners’) enjoyment of sound patterns is a very different, far less utilitarian sort of function from marching or dancing or worship. It emphasizes leisure, contemplation, pleasure in sensuous diversion and abstract design—in a word, “esthetics.”

We are witnessing, in short, the earliest manifestation of the condition of “absolute” art or art-for-art’s-sake as defined a good three centuries later by the German thinkers who invented and named the philosophical category known formally as esthetics, or inquiry into the nature of the beautiful—particularly Immanuel Kant, who coined the phrase “purposeless purposiveness” (Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck) to capture its paradoxical fascination. Anybody who attends concerts and sits still, intently watching and listening while people on stage zealously hit skins with sticks, blow into brass tubes or cane reeds, and scrape horsehair over sheep gut, will know what purposeless purposiveness is all about without elaborate explanations, and the skin-hitters, tube-blowers, and gut-scrapers know best of all.

Of course the modern concept of “absolute music” is not completely or even accurately defined if we do not emphasize the supreme value placed on it as an art-experience since the nineteenth century. By contrast, the fifteenth-century forerunner, compared with a cyclic Mass or a motet or even with a texted courtly song, was of all genres the lowest and the lightest, mere fluff. And yet the leisured clerical senior citizens who sat around amusing themselves with the Glogauer Liederbuch in the last decades of the fifteenth century could nevertheless be described as the earliest literate “music lovers” in the modern, esthetic sense.


(5) Tinctoris, De inventione et usu musice (Naples: Nathias Moravus, ca. 1482), ed. K. Weinmann: Johannes Tinctoris und sein unbekannter Traktat ‘De inventione et usu musicae’ (Regensburg, 1917), p. 31.

(6) Bonnie J. Blackburn, “A Lost Guide to Tinctoris’s Teachings Recovered,” Early Music History I (1981): 45.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Middle and Low. In Oxford University Press, Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." In Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013007.xml