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Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century


CHAPTER 13 Middle and Low
Richard Taruskin

The word canto (“song”), as used by Petrucci in his titles, refers specifically, if paradoxically, to something that was not sung—namely, textless, instrumental items of chamber music. The usage was in fact common at the time; in the Glogauer Liederbuch and other German sources, the Latin equivalent of Petrucci’s Italian word—carmen (plural carmina)—was used in the same meaning: an instrumental piece based on, or in the style of, a song: a “song without words.”

The actual chanson arrangement was, by Petrucci’s time, only one kind of carmen (to adopt, as less confusing, the Latin term for our descriptive purposes). Another, equally popular kind consisted of tenor tacet subsections extracted from Masses and motets, sometimes identified as such, more often not. The tenor tacet piece, we may recall, was the hotbed of pervading imitation—a “purely musical” sort of patterning if ever there was one, which could sustain a “purely musical” listener’s interest. One famous example, published in Petrucci’s Odhecaton and found in many manuscripts as well, was a Benedictus by Isaac (Ex. 13-18). It came from a Mass based on the tenor of Busnoys’s chanson Quant j’ay au cuer (“Since I hold in my heart…”) that was probably meant for Marian feasts and votive observances. The tenorless Benedictus contains no hint of the cantus firmus, however. Its emphasis on pure patterning pleasure, as well as its floridity, conspired to make it appear a very paradigm of “instrumental style” in the opinion of modern scholars—until, that is, the Mass from which it was extracted was discovered and notions of “instrumental” vs. “vocal” style had to be radically revised.

“Songs” Without Words“Songs” Without Words

ex. 13-18 Henricus Isaac, Benedictus from Missa Quant j’ay au cuer, as it appears (without text) in Petrucci’s Odhecaton

The final stage, of course, consisted of specially composed songs-without-words in a style adapted from those of chanson arrangements and tenor tacet sections, but without preexisting material. Such pieces amounted to the earliest repertoire of “abstractly” conceived chamber music, intended for an audience of playing and listening connoisseurs. The earliest important contributors to this genre were the same composers already encountered in connection with the chanson arrangement. The most prolific was Henricus Isaac (d. 1517), a Fleming who worked in Florence, later at the Austrian court of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The runners-up were Martini, Josquin des Prez, and Alexander Agricola (d. 1506), who wrote his share of Masses, motets, and songs for the courts and churches of France and Italy, but whose chief claim to fame was a whole raft of carmina that eventually found their way to the commercial presses of Petrucci, including (to give an idea of his fertility) no fewer than six instrumental arrangements of De tous biens plaine. Agricola also wrote carmina in the more modern imitative style, free (as far as anyone knows) of borrowed material.

Ex. 13-19 shows the beginnings of two late fifteenth-century carmina of the latter type—original carmina without known prototype. Both have significant titles. La Alfonsina (13-19a), from Petrucci’s Odhecaton, was the work of Johannes Ghiselin (alias Verbonnet), a Picard or northern French composer who worked in Italy alongside Obrecht and Josquin at the court of Ferrara. The title translates as “Alfonso’s little piece,” after the composer’s patron, Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (and husband of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia).

A similar piece by Josquin in Petrucci’s Canti C is called La Bernardina (“Bernardo’s little piece”). Giving carmina the names of people was a handy way of getting around the problem of what to call a piece in this “purposeless” genre, and could be applied to producers as well as consumers. One of Martini’s best-disseminated pieces of this kind (found in a dozen manuscripts, including the Glogauer Liederbuch) was called La Martinella (“Martini’s little piece”). Somewhat later, Ludwig Sennfl (ca. 1486–ca. 1543), a Swiss-German pupil of Isaac, identified a few of his carmina by naming their finals: Carmen in la (“Song in A”), Carmen in re (“Song in D”), and the like, anticipating the practice of identifying abstract or “functionless” instrumental music by naming its key (“Sonata in A major,” “Symphony in D minor”).

La Alfonsina and other pieces of its type were in essence a kind of souped-up version of (or “answer” to) Isaac’s Benedictus. The opening point of imitation in La Alfonsina is a veritable rewrite of Isaac’s, disguised (or rather, displayed) by reversing the order of its constituent phrases. The brisk minim motion that came in the middle of Isaac’s opening “theme” now comes at the beginning, and it is carried through the entire rising octave for additional virtuoso verve. The attractive passage near the end of the Benedictus in which the tenor sings florid sequences against the sustained parallel tenths of the outer voices is mirrored in Ghiselin’s piece near the middle: two parts cast in imitative sequences against one part, the superius, cast in descending dotted longs that crosscut the prevailing meter. Ghiselin adroitly tightens things up into a pair of strettos (points of imitation at a reduced time lag and with overlapping entries) in conclusion. It is a brilliant little piece.

“Songs” Without Words

ex. 13-19a Johannes Ghiselin, La Alfonsina, mm. 1-19

Ile fantazies de Joskin (Ex. 13-19b) is found in a manuscript thought to contain the repertoire of the ducal wind band (or alta, “loud ensemble”) at Ferrara. Like most pieces of its type (or of its parent types) it fluctuates between pervasive and structural imitation, with fanfare-like strettos reflecting the probable medium of performance (sackbuts or trombones and double-reed instruments called shawms or bombards, depending on range).

“Songs” Without Words

ex. 13-19b Josquin des Prez, Ile fantazies de Joskin, mm. 1-12

The significance of the title is in the use of the word fantazie (fantasia). The word has had several musical meanings. The earliest one was a textless musical theme or idea, something produced out of imagination rather than on the basis of an earlier authority like a cantus firmus. Later the word came to denote an instrumental composition in a systematically imitative style. (Still later it came to denote a demonstratively “free-form” composition, ruled by imagination rather than strict formal procedure.) Josquin’s little piece, probably composed around 1480, links the first meaning with the second. The transfer of imitative texture to the instrumental medium was the real signal of its ascendancy. It was now polyphony’s basic modus operandi, and so it would remain throughout the sixteenth century, which might appropriately be called the century of imitative polyphony. In any case, as we are about to see, the perfection of imitative polyphony in the sixteenth century meant for contemporary musicians the perfection of the art of music itself.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Middle and Low." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013009.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013009.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 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-013009.xml