Chapter 6. French and Italian Music in the Fourteenth Century

Chapter Outline



After the comparative stability of the thirteenth century, the fourteenth saw disruption and turmoil. The economy and population of western Europe declined, ravaged by famine, war, and plague. Conflicts and scandals tarnished the Church, and revolts challenged secular authorities. Yet the fourteenth century was also a period of remarkable creativity. The desire to understand and control nature spurred advances in science and technology, and an increasing interest in the world, the individual, and human nature led to art and literature that was more true to life and more eager to please its audience. The elite music of the time is characterized by an interplay between structure and pleasure, the former evident in the rhythmic and melodic patterning known as isorhythm and in standardized forms for secular song, and the latter in engaging melodies, chromatic inflections, more frequent imperfect consonances, and new possibilities in rhythm and meter. 

Chapter Outline: 

  1. European Society in the Fourteenth Century
    1. Conditions were more difficult for Europeans than in the thirteenth century.
      1. Cooler weather reduced agricultural production.
      2. Floods caused famines in northwestern Europe.
      3. The Black Death (bubonic and pneumonic plagues) killed a third of Europe’s population from 1347-50.
        1. Victims died in agony within days of contracting the plague.
        2. Survivors often fled Europe’s cities.
      4. Frequent wars, especially the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between France and England, strained the economy.
    2. A division of the Church, with one pope in Rome and one in Avignon (France) for most of the fourteenth century, led to criticism of the church.
      1. King Philip IV (the Fair) of France engineered the election of a French pope, who resided in Avignon rather than Rome.
      2. During the Great Schism of 1378-1417 there were two claimants to the papacy, one in Avignon and one in Rome.
      3. Clergy were often corrupt, which drew criticism.
    3. Science and secularism
      1. Philosophers such as William of Ockham (ca. 1285-1349) and his followers believed that knowledge of nature and of humanity should rest on experience of the senses.
      2. An emphasis on natural explanations rather than supernatural ones led to increasing secularization.
      3. New technologies, such as eyeglasses, mechanical clocks, and the magnetic compass, changed society’s perceptions.
    4. The arts
      1. More naturalistic style in art (see HWM Figure 6.1)
      2. Increased literacy led to more literature in the vernacular.
        1. Dante Alighieri and Boccacio in Italian
        2. Geoffrey Chaucer in English
      3. In music, there was an increase in attention to secular song, though sacred music continued to be composed.
    5. The Roman de Fauvel (Story of Fauvel) captured the spirit of the turn of the century.
      1. Allegorical poem that satirizes corrupt politicians and church officials
      2. Fauvel is the central character.
        1. The name is an anagram for Flattery, Avarice, Villainy (“u” and “v” were interchangeable), Variété (fickleness), Envy, and Lâcheté (cowardice).
        2. Fauvel is a horse that rises to a powerful position, symbolizing a world turned upside down.
        3. He marries and produces offspring who destroy the world.
        4. One manuscript (HWM Figure 6.2) contains 169 pieces of music interpolated within the poem, including some of the first examples in the new style, the Ars Nova.
  2. The Ars Nova in France
    1. Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
      1. The term ars nova comes from the final words of a treatise attributed to de Vitry, written ca. 1320: “this completes the Ars nova of Magister Philippe de Vitry.”
      2. Poet, composer, church canon, and administrator for a duke, king and bishop
      3. Aside from the treatise, he is named in another source as the “inventor of a new art” (Ars Nova).
    2. Ars Nova innovations in the notation of rhythm (see HWM Innovations: Writing Rhythm, pages 122-23)
      1. Both duple and triple division of note values possible for the first time
      2. Division of the semibreve into smaller note values called minims
      3. Conservative writers (see HWM Source Reading on Jacques de Li�ge, page 121) criticized the new ways, especially “perfection brought low [and] imperfection is exalted,” i.e., the use of duple division.
      4. Noteshapes retained their value regardless of their context (unlike Franconian notation), making syncopation possible.
      5. By the end of the century, mensurations signs indicated divisions of time and prolation.
        1. Time was indicated with a complete or incomplete circle.
        2. Prolation was indicated by the presence or absence of a dot.
        3. Imperfect time with imperfect prolation came down to us as the sign for 4/4 meter.
      6. After a few additional modifications in the Renaissance, this system developed into the one we use today.
    3. Isorhythm
      1. Motets by Philippe de Vitry are among the earliest musical works to employ developments of the Ars Nova, including isorhythm.
      2. The tenor is laid out in segments of identical rhythm.
        1. Thirteenth-century motets often employed short repeating patterns in the tenor.
        2. In the fourteenth century, the tenor pattern was longer and more complex.
        3. The slow pace of the tenor makes it less a melody and more of a foundational structure.
        4. The melody is called the color and may repeat, but not necessarily with the rhythm.
        5. The rhythmic pattern is called the talea.
      3. NAWM 24 In arboris/Tuba sacre fidei/Virgo sum, attributed to Vitry
        1. The tenor includes two statements of the color (HWM Example 6.1).
        2. The color statements include three repetitions of the talea.
        3. Red ink (coloration) marks a change of meter from duple to triple division of the long.
        4. The upper voices are isorhythmic during the duple sections of the tenor (HWM Example 6.2).
      4. Hocket technique (HWM Example 6.2)
        1. Two voices alternating in rapid succession, each resting while the other sounds.
        2. The device was developed in the thirteenth century.
        3. In the fourteenth century, the technique often marks a repetition of the talea in the tenor.
        4. Pieces that use the technique exclusively are called hockets and could be performed by voices or instruments.
      5. Harmonic practice
        1. TGreater prominence of imperfect consonances
        2. Cadences required perfect consonances, but their resolution could be sustained (e.g., HWM Example 6.2a, measures 25-28).
        3. Parallel octaves and fifths continued to be used.
  3. Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377, see biography, page 127, and HWM Figure 6.6)
    1. Biography
      1. The leading composer of the French Ars Nova
      2. Born in northeastern France, probably to a middle-class family
      3. Educated as a cleric and took Holy Orders
      4. Ca. 1323-1340, worked as secretary for John of Luxembourg, King of Bohemia, accompanying the king on his travels
      5. Resided in Reims after 1340, with time to write poetry and music despite his position as canon of the cathedral there
      6. Royal patrons supported him, including the kings of Navarre and France.
      7. First composer to compile his complete works and to discuss his working method
        1. He paid for the preparation of several illuminated manuscripts of his works.
        2. He wrote his poems first, then the music.
        3. He was happiest when the music was sweet and pleasing.
      8. He composed many major musical works and numerous narrative poems.
    2. Motets
      1. Twenty-three motets, most from early in his career
      2. Twenty are isorhythmic, three of which use secular songs as tenors
      3. Often include hockets
      4. Four four-voice motets
    3. Messe de Notre Dame (Mass of Our Lady)
      1. Probably the earliest polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary to be composed by a single composer and conceived as a unit
        1. In the fourteenth century, anonymous composers in France, England, and Italy set individual movements polyphonically.
        2. A few cycles were assembled from individual movements.
      2. Composed for the cathedral in Reims
        1. Performed at a Mass for the Virgin Mary celebrated every Saturday
        2. After Machaut’s death, an oration for Machaut’s soul was added to the service.
        3. It continued to be performed there until the fifteenth century.
      3. Unifying devices
        1. Recurring motives
        2. Tonal focus on D in the first three movements and on F in the last three
        3. All six movements are for four voices, including a contratenor (against the tenor) that moves in the same range as the tenor.
      4. Isorhythmic movements (NAWM 25 and HWM Example 6.3)
        1. Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite, missa est are isorhythmic.
        2. In the opening of the Christe section, the upper two voices are partly isorhythmic.
        3. Rhythmic repetition in the upper voices makes the recurring talea easier to hear.
      5. Elements of Machaut’s style in the Christe
        1. Sustained notes contrast with lively rhythms.
        2. Repeating figuration generates rhythmic activity (HWM Example 6.3).
      6. Conductus style movements
        1. The Gloria and Credo are syllabic and largely homorhythmic.
        2. Sustained chords emphasize important words, e.g., Jesu Christe and ex Maria Virgine.
    4. Monophonic songs in the trouvère tradition
      1. Lais (similar in form to the sequence)
        1. Fifteen monophonic
        2. Four with polyphony
      2. Virelais
        1. One of the three formes fixes (fixed forms)
        2. Refrain form with stanzas using new material as well as refrain music
        3. Typical form is A bba A bba A bba A
        4. Three stanzas typical
        5. The number of poetic lines for each section of music varied.
        6. Most of Machaut’s virelais are monophonic, but eight are polyphonic.
    5. Polyphonic songs (chansons, “songs”) in the formes fixes
      1. The formes fixes were originally genres for dancing.
        1. Machaut’s monophonic virelais could be used for dancing (see HWM Figure 6.8).
        2. Refrains were typical of dance genres.
        3. The texts of the stanzas sometimes invested the words of the refrain with new meaning.
      2. Treble-dominated songs were a major innovation of the Ars Nova period.
        1. The treble or cantus carries the text
        2. A slower-moving, untexted tenor supports the cantus.
        3. A contratenor may be added.
      3. Machaut sometimes wrote a triplum in the same range and style as the cantus.
      4. Ballades
        1. Three stanzas, each sung to the same music and ending with the same line of poetry
        2. The musical form of the stanza resembles bar form (AAB)
        3. The ending of the B section sometimes has the same music as the end of the A.
        4. Machaut composed ballades for two, three, and four voices.
        5. Later composers continued to use the form (e.g., Du Fay, HWM Chapter 8).
      5. Rondeaux
        1. Two musical phrases and a refrain
        2. Form: AbaAabAB
        3. Most are for solo voice with accompanying tenor or tenor and contratenor.
        4. NAWM 26 Rose, liz, printemps, verdure has a fourth voice, probably added later.
      6. Typical Machaut characteristics
        1. Varied rhythms, including supple syncopations
        2. Stepwise melody
        3. Long melismas fall on structural points.
    6. Machaut’s poetry influenced other poets, including Chaucer.
  4. The Ars Subtilior
    1. Composers at the court of the Avignon pope, across southern France, and throughout northern Italy cultivated complex secular music.
    2. Continuation of Ars Nova traditions
      1. Polyphonic songs in the formes fixes
      2. Notation of duple and triple meter using coloration
      3. Pieces notated in fanciful shapes, as in HWM Figure 6.9
      4. Love songs intended for an elite audience
    3. Rhythmic complexity
      1. Complexity to an extent not known again until the twentieth century
      2. Voices in contrasting meters and conflicting groupings
      3. Harmonies purposely blurred through rhythmic disjunction
    4. Sus un fontayne (NAWM 27, HWM Example 6.5) by Johannes Ciconia (ca. 1370-1412)
      1. A virelai composed for Ciconia’s patron in Padua, Italy.
      2. The top voice (cantus) carries the main melody.
      3. The three voices move in different meters.
      4. Longer melismas than in Machaut’s chansons, with a few sustained sonorities as guideposts
      5. Each phrase has a distinctive rhythmic profile.
      6. Modern performance of the tenor and contratenor can be either vocal or instrumental.
  5. Italian Trecento Music (from mille trecento, Italian for “1300”)
    1. Italy was a collection of city-states, not unified as France was.
      1. Several city-states cultivated secular polyphony.
      2. Florence, Bologna, Padua, Modena, Milan, and Perugia were the main centers for secular polyphony.
      3. Church polyphony was mostly improvised, but a few notated works have survived.
      4. Boccacio’s Decameron describes music in social life (see HMW Source Reading, page 135)
    2. Italian notation differed from French Ars Nova notation.
      1. Breves could be divided into two to twelve equal semibreves.
      2. Groupings of semibreves are marked off by dots (akin to the modern bar line).
    3. Squarcialupi Codex (copied about 1410-15)
      1. One of the main sources for Italian secular polyphony from pre-1330
      2. Named for a former owner
      3. 354 pieces, grouped by composer, with a portrait of each composer at the beginning of the section containing his works (see HWM Figure 6.10)
    4. Fourteenth-century madrigal (not related to the sixteenth-century madrigal)
      1. Song for two or three voices without instrumental accompaniment
      2. All voices sing the same text.
      3. Subjects: love, satire, pastoral life
      4. Form
        1. Each stanza set to the same music.
        2. Ritornello (Italian for “refrain”), a closing pair of lines, set to different music in a different meter
      5. NAWM 28, Fenice f� by Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-1386)
        1. The two voices are relatively equal.
        2. The last accented syllable of each poetic line is set with a long, florid melisma.
    5. Caccia (Italian, “hunt”)
      1. Similar to the French chace (French for “hunt”), a popular-style melody set in strict canon with lively, descriptive words
      2. Popular from 1345-1370
      3. Two voices in canon at the unison with an untexted tenor
      4. Sometimes the text plays on the concept of a hunt, e.g., NAWM 29, Tosto che l’alba by Ghirardello da Firenze.
        1. Imitations of hunting horns
        2. High-spirited and comic
      5. Other texts concern pastoral settings, battles, or a dialogue.
      6. Some caccias end with a hocket or echo effects between the voices.
    6. Ballata
      1. Popular later than the madrigal and caccia (after 1365)
      2. Influenced by the treble-dominated French chanson
      3. The form is AbbaA, like a single stanza of a French virelai.
        1. The ripresa (refrain) is sung before and after a stanza.
        2. The stanza consists of two piedi (feet) and the volta, the closing line sung to the music of the ripresa.
    7. Francesco Landini (ca. 1325-1397, see biography, page 139, and HWM Figure 6.12)
      1. Biography
        1. He was blind from boyhood.
        2. He played many instruments but was a virtuoso on the small organ (organetto).
        3. Worked for a monastery and a church but composed mainly secular ballate
          • 89 two-part ballate
          • 42 three-part ballate
          • Nine surviving in both two- and three-part versions
      2. NAWM 29 Non avrà ma’ pietà
        1. Sonorities containing thirds and sixths are plentiful, though never at the beginning or end of a section.
        2. Arching melodies that are smoother than Machaut’s melodies despite syncopation
        3. Melismas on the first and penultimate syllables of a poetic line (characteristic of the Italian style)
      3. Under-third cadence, typical of Trecento music
        1. The upper voice descends a step before leaping a third to the octave resolution with the tenor.
        2. Called the Landini cadence, though it is common in both Italian and French music
      4. French influence overtook the Italian style at the end of the century.
  6. Fourteenth-Century Music in Performance
    1. There was no uniform way to perform polyphonic music.
      1. Pictorial and literary sources indicate vocal, instrumental, and mixed groups.
      2. Purely vocal performance was most common.
      3. HWM Figure 6.13 shows a singer accompanied by an organist.
    2. Instruments
      1. Haut (“high”) instruments were loud, for outdoor entertainment and dancing.
        1. Cornetts (wooden instruments with finger holes and brass-type mouthpieces)
        2. Trumpets
        3. Shawms
      2. Bas (“low”) instruments were soft in volume.
        1. Stringed instruments such as harps, lutes, and vielles
        2. Portative organs
        3. Transverse flutes and recorders
      3. Percussion instruments were common in all kinds of ensembles.
    3. Keyboard instruments
      1. Portative and positive organs were common in secular music (see HWM Figure 6.10).
      2. Large organs began to be installed in German churches.
    4. Instrumental music
      1. Instruments played vocal music.
      2. Instrumental dance music was likely memorized or improvised.
      3. Fifteen istampitas survive.
  7. Musica Ficta: Chromatic Alterations
    1. Raising or lowering a note by a half-step to avoid a tritone
    2. Pitches could also be altered to make a smoother melodic line.
    3. The resulting pitches lay outside the gamut and were thus false, or ficta.
    4. Often used at cadences
      1. To make the sixth preceding an octave a major sixth rather than minor
      2. In three-voice pieces, both upper voices could be raised for a double leading-tone cadence.
    5. Singers were trained to recognize situations in which a pitch needed alteration, so the accidentals were rarely notated. (Modern editions put these accidentals above the staff.)

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