Performance Manuscripts from the Thirteenth Century?

October 1, 1986

Motets were one of the most important polyphonic art forms of the thirteenth century. Appropriate pieces were performed both in church and at court—as service music in the former and as chamber music in the latter.1 Several collections are extant that are devoted almost exclusively to the genre or that are comprised of a significant number of examples.2 These manuscripts were prepared in widely separated locations: modern day France (especially the Île de France), England, Spain, and Germany.

Little attention, however, has been focused on the function of these collections. Were they merely anthologies of an important and popular art form? Were they, then, merely compiled for purposes of display? Or were these manuscripts intended to be vehicles for performance? Indeed, were any of these collections prepared in such a way that performance from them was possible? The following discussion focuses on one thirteenth-century anthology of motets in order to present the types of evidence that would allow the formulation of hypothetical answers to the questions raised above.

The Bamberg codex (Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Lit. 115)3 is arranged as an anthology with explanatory notes and additional pieces appended to it. A significant counterpart of the Montpellier codex (Mo), the largest collection of motets compiled in the thirteenth century,4Ba contains one hundred alphabetically arranged double motets with two Latin or French texts, or one of each (fols. 1-62r), one conductus a 3 (fol. 62v), seven untexted polyphonic settings of Gregorian cantus firmi a 3, often regarded as instrumental motets (fols. 62v-64v), a musical treatise (fols. 65r-80r), and two two-voiced Latin motets (fol. 80r-v). The script and arrangement of material in the first division (fols. 1-64v) differ a great deal from that found in the second division (fols. 65r-80v), suggesting that the contents of the latter, the musical treatise and the two-voice motets, were added to Ba after the one hundred motets and eight additional pieces had been copied. The treatise may have been included to enable the "correct" interpretation of the rhythms in the motets. A recent study of the codex, the phonology of the texts in the forty-seven French double motets, and the rhythmic notation in the main body of motets indicates that the first division of the codex (fols. 1- 64v) was copied between ca. 1275 and 1300 in France—quite conceivably by a scribe trained in Paris.5 The second division of Ba was probably added to the manuscript in the fourteenth century.6

The features to be examined below include the arrangement, size, layout, and copying technique of the codex. The discussion concerning the last three elements refers to the initial motet section of the manuscript only (fols. 1-62r). This is the crucial portion of the collection that reflects interest in performance.

The alphabetical arrangement of the one hundred motets in Ba demonstrates an intentional order designed to make the location of a composition a relatively easy procedure. Motets appear grouped according to the letter with which the middle voice begins. Within each given alphabetical division, Latin pieces precede French ones.

Intentional organization is manifested as well in the folios on which the untexted compositions are copied (fols. 62v-64v). The scribe placed first those settings containing the least-known cantus firmi, then those with the best-known tenors.

The musical treatise, completed in 1271 by a theorist most often known as Amerus,7 functions clearly as an appendix to the codex as a whole. The single chapter of explanation about thirteenth-century rhythmic notation in the main section of the treatise and a further discussion of mensural practice in an addition apparently influenced a scribe to copy the entire work into Ba. The pieces on fol. 80 merely fill out the remaining space in the manuscript.

The size of the folios in Ba in and of itself creates the possibility of performance at sight by several participants. Indeed, the leaves are similar in size to two kinds of present-day musical sources, the choral octavo and church hymnal, if not prepared with the possibility that multiple performers might share one page, then certainly frequently used in that manner. In Ba the folios on which the one hundred double motets appear now measure 26.3 cm. × 18.6 cm. They apparently were trimmed before the present binding occurred, for many extensions of filigree on initials were cut off at the tops and bottoms of individual pages. The average size of a choral octavo is 26.2 cm. × 17.2 cm. and that of a church hymnal 20.7 cm. × 14.2 cm. (Example 1).8


Example 1. Comparison of Selected Medieval Motet Manuscript Sources.


Manuscript Sigla Measurements
26.3 × 18.6 cm.
26.2 × 18.4 cm.
26.0 × 18.0 cm.
25.5 × 16.5 cm.
23.2 × 15.7 cm.
23.0 × 16.2 cm.
23.0 × 13.2 cm.
21.0 × 15.6 cm.
Church hymnbook 20.7 × 14.2 cm.
Mo 19.2 × 13.6 cm.
W2 17.5 × 13.0 cm.


Nearly similar in measurement also are the writing blocks of the folios of Ba and the two contemporary sources. Music is copied in a space 16.9 cm. × 11.9 cm. in Ba, 17.4 cm. × 14.8 cm. in the average choral octavo, and 18.6 cm. × 12.0 cm. in the average church hymnal.

A leaf in Ba then corresponds in size to one in a choral octavo or church hymnal. The somewhat smaller writing block found in Ba, in comparison to that of a choral octavo or church hymnal, does not significantly affect the performance possibility. Ba indeed is large enough to have been able to accommodate several soloists performing at sight.

The layout of the codex also facilitates reading without any prior rehearsal. All the one hundred motets except the three with texted cantus firmi (nos. 52-54), are laid out in two columns—the triplum (top voice) on the left, the motetus (middle voice) on the right, the tenor (bottom voice) lying across the entire bottom of the page.9 In the exceptions, the compositions featuring texted tenors, the three voices are placed adjacent to each other on the same leaf.

This two-column arrangement by itself, however, does not enable the performance of music. All parts in a composition must reach the same point when copied on the recto side of a folio in order for a work to be performable at sight. Otherwise, one or two singers must continue singing by memory to accommodate the performer who must turn the leaf. Simultaneous alignment on the verso side is not as crucial, of course, because if the parts did not coincide the singers could merely look across to the recto leaf and keep on performing.

The layout of voices in Ba manifests a very regular and consistent alignment of parts on both sides of nearly all folios. With just one exception, each motet ends at the same point in every voice at the bottom of a page. In Lonc tans a que ne vi m'amie (Ba no. 57, fol. 35v) both voices stop at a different point at the bottom of folio 35v. This would have been of no great concern because the singers could simply have looked across to the opposite page when it was necessary.

So consistent was the alignment that each line of a triplum corresponds in length to the adjacent line of a motetus. In the few cases when a triplum did exceed the length of a motetus, a correction was made immediately in the next line.10

The copying of individual words of text and notes of music reflects the same care. Letters are written so that they are uniform in size. The typical abbreviations appear only to allow the texts of the upper voices to correspond with each other. The quadratic noteheads, whether longs or breves, are drawn the same size. Stems ascend or descend perpendicularly from the noteheads. Clefs and accidentals are presented clearly. Rarely are words omitted from a line of text or musical symbols inaccurately notated. The material apparently was checked carefully and, if a correction or addition was necessary, a word was inserted above the line of text and below the appropriate musical symbol or an erasure of note heads was made and the correction written in.11 The textual revisions appear to have been made in a slightly lighter ink than that of the dark brown-black used when the pieces were first copied. Clearly, the appearance of text and music in Ba suggests that a scribe (or group of scribes) prepared a collection from which performance by multiple performers was possible.

If Ba was indeed made for performance as the arrangement, layout, and careful copying suggest, does the manuscript manifest the wear and tear usually associated with a volume frequently used? This is hard to verify, for the folios of the manuscript apparently were trimmed before it was last bound in the seventeenth century. Worn or torn edges of individual folios are not found uniformly in the manuscript in its present state. Some edges are darker than others; however, this could simply reflect the handling of the parchment before it was collected into gatherings.

One other question arises. Is Ba the only thirteenth-century manuscript containing a great many motets from which performance by a group of soloists might have been possible? There are many collections of readable size, with folios approximately the same size as Ba (23-26 cm. × 15-18 cm.)—in addition to Cl and Tu note Burgos, Las Huelgas (Hu); Florence, Biblioteca Laurenziana, Pluteus 29.1 (F); Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, lat. 1644 (MüB); Rome, Biblioteca Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1543 (Reg); and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. fr. 25566 (Ha). Indeed, several chansonniers containing motets, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, f. fr. 844 and 12615 (R and N respectively) and Rome, Biblioteca Vaticana, Reg. lat. 1490 (V) are much larger (ca. 30 cm. × 20 cm.). Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August Bibliothek, 1206 (W2) and Mo, two of the largest collections of motets, are very small volumes and not usable as sources for performance (see Example 1).

Another item to evaluate is the arrangement of these collections. Most of the manuscripts approximating the size of Ba do not feature the motets placed consistently and intentionally with upper voices and tenors on the same side of a folio or on facing pages, whether or not in the two-column arrangement of Ba. Only in the motet section of Ha and in Tu are all voices found usually written on the same side of a folio. In the other manuscripts of Ba's size, most upper voices are notated in their entirety followed by the tenor. Thus, an upper voice often was placed on the recto side of a folio while the tenor was written on the verso, making the simultaneous reading of a composition virtually impossible.

How consistently do individual pieces in a manuscript end at the same point at the bottoms of pages? Only Tu features the upper voices and tenors copied so that they end simultaneously on each recto. Of the forty folios in the manuscript, twenty-six permit easy reading at sight; in ten more a soloist would need to remember only notes equivalent to a perfect long, so that performance would be possible. A mere four of the folios were not copied so that all parts could be read at the same time.

Of all thirteenth-century manuscripts containing a significant number of motets, then, only Ba and Tu were copied in such a way that performance from them was possible, whether at sight or with rehearsal. Only these codices manifest the size, layout, and care in copying that would have enabled multiple performers to read compositions contained in them. To be sure, the performance situations would have been very special. Otherwise the manuscripts probably would not have survived, at least not in the condition in which they are found today. It is fitting that one of the most popular genres of polyphonic music in the thirteenth century should, in manuscript form, provide evidence of its possible contemporary use.

1Ernest Sanders mentions the frequent use of motets as music for entertainment in "Polyphony and Secular Monophony: Ninth Century to c. 1300," in Music from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, ed. William Frederick Sternfeld (New York: Praeger, 1973), 137.

2Four such collections are Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, nouv. acq. f. fr. 13521 (Cl); Montpellier, Faculté de Médecine, H 196 (Mo); Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Lit. 115 (Ba); and Turin, Biblioteca reale, Vari 42 (Tu).

3Pierre Aubry, Cent motets du XIIIe siècle, 3 vols. (Paris: Rouart, Lerolle, 1908; reprint, New York: Broude, 1964); Gordon A. Anderson, Compositions of the Bamberg Manuscript, Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Lit. 115 (olim Ed.IV.6), Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae, no. 75 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: American Institute of Musicology, Hänssler, 1977).

4Yvonne Rokseth, Polyphonies du treizième siècle, 4 vols. (Paris: L'oiseau-lyre, 1935-1939); Hans Tischler, The Montpellier Codex, Recent Researches in the Music of the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, vols. 2-6 (Madison, Wisconsin: A-R Editions, 1973).

5Patricia Lynn Patterson Norwood, "A Study of the Provenance and French Motets in Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Lit. 115" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1979), 142-82.

6Wilhelm Meyer established that the copy of the treatise in Ba was written in a fourteenth-century hand. See his Die Buchstaben-Verbindungen der sogenannten gothischen Schrift (Berlin: Weidmann, 1897), 86.

7A recent edition of the treatise: Cesarino Ruini, Ameri Practica artis musice 1271, Corpus Scriptorum de Musica, no. 25 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart: American Institute of Musicology, Hänssler, 1977). A partial edition: Joseph Kromolicki, Die "Practica Artis Musicae" des Amerus und ihre Stellung in der Musiktheorie des Mittelalters (Berlin: Rother, 1909). On Amerus and the treatise, see F. Alberto Gallo, "Citazioni di teorici medievali nelle lettere di Giovanni del Lago," Quadrivium 14 (1973):171; Gallo, La teoria della notazione in Italia dalla fine del XIII all'inizio del XV secolo, Antiquae Musicae Italicae Subsidia Theorica, no. 2 (Bologna: Tamari, 1966), 13-15; Michel Huglo, Les tonaires: inventaire, analyse, comparaison, Publications de la Société Française de Musicologie, 3rd ser., vol. 2 (Paris: Société Française de Musicologie, 1971), 227-29, 344-45; and D.P. Blanchard, "Alfred le musicien et Alfred le philosophe," Rassegna gregoriana 9 (1909):420.

8These and other manuscript sizes are taken from Gilbert Reaney, Manuscripts of Polyphonic Music (11th to Early 14th Century), Répertoire international des sources musicales, B.4.1 (Munich-Duisburg: Henle, 1966).

9See fols. 1-31r and 34v-62r in the facsimile edition.

10For example, on fol. 10r the motetus in col. b, fifth system, should have included the first four notes with the corresponding text directly underneath from the sixth system in order for the motetus to have coincided with the triplum in col. a, fifth system.

11See fol. 44v, col. b, fourth system. The word cest is added between the last two words. On fol. 45r, col. a, fifth and sixth systems, the erasure created a hole in the folio.

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