Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities—Musica Ficta

This paper was part of a panel entitled "Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities" which was presented for The College Music Society at Baldwin-Wallace College, November 8, 1969. The moderator was Robert Austin Warner. The other panelists were Gwynn S. McPeek, Edith Borroff, and John W. Grubbs. Their papers also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 10.

Bertrand Russell once claimed that all philosophical systems suffer from one of two flaws. One type of system remains true to logical consistency, but that logic leads to absurd conclusions. Other philosophies culminate in plausible conclusions, but to do so, they sacrifice internal consistency. The status of our knowledge concerning accidentals in music of the late fifteenth century is still severely limited, and the thoughtful performer may find himself in Bertrand Russell's dilemma.

Even though conflicting opinions do exist among modern scholars, a few general principles are commonly held. The first of these derives from the well-known attitudes of theorists who forbid the tritone. To illustrate this point, Tinctoris notates a melody which requires four flatted B's in order to avoid melodic tritones. Modern editors sometimes extend this rule to intervallic relationships between voices, but that policy can be overdone; both Ramos and Aaron write that consecutive fifths are permissible, if one is diminished and the other is perfect. The diminished fifth, then, did exist as a harmonic interval and it was consciously allowed as one way to avoid a more serious contrapuntal fault.

A second general principle requires raised leading tones at cadences. This results from the contrapuntal principle of approaching a perfect consonance from the nearest imperfect consonance, such as a major sixth expanding to an octave or the minor third preceding a unison. A slight exception exists for Phrygian cadences; in these cases, a semitone descent occurs between the second scale degree and the final, but in order to maintain an imperfect consonance on the penultimate interval, the seventh degree, which ascends to the final, cannot be raised.

Other conventional policies may also apply. One of these allows raised degrees in ascent and lowered degrees in descent and another permits chromatic inflection causa pulchritudinis, for the sake of beauty. To me, these policies are too general to be of much prescriptive usefulness, although they can be comforting apologies. For example, an ungainly augmented octave between voices can be altered, this decision being justified according to causa pulchritudinis. The actual extent, however, to which these general apologies can be invoked, is uncertain.

The bulk of our thinking on musica ficta has been based upon theories of music. The entire chromatic scale had been described as early as 1412, by the authority on Italian music, Prosdocimus de Beldemandis. Apparently Prosdocimus had actual musical practice in mind, since he also observed that D-sharp and A-sharp were used rarely. Important writers on accidentals in the late fifteenth century would include Hothby (an Englishman living in Italy), Gafurius and Aaron (both locally trained Italians), and the Spaniard, Ramos. The treatise by Hothby described hexachords on F-sharp and D-flat, which results in A-sharps and G-flats. It also provided an unorthodox description of hexachords which Hothby apparently believed would facilitate mutation from one hexachord to another. Actually, Hothby's contribution is only that he adopted chromatic degrees to hexachord doctrine. Ramos, on the other hand, altogether rejected the traditional hexachord system, believing that octave species provided an adequate theory of pitch organization.

The theorists I have just cited are somewhat progressive; they at least admit that questions of hexachords and modality have to be revised, probably because of changing contemporary practice. The wisdom of these authors is unquestionable, but all of them were geographically remote from the home of Burgundian music. It is of special interest to note that they represent. Italian or Spanish teachings. Professor Lowinsky's book, Tonality and Atonality in the 16th Century, begins with the premise that Italian and Spanish music differs substantially from northern practice; the Italian and Spanish styles developing the progressive elements of homophony and accidentalism, and some devices of functional harmony, especially in the leading of the bass line. If these premises are true, then we should question the applicability of Spanish and Italian theories to the Laborde repertory. It would be strange, indeed, if musica ficta practices were significantly more stereotyped than the other varied and changing stylistic elements.

No matter how splendid the history of Burgundian music might be, the fact is that preserved sources cannot yet identify the Burgundian theoretical traditions. One prominent writer of the period, Tinctoris, seems to have been schooled in northwestern Europe, but even Tinctoris wrote most of his treatises at far distant Naples. His teachings on accidentals and musica ficta are conventional; he only goes far enough to admit that differing modes may be used simultaneously in different voices. He knew that accidentals were used, but apparently he thought he was voicing a general attitude when he wrote that the notation of accidentals was commonly held to be "asinine." This viewpoint, recorded in a treatise dedicated to Ockeghem and Binchois, is surely applicable to the Laborde. Scribe I provides no music by either composer, hut Scribe II gives us numerous pieces by Ockeghem, Binchois, and even one by Tinctoris himself. Tinctoris' aloofness concerning notation is obviously impractical for more progressive regions and so in 1523, the Italian, Aaron, insisted that all accidentals should be notated.

In spite of the fact that we must base much of our information upon theorists, the relationship between doctrine and composer is never a simple matter. The example of Tinctoris and Ockeghem demonstrates this point. They were contemporaries, they received their youthful training about fifty miles from each other, Tinctoris dedicated a treatise to Ockeghem, and music by both men occasionally coexists in the same collections. Nevertheless, Tinctoris sometimes criticized Ockeghem for his freedoms, and recent studies have confirmed that the significant differences between Tinctoris' theory and Ockeghem's practice were genuine.

One type of notation reflects accidental inflections precisely—instrumental tablature. Since this notation describes fingerings, tablature apparently permits no discrepancy between notated and performed pitches. Therefore, when intabulations of vocal or chamber music can be found, those intabulations may be useful evidence for musica ficta. But there is a pitfall in this approach. For example, later today we shall hear Walter Frye's "Ave regina celorum." This piece is also preserved in several different organ intabulations, but when we compare the uses of accidentals in those intabulations, we find that they even disagree among themselves. Such examples as this suggest that the spirit of historical authenticity admits more than one solution.

The relationship between intabulations and vocal or chamber performances has to be considered cautiously. The pitches of an organ, for example, are determined before performance, whereas most other instrumentalists and singers can adjust intonation, even unconsciously, during the performance. Probably many in this room have experienced an apparent corollary to this, checking musica ficta at a keyboard instrument, only to find that those decisions had to be rescinded when transferred to a different medium.

Another source of information would be a study of variant readings in manuscript concordances. This analysis would require much more time than I had, but it frequently is provided in scholarly editions. However, I was able to consult the notation in the Laborde, and some information can also derive from that study. Since the examples to be heard today were copied by Scribe I, I limit my comments to the music provided by that copyist. B-flats are notated somewhere in many of the pieces and E-flats occur occasionally. One D-flat is used, although no A-flats. In spite of the frequent B-flat in a signature, only once is a flatted B raised to a B-natural. Only one F-sharp occurs and it may have been added by a later reader. Therefore, flatted degrees are obviously preferred to sharped ones. So, if we wish to cancel a tritone between B and F, I would generally prefer the B-flat to the F-sharp.

Modality seems not to apply to some of the pieces. For example, about one-fourth of these works close on C and over half of those contain no accidentals at all. If modal doctrine were to apply, these would have to be transposed modes using accidentals, but they seem to be, instead, a genuine C major. In another case, a piece cadencing on E contains a B-flat in its signature, the notation thus indicating an octave species not included in any of the diatonic modes. Also, the scribe did not group the pieces according to tonality, modality, or key signature, although groupings by mode do occur in the sacred repertories of the day. The decay of modality also seems to be illustrated by the flats in the signatures. In one third of the pieces, a flat at the beginning is not copied on subsequent staves. In many of the pieces I have studied, I think the flat should be eventually cancelled, but the scribe does not show us exactly where.

Slightly later collections will include complete triads at final cadences and historical evidence favors major triads, sometimes resulting in the effect known as the Piccardy third. In this Laborde repertory, complete triads never occur at the end, but they are found at some internal cadences. Since even major triads were unacceptable as final sonorities, some of the minor triads at prominent internal cadences might be converted into major triads.

This afternoon we are discussing how to convert ambiguous notation into sound. We have already heard that the notation of text underlay was quite inadequate. This is certainly true in regard to accidentals. Since the fifteenth-century musician notated his music so carelessly, it might appear that he was an irresponsible artist. If this seems so, it may be because we mistakenly confuse some of our philosophical attitudes for his.

An Aristotelian concept, developed and re-emphasized by Thomas Aquinas, dealt with a distinction between substance and accident, that is, between actual and sensually perceived properties, For example, a person's substance was said to remain constant, although his accidents, such as weight, height, and so forth, might change. This doctrine was essential to the Communion—the accidental properties of wine and bread remained constant, although its substance was said to change to blood and flesh. Notation described the substance of music, rather than some of the physical properties which may change from one performance to another. Gafurius reflected this attitude when he introduced his theory of pitch by writing that he will describe both the modes and their accidents. Two of the most important essays on accidentals, those of Ugolino d'Orvieto and Aaron, were merely appendices to their treatises, and this places the topic outside the mainstream of their teachings.

Our own difficulties with musica ficta result from two sources: 1) the theorists' accounts which are imprecise and frequently not applicable, and 2) the notation of the music, which is often ambiguous, sometimes even contradictory when concordances can be located. All of this suggests that questions of accidentals were peripheral to the main artistic concerns of the day. I hope that, as we hear this music, we can take delight in its accidents, but I also hope that our debates on sensual properties do not obscure the substance of the music.

Read 6050 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 17/04/2018

Go to top