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Ars nova

By Stephen J. Nereffid. Posted in A History of Classical Music, Classical | No Comments »

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 6

Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra (link)

In the 1320s, two Paris-trained mathematicians who were also musicians published similarly titled treatises that pointed to a new direction for composition: Jehan des Murs’s Ars novae musicae and Philippe de Vitry’s Ars nova. The essence of this “new art” – Ars nova has become the name given to the general compositional style of the 14th century in France – was a move beyond the idea of “perfection” associated with the number three. Where the Franconian system divided the perfect long into three breves and divided breves into semibreves worth one- or two-thirds of a breve, Vitry and Jehan argued that it was fine to have an imperfect long comprising two breves of equal length, or a breve divided into two equal semibreves, and a semibreve divided into two shorter notes (the minimum note length, or “minim”). Moreover, a composer could mix-and-match between the use of two or three subdivisions, so that a long might be split into three breves but the breve might comprise just two semibreves. The first compositions demonstrating these ideas are some by Vitry that appeared in a 1316 edition of the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical poem attacking the moral state of France at the time; this particular edition included some 169 musical items, both old and new, providing a kind of soundtrack to accompany events in the story. By freeing the rules of composition from the ideology of “perfection”, the Ars nova opened up a wide range of possibilities for rhythms, not least of which was duple time (one-two one-two) – not that duple time didn’t exist in music until then, but now there was a formal system for writing, and composing, in it. With shorter note values being used, the music could move at a faster pace, and the tenor part of a motet became relatively longer, such that it ceased to provide a recognisable melodic component and instead formed a structural foundation for the polyphony. This structure is reflected in a feature of the Ars nova motet called isorhythm, the use of repeated statements of one rhythmic pattern that didn’t necessarily correspond to melodic patterns. Initially, isorhythm was used only in the tenor, but it soon spread to the upper voices also, giving greater organization to the composition as a whole.

Machaut: “Unrequited”. Liber unUsualis. own label (link)

Guillaume de Machaut (c1300-1377) was a leading French poet of the 14th century, and today he’s also considered the finest composer of that era. Back then, Philippe de Vitry may have been more highly regarded, but posterity has been kinder to Machaut, as fewer than 20 compositions attributable to de Vitry survive, whereas Machaut’s extant works number well beyond a hundred, thanks in large part to his own efforts to collect his music in lavish manuscripts for his patrons. Born in northern France, Machaut was a cleric who spent several years in the service of the French-born King John of Bohemia, accompanying him on his various travels around Europe. John was killed at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, one of the first great clashes of the Hundred Years’ War, after which Machaut joined the French court, eventually becoming canon of Reims. This was, of course, the “calamitous” 14th century, and the Black Death reached northern France in 1348 (between that year and the next, Paris lost half of its population). Machaut survived, and it’s possible that thoughts of mortality contributed to his decision in 1350 to create a 450-page book showcasing his life’s work. His compositions are a mix of the conservative and the innovative; though he advanced the Ars nova style, he was also keeping alive the trouvère tradition. Some of his 23 motets are panisorhythmic, meaning isorhythm is employed in all the voices, and most of them are love songs in French (though they do have Latin tenors). Machaut also brought the narrative lyrical poem called the lai to the peak of its musical development, and he composed dozens of works in the three “fixed forms” that were the basis of French song in the 14th and 15th centuries: the virelai, rondeau, and ballade, each of which was associated with a particular pattern of repetition in the text and music. In his polyphonic ballades, some of which appear on Liber unUsualis’s album along with some motets, Machaut makes the top voice the principal one, supported by the others, a style known as cantilena; although all parts are sung on this recording, it is possible for the supporting parts to be performed instrumentally.

French Sacred Music of the 14th Century, Vol. I”. Schola Discantus/Kevin Moll. Lyrichord (link)

The Church, meanwhile, had been keeping an eye on developments in music theory. At this point, the papacy was based in Avignon in southwestern France, having settled there in 1309 for political reasons – the new pope of the time was French and concerned about his safety should he stay in turbulent Rome. In 1325, Pope John XXII issued a diatribe against modern music, Docta sanctorum, in which he complained that composers “forget what it is that they are burying under their superstructures” and that they encouraged wantonness rather than devotion. 1342 saw a change in the Church’s attitude with the election of Pope Clement VI, who had been a colleague of Philippe de Vitry and now employed him in his retinue (Vitry became Bishop of Meaux in 1351). Two late-14th-century manuscripts provide an overview of papal musical practices during the Ars nova period: the Ivrea and Apt codices, named for the towns in whose cathedrals they are kept. Each contains about 50 settings of Latin texts (the Ivrea codex, the earlier of the two, also contains numerous French works), and what’s notable is that many of these compositions are something particularly new: polyphonic settings of the Ordinary of the Mass. Until this time, these fixed parts of the Mass – the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei – had largely remained in monophonic chant form, being sung by the choir rather than with soloists. It’s not clear what prompted interest in polyphonic Ordinary settings in the 14th century and the concomitant fall from favour of settings of the Propers; perhaps, with composers being increasingly interested in secular music, there was less time for sacred composition and so greater attention was focused on settings that would be performed every day rather than on the Propers, which were associated with specific days of the Church year. The Ivrea and Apt codices present numerous settings of each part of the Ordinary, grouped together by text, so that a different combination of settings could be selected for each mass. The settings resemble the various genres seen in secular music, including isorhythmic motets and the cantilena style used by Machaut, and by the time the Ivrea codex was compiled, the Avignon style had spread to the rest of France.

Machaut: La Messe de Nostre Dame; Songs from “Le Voir Dit”. Oxford Camerata/Jeremy Summerly. Naxos (link)

There are a handful of sources that each present a single mass cycle; these are the Tournai, Toulouse, Barcelona, and Sorbonne Masses. However, these aren’t single cycles in a musical sense, as only the Sorbonne Mass (which survives incomplete) shows any musical connections between individual “movements”. It’s probable that these cycles are the work of several composers packaged together for convenience. The first complete setting of the Mass Ordinary that can be attributed to a single composer is Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, a setting for four voices made in the 1360s. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei are composed in isorhythmic motet style with tenors that come from plainchant, while the Gloria and Credo are in a note-against-note style resembling conductus, though the Gloria is also similar to a cantilena and both of these movements end with a motet-like Amen. Machaut also included an isorhythmic setting of the “dismissal” (Ite missa est, the concluding words of the Mass). Oxford Camerata’s performance of the Messe de Nostre Dame – recorded, by the way, in Machaut’s own cathedral of Reims – is accompanied on the disc by secular music composed around the same time. Le Voir Dit (“The True Story”) is a 9,000-line narrative poem, an autobiographical tale recounting the aged Machaut’s affair with Péronne d’Armentières, a 19-year-old who had written to him to tell him how much she admired his work. The narrative includes letters and poems exchanged between the two, and Machaut not only sets some of the poems to music but also discusses their composition, which has been of great use to musicologists – although questions have been raised about how much of Le Voir Dit is actually true.

Codex Chantilly – Ballades & Rondeaux. Ensemble Organum/Marcel Pérès. Harmonia Mundi (link)

The Avignon “exile” of the papacy ended in 1377 when Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome, but the disastrous efforts to appoint a successor when he died the next year led to a 40-year schism in the Church. And so there continued to be popes in Avignon (although history now regards them as anti-popes), and this region remained a center for musical innovation. Here, the generation of composers following Machaut developed a sophisticated, mannerist style, primarily working in the ballade form. Machaut had made use of syncopation, but these composers applied this technique to cover longer passages of music and also liked to apply different time signatures to the individual voices, which resulted in much greater rhythmic complexity and prompted the creation of various fanciful methods of notation, such as coloring single notes red to indicate that their metrical value had changed. In a treatise on the topic, the Italian-born, Avignon-based composer Philippus de Caserta explained that the goal was to produce a more refined or subtle style, and we now refer to this style as the Ars subtilior, a term coined in the mid-20th century. The main source of Ars subtilior compositions is the Codex Chantilly, probably commissioned by Jean, Duke of Berry (who later commissioned the illuminated manuscript the Très Riches Heures and also, incidentally, was an eight-greats-grandson of the troubadour Guillaume of Poitiers). Ensemble Organum’s selection from this manuscript includes two pieces of “eye music” by Baude Cordier – the circular canon “Tout par compas” uses a circular stave, while the rondeau “Belle, Bonne, Sage” appears in the form of a heart. Also notable is the rondeau “Fumeux fume par fumée” by the obscure Solage (first name unknown), whose low vocal range and extensive chromaticism make it one of the oddest-sounding works in early music. The Ars subtilior was intended for skilled performers and experienced listeners, so its audience was always a limited one, and the style soon declined after the Avignon papacy came to an end in 1403. Before we find out “what happened next”, we must move sideways in time to trace developments in Italy and England.

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant   (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony   (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères  (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences  (8tracks mix)
Part 5. The 13th-century motet  (8tracks mix)

Stephen J. Nereffid lives near Dublin, Ireland, and spends far too much time listening to classical music.
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