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.
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