Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson: An Interpretation of Manuscript Accidents.
The publication in 1987 of Karol Berger's imposing Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Infections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) clearly invited a response from those interested in the sounding realization of music written before 1600. Berger presented only one side of the issue we generally call "musica ficta": his subtitle indicated that his focus was on the theoretical tradition rather than the repertory that created the need for the modern subject of musica ficta. Berger combed through music theory texts for details about pitch, solmization, and counterpoint that might shed light on the problem of nonnotated accidentals. The description of that problem as "musica ticta," however, is a modern invention, even a misnomer, and the connection of the theory with singers' practice rests on certain assumptions.
Thomas Brothers's new book is one of the few substantial responses to Berger. Although the term "musica ficta" does not appear in his title, his book is squarely concerned with the subject in its proper - that is, medieval - sense, for it is about accidentals that actually do appear in the manuscript sources of secular music from 1275 to about 1450. He may have avoided the term "musica ficta" in his title because of the inaccurate connotations the term has gained. Brothers states in his introduction that "the problem of implied but unnotated inflections is not the main topic of this study. . . . As the first step in a working methodology, I put aside this contentious issue" (p. viii-ix). Nevertheless, the issue will consistently hang in the background for most readers.
After a long introduction about the theory, Brothers's book is organized around music repertory: chapter 1, "Trouvere Manuscript O"; chapter 2, "Machaut's Polyphonic Songs"; chapter 3, "MSS Chantilly Musee Conde 564 and Oxford, BL Canonici Misc. 213"; and chapter 4, "Du Fay; Mid-Century Developments." The tour chapters are meant to chart a continuity of what Brothers calls the "beautiful use" of accidentals. The theory introduction is perhaps the most striking part of the book; among its many minority viewpoints are some that I have come to espouse independently. The introduction begins with the famous passage by Anonymous 2 (ca. 1300) on the dichotomy between "causa necessitatis" and "causa pulchritudinis." Brothers suggests that "pulchritudinis" means melodic beauty, not a systematic cadential requirement for inflection as maintained by Edward Lowinsky. "Beautiful use" of accidentals is thus outside systematic norms; Brothers uses the expressions "idiosyncratic inflections" and "discursive accidentals" to describe "the optional use of inflections according to no theoretically quantifiable purpose" (p. 6). This construction allows him to propose a face-value interpretation of the accidentals he studies. He establishes this idea by immediately turning to monophonic trouvere repertory, where the use of accidentals cannot be related to harmonic corrections of perfect intervals (accidentals of necessity in the usage of Anonymous 2) or inflections used tr) adjust for the approach to cadences (propinquity accidentals). The accidentals appearing in trouvere manuscript O offer a chance to consider their usage solely for reasons of melodic logic, variety, and surprise; there seems to be little reason to come up with assumptions about adding any more than those actually present. Brothers here introduces the notion that "some cadences on some pitches are inflected," but not all, an idea that becomes more important in the chapter on Guillaume de Machaut.
Brothers's viewpoint regarding Machaut's accidentals has an important precursor in the work of Bettie Jean Harden ("Sharps, Flats, and Scribes: Musica Ficta in the Machaut Manuscripts" [Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1983]), who suggested that accidentals in Machaut's works are reported precisely and completely, although in several differing manuscript versions. In his Machaut chapter, Brothers increases the pressure on the nonnotated cadential accidental practice of today. "No theorist from the fourteenth century ever proclaims the existence of an unnotated convention for the propinquity application" (p. 104). The idea that some cadences, but not all, may be inflected is developed into a hierarchy of cadence forms to describe Machaut's usage. The hierarchy invites consideration of the three cadences of the ballade form - the ouvert, clos, and final. Brothers makes the following surprising claim: "It may be significant that even when there is an opportunity for a raised leading tone in an ouvert cadence the principal sources never have them signed." This idea then leads directly to the following: "one could assume that the absence of half-step motion represents yet another technique for making a cadence relatively weak" (pp. 106-7). The problem with this claim is that many final cadences also have no cadential inflections signed at all. For only a quarter of the forty-one ballades can the issue be measured, and of these, three have explicit cadential signs and seven do not. It is hard to escape the idea that there was probably a nonnotated tradition of adding inflections to these final cadences so that they would bc at least as final in their effect as the clos cadences of the first half. And once one allows a nonnotated assumption into the question, it is rather arbitrary (or at least circular) to exclude the assumption from also applying to the ouvert cadences.
Perhaps the strongest arguments in Brothers's book are presented as analyses of specific pieces. In the third chapter, these analyses concern the unusual works or "musica ficta essays" that appear sporadically at the end of the fourteenth century. Brothers's discussion of the anonymous ballade Medee fu forms the centerpiece of this chapter; the entire piece is printed and made into an extensive case study. Brothers presents all the accidentals that occur in the sources of the piece, so that his edition has more sharps than any single source. He argues in favor of the authority of ali these sharps, but this would seem to contradict his general denial of the importance of nonnotated accidentals. Do the divergences between the sources stem from a loss in the composer's notation, which might imply a nonnotated tradition of performance accidentals, or do they stem from scribal invention, which would argue against the accidentals' significance to the compositional plan of the piece? In either case, Brothers's position is weakened by the divergences in the sources. Although the segment on Medee fu ends with perhaps his best analysis, the discussion is based on a version of the piece that does not "exist" in the sources, especially when there is no recourse to implied accidentals. It does not seem possible to have it both ways.
The fourth chapter suggests that the tradition of "beautiful use" of discursive accidentals ended in the middle of the fifteenth century, coinciding with the beginning of "a more seriously considered modal theory of polyphony" (p. viii). That there was a change in the explicit use of accidentals is well known, and Brothers goes into some depth to point out how and why it might have occurred. As always, the notion of an increase in the use of nonnotated accidentals is not advanced as a reason, but connecting the change functionally with the beginning of modally based composition is a surprising turn. It would appear that Brothers is here aligning himself with the conservative side of the old debate on "modal purity" that raised doubts about the significance of nonnotated accidentals for early-sixteenth-century music. Brothers does not quite say this, nor do I think he meant to. But his posture of ignoring nonnotated accidentals - a posture assumed in order to gain a clear view of the written accidentals free of the static caused by the nonnotated accidentals question - allows the reader to make that connection; the ambiguity may have been intentional, and the book ends here.
I like this book. It is well written and edited, and it is argued both subtly and strongly. The conceit of ignoring the possibility of nonnotated accidentals may seem brazen or even foolhardy at times, but it presents a point of view that has always been present in our field though rarely discussed clearly. Brothers is taking a stand that requires an answer. It does not seem possible to me that both Brothers and the many others who espouse the liberal use of performers' accidentals for this music can both be right. Chances are one side is right and the other wrong, or at the very least, one side is closer to the truth. It should be possible to decide. Music's technical aspect is digital; it is not soft, and not infinitely arguable. It has hard edges, and answers can be forged on those hard edges. Brothers wants us to see some of those edges and sharp points without the obscuring caution of our assumptions about. how it should sound.
PETER URQUHART University of New Hampshire
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1999|
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