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Mensuration and Proportion Signs: Origin and Evolution.

Busse Berger investigates a difficult subject in which she has already established herself as a virtuoso in both oral and written performance. This is not a book for beginners; in some ways, it keeps the reader at a distance. It is also not a book about the mensural system but, rather, about the signs that signify the system. It presupposes a more advanced working knowledge of mensural notation than that outlined in the author's brief introduction.

The book documents a wide range of theorists' statements about mensuration and proportion signs, and lists some practical examples of each usage. To work through the examples one needs access to theoretical texts, musical editions, facsimiles and microfilms, because the author often does not give in full the theoretical or musical evidence on which her conclusions are based. Performance issues are not her central concern, though most readers of this journal will turn to the conclusions to see how her findings can be applied in practice.

She there equates the breve of perfect time (O) with an ensuing breve of C or a long of . This formula sometimes makes good pragmatic musical sense. However, it does not address with sufficient flexibility the case of those motets and Mass movements where an initial section in O is followed by a duple section where the same music may be notated in different sources in either C or . Such inconsistencies arise particularly from English mensural practices and their Continental followers; a rigid reading of the mensural relationships must surely yield to musical sense, however the imperfect time section is signed. Her more general argument placing breve equality on an equal footing with minim equality in the 15th century raises questions and consequences that I will address in a longer essay. She argues that cut signatures always yield diminution by half (= double speed). This is musically problematic for works of the first half of the 15th century where an initial section in [O] is followed finally by a section in but with similar motion to the opening section (see R. Wegman, |What is "acceleratio mensurae"?', Music and letters, lxxiii (1992), pp. 515-24). Simultaneous and successive occurrences cannot always be treated in the same way, as indeed she says, though she does so when possible. For vertical relationships the same note values in and O indeed relate as 2:1. For successive relationships, compounded with the alleged equality of a perfect and imperfect breve, after C would relate semibreves

3:1 (i.e. 2/1 x 3/2 = 3/1), a prescription many would judge impossible. Some of her theoretical testimony is open to other interpretations. More work is needed to reconcile theoretical and musical evidence.

A word of caution is in order to the reader who wishes to test these and other findings in an existing musical edition. He needs to know not only what signs and note values were used in the original sources (and many editions do not indicate them) but also whether the level of reduction of note values was change at points of mensural change. Any further adjustment must take account of compensations already built in by an editor.

This book has assembled much useful material on the theoretical and musical use of mensuration and proportion signs. It presents several bold and interesting hypotheses that scholars and performers will need some time to digest.

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Author:Bent, Margaret
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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