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Reading music
Writing it
Talking about it


Reading music

ANDREA ANTICO (ED), Motetti novi... a quatro sopra doi, Editions Minkoff, Genève (1982).
A booklet of four voices canons written on two staffs, published in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century: pieces by Mouton, Brumel, Willaert, etc. You'll find there easy or difficult resolutions (some hints are wrong or quite obscure), average level or beautiful music (double canon on a given song is quite a difficult exercise), etc.
MANUSCRIT ITALIEN DE FROTTOLE, Editions Minkoff, Genève (1979).
Written in 1502 as mentionned by a scribe, it contains also a few religious pieces. Amongst authors that can be identified, explicitely or by comparison with other sources, let's mention: Agricola, Cara, Isaac, Ghizeghem, Josquin, Tromboncino. You might like to read a short definition of frottola? So would I! Alas, my Honneger dictionary rather gives a long comment that I can't quote here. However, talking of musical aspects only, let's say that these are homophonic pieces rather than counterpoint based on imitation.
PIERRE ATTAINGNANT (ED), Quatorze gaillardes, neuf pavanes, etc, Editions Fuzeau (1996).
A nearly modern-looking and easily readable facsimile, however full of subtle traps, but they are pointed out in the introduction.
CHANSONNIER NIVELLE DE LA CHAUSSEE, Editions Minkoff, Genève (1984).
Madame de Chambure got this document from a sale at Sotheby's in 1939! The name of Nivelle de la Chaussée appears on one of the first pages, thus it might have belonged to Pierre-Claude, a poet and dramatist who lived in the first half of the eighteenth century. Considering the pieces by Binchois, Busnois, Dufay, Ockeghem, and many other less known or unknown composers, it's highly probable that this manuscript was written for the Court of Burgundy in the years 1460-1465.


Writing it

J. J. FUX / A. MANN (ED), The study of counterpoint, Norton (1971) - traduction du Gradus ad parnassum de Fux.
Many counterpoint courses have just paraphrased this book, even skipping its most interesting comments: the author talks about difficult situations where a compromise solution must be accepted, and he tries to give a reason for each rule - sometimes admitting quite honestly that he failed to find one. Thus it's quite different from those stupid collections of rules given without any explanation, where some author just seems to avoid any understanding by the reader, in order to keep him in dependance of His Insight (a fit of temper, but... I do have a book in which it is stated "The student is never allowed to omit the third." Italics by the author, not mine - did he ever read a single line of renaissance music? By the way, isn't it absolute nonsense to give rules without considering the time period, the style, and the composer?)
KNUD JEPPESEN, The polyphonic vocal style of the sixteenth century, Dover (1992).
The book begins with a short story of ecclesiastic modes and their typical melodic formulas, and with a detailed review of counterpoint courses, which have been inspired by two main schools of thought : the Fux's one quoted above, and the Bach's one.
Then it elaborates a course clearly based on the first approach, and more specifically studies Palestrina's works well known for their smooth melodic line, the recipes of which the author tries to set out, giving many musical quotations.

JESSIE ANN OWENS, Composers at work, Oxford university press (1997).
Work tools and methods in that period 1450-1600 that we're just talking about: erasable tablets and paper (expensive in that period!) ; sketches, drafts, fair copies ; setting in separate parts or in vertical scores... The author is so familiar with these early documents that she can guess the name of several composers just by looking at their writings!


Talking about it

WILLI APEL, The notation of polyphonic music, revised fifth edition (1961), enveloppe The medieval academy of America.
The basic principles of ancient notation : lexicography (rests, notes and ligature symbols) and grammar (modes, tempus perfectum and imperfectum, proportions). The book covers quite a long period of time : from the first medieval manuscripts to the prints of late renaissance, with Ars nova and Ars subtilior in between.
ANNA MARIA BUSSE BERGER, Mensuration and proportion signs, réédition (1996), Clarendon Press - Oxford.
This book does not explain the basic principles, on the contrary it scans many documents of this period to settle the most controversial and difficult points of this notation: special mensurations, notation of the proportions, location of the tactus. And an interesting conclusion : authors who wrote so much (e.g. Tinctoris) didn't necessarly describe the most popular practice, on the contrary they often tried to introduce new ideas in order to make the system simpler.
BLOCKLAND DE MONFORT, Instruction méthodique et fort facile pour apprendre la musique pratique
JEAN YSSANDON, Traité de la musique pratique
Facsimile of two booklets written in the sixteenth century, published together in one book by Editions Minkoff in Geneva (1972).
Admittedly, these small treatises explain basic principles, and thus are an interesting reference. But one might experience that contemporary English by Apel is easier to be understood than old French of the sixteenth century! - that should be obvious to you, English speaker, but it's also true for me -). And APEL deals with a wider period of time, though, of course, his modern approach may lack some culture and documents lost today.
TESS KNIGHTON / DAVID FALLOWS, Companion to medieval & renaissance music, University of California press (1992).
This collection of various articles, with bibliography, makes up an attractive introduction! To mention a few subjects: edition, interpretation, performance; music and musicians inside society; questions of form in masses; instrumental iconography; pitch, tempo; an approach to modes; basics of musica ficta; text underlay, how and why; divisions in renaissance; etc. And a few authors: Margaret Bent, Liane Curtis, David Fallows, Paul Hillier, Tess Knighton, Christopher Page, Hopkinson Smith, Anthony Rooley, Bernard Thomas, Robert Wegman!
VINCENT ARLETTAZ, Musica ficta, une histoire des sensibles du XIIIe au XVIe siècle, Mardaga, (2000).
[An history of the leading tone from the XIIIth to the XVIth century; unfortunately, it hasn't got an English translation up to now, and even won't in the very next future (information received from the author, november 2002) - however, since then he's written an
English summary of his book]
A fantastic book of 500 pages, based on a huge and well referenced data sample: vocal sources and tablatures in the whole Europe! The former ones, written in mensural notation, obviously remain ambiguous in many cases; tablatures are rather or quite precise, depending on their type, but on the other hand connoted by the place and the competence and taste of their transcriber.
A few central points found in this book: the definition of the attractivity principle gave rise to some acrimonious controversies, since it was stated differently by various authors and thus, in various countries and various periods of time; when it ordered to raise the leading tone (by far the most frequent case), its explicit notation was clearly an independant question, as shown by the hesitations of some authors (Aaron) and the reluctance of some others (Willaert, Zarlino, Palestrina, Lassus) to accept the evolution in the course of the XVIth century ; it's not proven that the expression causa pulchritudinis has ever got a clear definition or, in any case, one that would be equivalent to what we believe today ; on the other hand, it is proven that the raising of the seventh degree was commented and used quite differently in various countries, at the same time (Germany versus Italy, among others) ; doubling of the seventh degree in large polyphonic works was a current practice by the franco-flemish school at its beginning, but, bound by a theoretical nearly absolute reluctance to accept wrong octaves, it became less frequent in correlation with the increasing usage of its raising ; England is a special case indeed, since bad consonnances were accepted there, but in a context wider than the leading tone - sometimes in an absurd way, and also because very few documents are available before the last quarter of the XVIth century ; therefore there's currently no evidence of a correlation between the English situation and an hypothetical usage of wrong consonances by the franco-flemish school already passed away at this moment; this school, by the way, has been remarquably poor in theoreticians, but the only ones known today were very reluctant to accept a systematic usage of attractivity since, according to them, it would lead to corrupt the modes.
An essential book, which might well become a bible about this question! I'm not quite happy, however, with the somewhat simple and misleading definition of the expression musica ficta (also given on the back cover), that is, the execution of unwritten alterations, but, of course, everything comes back to normal in the course of the book, with more precise statements. And I'm not convinced either by the argument, taken from the ancient authors, according to which the explicit notation of musica ficta was eventually desirable in order to prevent embarassment of novice singers : first, pieces in which problems might appear could not be those well known since years by the chapel, they were new pieces written by great masters. Therefore, novice cannot be taken in its basic meaning, that is, someone without any vocal technique or listening culture; rather was it someone who, like they used to say, doesn't understand what he is singing, that is, is not experienced in the subtleties of hexachords and thus may misplace the semitones at first sight. Of course such new pieces were not played without rehearsals managed by the master of the chapel or the composer himself. But then, since a wrong consonance was said to be so horrible even to uncultured people, how can it be forgotten, without contradiction, that the singer, or the master of the chapel could simply have pointed out the error and then would have avoided its repetition? At the same time, on second thoughts I don't find so obvious that modernists like Vicentino would have asked explicit notation of all the alterations just because they wished to write a few ones outside the limits of the hexachordal system: strictly speaking, wouldn't it have been enough to write only the latter ones? (speculating somewhat, I'm wondering whether this might have been Lassus's point of view, who was supporting the old implicit notation, while his music, I think, cannot be considered quite conservative). Anyway, it's interesting to notice that, at the end of this XVIth century, the definitions of pulchritidinae refer to the expressive beauty of chromatism, but not to the strong and accurate definition of attractivity as stated by Zarlino (that is, the obligation to stretch the sixth or the third to a major one, before an octave or a fifth). Thus I'm wondering whether we would rather face a change in the status of alterations: after having been mandatory elements of a system, they become expressive elements; thus one may choose not to write them, exactly like, on the other hand, one may add alterations that are not part of the system (this happened, by the way, quite recently, as mentionned by the author who quotes a theme by Dvorjak) ; but then, how can a composer be sure that no unwished alteration will ever be added by a performer, if not by asking explicit notation of all of them?
Well, I was happy and proud to discover that the author, Vincent Arlettaz, found my remarks relevant enough to be answered (in French): have a look!. Once there, take your chance to read also his very interesting answers to other arguments and comments.