Time and Gesture in Lorenzo da Firenze’s Ita se n’er’a star: A Response to Davide Daolmi

Philippa Ovenden

Among late-medieval songs, Lorenzo da Firenze’s Ita se n’er’a is known both for its Ovidian text, which describes the mythical tale of Pluto’s suit of Proserpina, and its eccentric notation.[1] Three versions of this song have survived, in London, British Library, Add. MS 29987, ff. 43v–44r (Lo) and two in Florence, MS Mediceo Palatino 87, ff. 45v–46r and 46v–47r (henceforth SqA and SqB). Of these, the notation of SqA has been the subject of much discussion, and disagreement, among scholars. The wide range of novel note shapes in this version, which include arrow- and circle-head semiminims, as well as semibreves and minims with appended circles (see Figures 1–2 below), have resulted in a range of different interpretations and transcriptions of the song.[2]

            In his recent blog post, Davide Daolmi focuses upon the temporal dimensions of Ita se n’er’a.[3] Having already established his own idiomatic reading of the notation (Daolmi, 2020) of this challenging piece, he argues that the presence of a consistent temporal unit throughout the madrigale serves to illustrate the existence of a “regular unit of time” in fourteenth-century music, which he terms a musical tactus. Although the existence of tactus as a concept—albeit one with a variety of different manifestations—is well established in music of the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries, scholars have hesitated to employ the term in relation to earlier compositions. Daolmi contends that while the term tactus was absent in fourteenth-century theory, the application of a consistent time unit across compositions such as Ita se n’er’a provided composers with the opportunity to convey different tempi through the use of the Italian trecento divisions. He draws on the testimony of the anonymous Italian author of the fourteenth-century Rubrice breves to argue that a faster tactus was employed in Italian repertory in the first half of the fourteenth century, but that this tactus slowed down over the course of the century in alignment with contemporaneous French practices. This reveals the possibility for both semibreves and breves to be employed as time units, as argued previously by Gozzi (2001).

            Daolmi’s choice of repertory presents a daunting task to the analyst. As a result of its extraordinarily complex notation, the precise temporal relationships between the individual note shapes of Ita se n’er’a are at times difficult to establish. The ambiguity of certain passages, along with a lack of standardization among the three copies, has led to a wide range of different readings of the song’s notation. Daolmi’s theorization of tactus in the madrigale rests upon equivalence between the two most prevalent divisions in the composition. Illustrated in Figure 1, these divisions see the longest time span in the composition—in SqA the breve—divided into twelve (ultimately twenty-four) parts or nine (ultimately eighteen) parts. SqB is notated using so-called Longanotation (see also Figure 1).[4] Here, what was in SqA the span of the breve becomes a longa when it is divided into twelve parts, composed of four breves each worth four minims. The scribe labels this the quaternaria (quaternary or fourfold) division. When the same breve span is divided into nine parts, it is labelled as a novenaria (novenary or ninefold) division. In the figure, the widths of the boxes graphically depict the relative duration of the sounds represented by each note shape. As marked in the figure, the tactus for Daolmi is the shared unit between the two temporal frameworks in the upper and lower parts of the grid. In SqA this is the span represented by the semibreve—one-third of the breve. In SqB, this is the span represented by the quaternaria breve—one-third of the quaternaria longa—or the novenaria semibreve. This equivalence is represented by the thick red lines in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Notation of SqA and SqB in relation to Daolmi’s tactus

            Although there is general agreement over the meaning of most of the note shapes employed in SqA—and specifically the note shapes included in Figure 1—the same cannot be said of all of them. Consider, for example, Figure 2, which transcribes the note shapes of the three versions of a particularly ambiguous phrase in the madrigale’s A section, and compares these with the transcriptions by Daolmi and Michele Epifani. A direct comparison between Daolmi’s and Epifani’s readings cannot be made because each author places a different level of emphasis upon the various copies of Ita se n’er’a to formulate a coherent transcription in modern staff notation. However, the figure nevertheless illustrates the challenge of adapting this ambiguous passage into the medium of modern notation, which demands that precise rhythmic values are ascribed to every note. As one may observe, Daolmi’s reading of these notes also includes a disruption of the shared time unit or tactus: worth 1 1/3 semibreves in the notational system of SqA, the semibreve with ascending circle cuts across the tactus unit.

Figure 2: Comparison of five readings of extract of the A section of Ita se n’er’a[5]

            The point of setting these readings side by side is not to discuss their relative merits, nor to contradict Daolmi’s assertion that a stable temporal unit is present in this composition. The momentary instability seen in the extract in Figure 2 does not undermine the relative equivalence that Daolmi identifies between the two most prominent divisions of this composition. However, that there should be so little agreement over the notation in this composition is worthy of further scrutiny. This disagreement extends not only to modern transcriptions, but also exists between each of the copies. Given the cultural context of Ita se n’er’a,this does not come as a surprise: a number of scholars have argued very compellingly that the complex notations of this period represent an attempt to codify improvisation, a position that Daolmi also supports.[6] It thus seems plausible that the disparity between the different versions may be reflective of the variety of performance.

            Even if these copies represent an attempt to codify performance, this still begs the question of why there are so many apparent notational errors in the three copies, and in SqA in particular: it is impossible to transcribe this copy of the song into staff notation without reimagining some of the note shapes (see, for instance, Daolmi’s reimagining of the semiminim in Figure 2). The originals must be retrospectively “altered” to fit each note into the framework presented by our notational system. While this may represent incompetence on the part of scribes, an alternative explanation may be found, I would suggest, by taking note of the context of these seeming inconsistencies. Although they are internally ambiguous, the boundaries of all of these passages, including the extract in Figure 2, are marked by unambiguous temporal and contrapuntal junctures among the voices. In the case of Figure 2, the progression to the perfect consonance D–A (marked in green) provides an audible contrapuntal marker of stability that is also foregrounded visually by the breve in the cantus of SqA, and the longae of SqB and Lo. The preceding ambiguous note shapes represent momentary disorder before the certainty of this point of arrival and regrouping.

            That the notationally ambiguous passages of this song should be visually and audibly compartmentalized in this way may indicate that a medieval reader would have placed less emphasis upon accurately representing the precise durations of notes than we tend to. Because the flourish in Figure 2 is characteristically improvisatory, we may surmise that there would have been some degree of freedom for the singer to render this ornament according to their own taste. In this scenario, the notation serves not to represent the precise values of temporal spans, but rather to indicate the boundaries and contour of the ornamental flourish. Any attempt to render such a passage in modern notation is by definition hindered by the medium of western staff notation, which demands that the editor must make a definitive decision about the durations of these notes, thereby obscuring the free, gestural quality of the original.

            Daolmi’s assertion that there is a relative shared unit among the divisions of Ita se n’er’a, which he calls the tactus,is convincing. Such units also represent important markers for performers today, who must synchronize in ensemble and find equivalence between proportions. Without access visually to more than their own part, we may conjecture that finding common time units between differing divisions could have been even more important for medieval performers. Despite this, we should exercise caution before ascribing fixed and absolute time units to historical music in the form of tempo or metronome markings. The testimony of individual theorists such as Gaffurius who describe fixed tactus may point more readily towards a desire to establish theoretical standardzation than to describe performance. It is thus relative, not absolute time units or tactus that are important in this context.[7] In a similar vein, the ambiguity and lack of standardization present in the notation of songs such as Ita se n’er’a invites us to consider whether we should at times seek to confirm not an absolute reading of notationally complex repertory of this kind, but instead to embrace the relative flexibility that characterizes performance.

Sources Cited

Daolmi, Davide. “Ita se n’er’a star: Insights for a Fourteenth-Century Tactus (Ita se n’er’a star e un’ipotesi sul tactus nel trecento), Parts I & II.” In History of Music Theory, SMT Interest Group & AMS Study Group, 2021, trans. Giulia Accornero, https://historyofmusictheory.wordpress.com/2021/05/19/ita-se-nera-star-insights-for-a-fourteenth-century-tactus-ita-se-nera-star-e-unipotesi-sul-tactus-nel-trecento-part-i/; https://historyofmusictheory.wordpress.com/2021/05/19/ita-se-nera-star-insights-for-a-fourteenth-century-tactus-ita-se-nera-star-e-unipotesi-sul-tactus-nel-trecento-part-ii/.

—————-. “La notazione sperimentale di Ita se n’er’a star.” In Temporum Stirpis Musica, 2020, https://www.examenapium.it/meri/landini/lorenzo/lorenzo.html.

Deford, Ruth. Tactus, Mensuration, and Rhythm in Renaissance Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Epifani, Michele. “In margine alla notazione sperimentale del madrigale Ita se n’era a star di Lorenzo da Firenze.” Philomusica on-line 13 (2014): 59–88.

Flisi, Marco. “Notazione francese e italiana: Lorenzo da Firenze e la sperimentazione notazionale.” In Problemi e metodi della filologia musicale: Tre tavole rotonde, edited by Stefano Campagnolo. Didattica della filologia musicale, 21–27. Lucca: Lim, 2001.

Gozzi, Marco. “La cosiddetta ‘Longanotation’: Nuove prospettive sulla notazione italiana del trecento.” Musica Disciplina 49 (1995): 121–49.

—————-. “New Light on Italian Trecento Notation.” Recercare 13 (2001): 5–78.

Greig, Donald. “Ars Subtilior Repertory as Performance Palimpsest.” Early Music 31, no. 2 (2003): 196–209.

Long, Michael Paul. “Ita se n’era a star nel paradiso: The Metamorphoses of an Ovidian Madrigal in Trecento Italy.” In L’ars nova italiana del trecento VI: Atti del congresso internazionale “L’europa e la musica del trecento”, Certaldo, Palazzo Pretorio, 19-20-21 Luglio 1984: Sotto il patrocinio di Comune di Certaldo, edited by Giulio Cattin and Patrizia Dalla Vecchia, 257–68. Certaldo: Edizioni Polis, 1992.

Stone, Anne. “Glimpses of the Unwritten Tradition in Some Ars Subtilior Works.” Musica disciplina 50 (1996): 59–93.

von Fischer, Kurt. Studien zur italienischen Musik des Trecento und frühen Quattrocento. Das Repertoire. II. Repertoire-Untersuchungen. Bern: P. Haupt, 1956.

[1] For a discussion of the Ovidian elements of the song’s text, see: Long (1992).

[2] The most recent, more detailed commentaries have been conducted by Epifani (2014) and Flisi (2001).

[3] Daolmi (2021).

[4] The term Longanotation was coined by von Fischer (1956), and more recently has been discussed in depth by Gozzi (1995).

[5] Daolmi (2021); Epifani (2014), 81. For clarity, all the ligatures are written out as individual notes.

[6] See: Stone (1996); Greig (2003).

[7] See: DeFord (2015, 180–1).

The Singing Group: Polyphony and Power (Die singende Gruppe – Mehrstimmigkeit und Macht) (Part II)

Ariane Jeßulat

(English Translation: Ariane Jeßulat and Thomas Christensen)

[…] Continuation of: Part I

II. The Dux and Comes:  or “how many comites are there”? 

To describe a soggetto and its answer, Calvisius coined the terms dux and comes in the Melopoia (literally, the “leader” and its “companion”). This pairing seems to suggest an asymmetrical relation between the first statement and then the answer of the soggetto, with the second comes standing in an oblique relationship to the first dux. But in fact, the relationship is far more equitable.[1] Moreover, Calvisius seems to assume not a single comes, rather multiple comites (companions):

II. Wie viele Comites?

Mit der Prägung der Begriffe Dux und Comes entnimmt man der Melopoiia traditionell eine Blaupause für eine asymmetrische Paarung von erstem und zweiten Einsatz eines Themas oder eines soggetto, wobei der zweite Einsatz in einem obliquen Verhältnis zum ersten steht.

Tatsächlich geht Calvisius allerdings von mehreren Comites aus:

Quae sequuntur comites appellantur.

“The following ones are called comites [companions].”

It is also mentioned later in the text that the comites—beyond the usual mechanisms of responding in imitation—can vary the melody given by the dux: 

„Die nachfolgenden nennt man Comites (Gefährten).“

Es ist später im Text auch davon die Rede, dass die Comites – über die üblichen Einrichtungsmechanismen hinaus – den  Dux variieren können:

Diversae Modulationis Fugae fiunt, quando comites cum duce suo, vel motu, vel figurarum quantitate discrepant, fugam tamen non obscure ostendunt, vel etiam quando diversae Fugae miscentur.

“Different structures of imitative passages arise when the comites differ from their dux, either in direction or in note values, but do not obscure the imitation in the process or when different types of imitation are mixed.”

Behind this are various situations in which the comites—in the case of improvisation—can not only communicate with one other but also exert power over the dux: a comes can change the point of imitation and turn a three-part canon at the fifth and the octave that is relatively stable in pitch structure into a far more challenging double canon at the fifth that is more unstable in modulation and risks frequent mi contra fa clashes. On the other hand, this at least gives back some melodic freedom to the dux, since the singer is now allowed to move in stepwise motion. A large group of comites in the Fuga ad minimam at the fifth constricts the dux to very few melodic movements and may cause the modal space to tilt (which is beautifully exemplified by Josquin at the end of the famous motet “Absalon fili mi”).

Even with almost uniform intervals and melodic relations in very simple canonic settings, the social behavior of counterpoint may differ: while a canon at the unison and a canon at the second can produce similar intervallic and melodic results, the canon at the second may seem much more forceful because of its dissonant point of imitation and the shift in solmization syllables: the dux feels a need to keep moving, as staying on a longer note will cause an immediate dissonance.

„Verschiedene Strukturen von Imitationssätzen entstehen, wenn die Comites von ihrer/m Dux, entweder in der Richtung oder in den Notenwerten abweichen, die Imitation dabei aber nicht verdunkeln, oder auch, wenn verschiedene Typen von Imitation gemischt werden.“

Dahinter verbergen sich verschiedenste Situationen, in denen die Comites – im Falle der Improvisation – nicht nur untereinander kommunizieren können, sondern auch Macht auf die/den Dux ausüben: Ein/e Comes kann das Imitationsintervall wechseln und aus einem in den Tonhöhenstrukturen relativ stabilen dreistimmigen Quint-Oktavkanon einen modal wesentlich beweglicheren und für das Zusammentreffen von MI contra FA auch wesentlich gefährlicheren doppelten Quintkanon machen, der der/dem Dux aber immerhin auch melodische Freiheit wieder zurückgibt, da sie/er nun wieder Sekunden singen darf. Eine große Gruppe von Comites in der fuga ad minimam engt die/den Dux auf nur noch sehr wenige melodische Bewegungen ein und bringt den modalen Raum zum Kippen.

Auch bei fast gleichbleibenden Intervallen und Melodieverhältnissen ändert sich so etwas wie das melodische Sozialverhalten: Primkanons und Sekundkanons können sehr ähnliche intervallische und melodische Situationen erzeugen, dennoch wirkt der Sekundkanon durch sein forderndes Transpositionsintervall und die Verschiebung der Solmisationssilben weitaus treibender.

III. Max Weber, Concordia Discord and Heterophony

The image of counterpoint in 19th and 20th-century music theory is most certainly not that of a singing group. When Max Weber speaks of counterpoint as “Kunstregelbau” (“rules of architecture”) and distinguishes it from more “primitive” forms of improvised polyphony, he is, among other things, elevating European-oriented notated musical forms above allegedly non-European, non-literate practices.[2] Implicit, too, is the celebration of the solitary genius above the social collective.[3]

Weber’s view of musical practice is as reductionist as it is amateurish in perspective, even within the context of a “pure” Western canon. What Weber fails to see is that polyphony can be seen as a space of social negotiation, entailing as it does the multidimensionality, diversity, and unpredictability of such polyphonic spaces. It can scarcely be overemphasized that such prejudicial foreshortening, reductionism, and silencing of other perspectives is rampant in texts throughout the history of Western music theory, even though social forces within musical practice are just as powerful and relevant. As an arena of contested social and even colonial power relations, however, such spaces of musical improvisation have been consistently over-shadowed by text-based theory in terms of method and content. It is interesting to observe how in the field of contrapuntal theory, these practices have been delimited and even expunged since at least the beginning of the 19th century.

Concordia discors[4] or varietas are common desiderata of modern counterpoint pedagogy in which complexity and contrast is favored in both written and visual depictions. We teach contrary motion as a value in itself, forbid repetition, and usually prefer extremely dense contrapuntal textures virtually overflowing with pitches and voices to represent our music-theoretical canon of exemplary counterpoint.

In the context of so-called occidental polyphony since the early modern period, the number of possible pitch constellations are limited and, even in experimental form, usually connect to theoretically sanctioned compositional models. The idea that contrapuntal power relations might somehow be more relevant than pitches (or even that we see both as equal co-factors) thus seems to be an absurdity.

Effects of polyphony developed from the dynamics of the group are bound by neither social nor by stylistic conditions. On the contrary, collective dynamics can leave their traces in any music and any culture.[5] Scholars such as Weber (and with him the mainstream of 20th-century music theory) tend to depreciate if not outright ignore heterophonic or particularly repetitive and modular structures of polyphony. But that does not mean that those structures do not exist. Even if one scratches only the surface of the Western canon, one finds vestiges of such group dynamics. 

The following sample from Johann Sebastian Bach´s Prelude in E flat major WTC I would be much more liberating to hear as heterophony if one theoretically allowed the same melodic pattern in the soprano and bass to sound in differing prolations in relation to the soggetto in the tenor.

III. Max Weber, Concordia Discors und Heterophonie

Das Bild vom Kontrapunkt in der Musiktheorie des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts ist ganz sicher nicht das Bild einer singenden Gruppe.

Wenn Max Weber vom Kontrapunkt als „Kunstregelbau“[1] spricht und ihn gegen „primitivere“[2] Formen improvisierter Mehrstimmigkeit abgrenzt, dann spielt er unter anderem auch die europäisch geprägte Schriftform gegen außereuropäische (angeblich) nicht verschriftete Praktiken aus, wie auch das einsame Genie gegen das sozial relevante Kollektiv.[3]

Webers vor allem laienhafte und reduktionistische Perspektive – sogar auf musikalische Praxis im Rahmen einer westlichen Kanonbildung  –  ist offensichtlich. Der Punkt jedoch, dass Mehrstimmigkeit ein Raum sozialer Aushandlung ist, ist interessant, auch wenn Weber die Mehrdimensionalität, Diversität und Unvorhersehbarkeit solcher Räume schlicht nicht sieht. Es ist von nicht zu überschätzender Wichtigkeit, solche Verkürzungen, Reduktionismen und Unterdrückung von Perspektiven in Texten der Geschichte westlicher Musiktheorie zu diagnostizieren. Allerdings sind die sozialen Kräfte in der musikalischen Praxis als aktiver Teil einer Geschichte westlicher Musiktheorie mindestens genauso wirkmächtig. Sie sind als Austragungsort sozialer Machtverhältnisse allerdings nicht deckungsgleich  mit textbasierter Theorie und methodisch wie inhaltlich nicht immer kompatibel. Interessant ist, dass sie im Bereich der Kontrapunktlehre spätestens seit dem 19. Jahrhundert missverständlich eingegrenzt und herausgefiltert werden:

Concordia discors[4] oder Varietas schlägt sich in der Lehre meistens in Kontrastbildungen nieder, die einem schriftlich-visuellen Dispositiv[5] eingeschrieben sind. Wir lehren Gegenbewegung als Wert an sich, verbieten Wiederholungen und wählen in der Regel extrem gedrängte, von verschiedenen Tonhöhen geradezu überfüllte Beispiele für einen musiktheoretischen Kanon aus.

Im Rahmen so genannter okzidentaler Mehrstimmigkeit seit der frühen Neuzeit sind mögliche Tonhöhenkonstellationen begrenzt, und haben auch in experimenteller Form meistens Anschluss an bereits theoretisch erfasste Satzmodelle und Harmonik. Wie abwegig ist jedoch der Gedanke, dass kontrapunktische Machtverhältnisse manchmal relevanter sein können als Tonhöhen, bzw. dass letztere nur in Kombination mit ersteren vorstellbar sind?

Aus der Dynamik der Gruppe entwickelte Wirkungen von Mehrstimmigkeit sind weder in Besetzung und Stil noch musikgeschichtlich besonders gebunden,[6]und auch heterophone oder besonders repetitive Spielarten von Mehrstimmigkeit werden von einem Verständnis von Kontrapunkt, wie Weber (und mit ihm fast die gesamte westliche Musiktheorie des 20. Jahrhunderts) es vertritt, eher ausgeblendet, als dass sie nicht stattfänden. Schon, wenn man nur oberflächlich am westlichen Kanon kratzt, findet man jedoch Beispiele, die zu derartigen Lesarten ermutigen.

Folgende Stichprobe aus dem Präludium in Es-Dur aus dem ersten Band des Wohltemperierten Klaviers von Johann Sebastian Bach ließe sich viel befreiender als Heterophonie hören, ließe man theoretisch zu, dass dasselbe melodische Pattern in Sopran und Bass in verschiedenen Zeitmaßen zum soggetto im Tenor erklingt.

Johann Sebastian Bach, Prelude E flat Major, WTC I, BWV 852, mm. 27–28

The canon loop in the upper fourth from the duet of Papageno and Papagena towards the end of Mozart´s opera The Magic Flute uses the canon’s circular structure to allow repetitions of the three-note motive potentially to cycle indefinitely, thus vividly realizing the procreational implications of the text.

Der Kanon-Loop in der Unterquinte aus dem Duett zwischen Papagena und Papageno aus der Zauberflöte von Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart nutzt die kreisende Struktur des Kanons, um die Wiederholungen des dreitönigen Motivs potentiell unendlich weiterlaufen zu lassen, was den Textgedanken plastisch umsetzt.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), #29, Duett, mm. 56–58.

And the renunciation of musical community and affirmation in this next example from Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s motet “Verleih uns Frieden (even the denial of harmony at the word “allein”) exaggerates Protestant (Schleiermacherian) beliefs in a very personal way: God has no comites.

Und auch das Verweigern musikalischer Gemeinsamkeit und Affirmation in der Klausel, ja sogar das Verweigern von Mehrstimmigkeit beim Wort „alleine“ (alone) in Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdys Motette „Verleih uns Frieden“ überspitzt auf sehr persönliche Weise  protestantische (Schleiermachersche) Glaubensverhältnisse: Gott hat keine Comites.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, “Verleih uns Frieden”, WoO 5, mm. 94–98.

IV. Conclusion: Polyphony as Sociality

“There is no more obvious expression of power than the performance of a conductor.”[6]

Super librum cantare presupposes within its pedagogical context a social constellation in which a single text is shared by all, such that every singer takes part. The teacher’s role is flexible, ranging from conductor to primus/prima inter pares to merely a participating observer. It is a common situation in the late Middle Ages in both Occidental and Oriental cultures; it is a recurrent feature in all centers of knowledge production and in the early universities.[7]

A contemporary understanding of history need not insist that the changes counterpoint rules underwent in early modern collectives up to the time of Max Weber and Guido Adler constitutes a metamorphosis or linear narrative with teleological logic. It is significant that an undisputedly classic such as Calvisius’s Melopoiia, canonized even in the 19th century, still bears traces of contrapuntal sociality. In a famous study, Norbert Elias imaginatively images a society as a contrapuntal choreography of individuals.[8] This picture is surely more adequate than Weber’s rigid architectural metaphor. But it is still a manifestly Western society that results from this sociality. 

Performative and social dynamics of polyphony—be they collectives in virtual or mental form—emerge in any socially organized act of communication. But organizations differ. Historically informed music theory does not separate these contingencies from musical structures. Music theoretical framings occasionally stand in the way of analyzing such socialities. A critique of Western, white music theory should not stop with texts but also engage with these musical dynamics.[9]

[1] In English music theory texts, “comes” is often translated as “follower.” Yet such a translation misses the sense of compatibility and even equality that the term “companion” evokes—not to mention its closer etymology to the original Latin.

[2] Weber 1921, 54 and 61.

[3] Jeßulat 2017.

[4] Dorschel 2010.

[5] Agawu 2016b, 18–19.

[6] Canetti 1981, 394.

[7] Berkey 2013.

[8] Elias 1991, 19—20.

[9] Ewell 2020.

IV. Mehrstimmigkeit als Sozialität

„Es gibt keinen anschaulicheren Ausdruck für Macht als die Tätigkeit des Dirigenten.“[7]

Super librum cantare setzt mit der Lehrsituation eine soziale Konstellation voraus, in der ein einziger Text von allen geteilt wird, bei der alle mit erhobener Stimme Anteil  haben. Die Rolle der Lehrperson ist flexibel und reicht vom Dirigat über den primus/die prima inter pares bis zur teilnehmenden Beobachtung. Diese Situation findet sich im späten Mittelalter sowohl in der okzidentaler als auch in orientaler Kultur, sie ist wiederkehrender Bestandteil in Zentren der Wissensproduktion, in frühen Universitäten.[8]

Ein modernes Geschichtsverständnis definiert die Veränderungen, die das Entstehen von Kontrapunktregeln in frühneuzeitlichen Kollektiven bis zu ihrer subjektzentrierten Festschreibung bei Max Weber und Guido Adler sozusagen erfahren hat, nicht unbedingt als Metamorphose oder lineares Narrativ mit teleologischer Logik. Es ist bezeichnend, dass ein hochgradig westliches und auch im 19. Jahrhundert kanonisiertes Werk wie die Melopoiia des Calvisius noch Spuren kontrapunktischer Sozialität trägt. Norbert Elias überblendet Choreographien der Gesellschaft der Individuen[9] mit kontrapunktischem Denken, und obwohl dieser Gedanke wesentlich adäquater zu sein scheint als Webers starrer Kunstregelbau, ist es von vornherein eine westlich organisierte Gesellschaft, die genau diese Sozialitäten erzeugt.

Performative und soziale Dynamiken von Mehrstimmigkeit – sei es in Kollektiven, in virtueller oder mentaler Form – entstehen in jeder Form gesellschaftlich organisierter Kommunikation. Historisch informierte Musiktheorie trennt diese Kontingenzen nicht von musikalischen Strukturen. Musiktheoretische Rahmungen stehen der Analyse solcher Sozialitäten gelegentlich im Wege. Die Kritik westlicher, weißer Musiktheorie[10] sollte nicht bei den Texten stehenbleiben, sondern sich mit diesen musikalischen Dynamiken beschäftigen.

[1] Weber 1921, 54.

[2] Weber 1921, 61.

[3] Jeßulat 2017.

[4] Dorschel 2010.

[5] Foucault 2008, 1086–1088.

[6] Agawu 2016b, 18–19.

[7] Canetti 1994, 468.

[8] Berkey 2013.

[9] Elias 1991, 19–20.

[10] Ewell 2020.


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——— (2016b). The African Imagination in Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Berkey, Jonathan P. (2013). “Enseigner et apprendre au temps des madrasas.” In: Lumières de la sagesse. Écoles médiévales d´Orient et d´Occident. Ed. by Éric Vallet, Sandra Aube and Thierry Kouamé. Paris: Publication de la Sorbonne. 138–145.

Busse Berger, Anna Maria (2005). Medieval Music and the Art of Memory. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———, and Jesse Rodin (2015) (Ed.). The Cambridge History of Fifteenth-Century Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Canetti, Elias (1981). Crowds and Power. Translated by Carol Stewart. New York: Continuum.

Canguilhem, Philippe (2013). Chanter sur le livre à la Renaissance. Les traités de contrepoint de Vicente Lusitano. Turnhout: Brepols.

——— (2015), L´Improvisation polyphonique à la Renaissance, Paris: Classiques Garnier.

Calvisius, Seth (1592). Melopoiia. Erfurt: Georg Baumann.

Cumming, Julie E. (2011). “Composing Imitative Counterpoint around a Cantus Firmus: Two Motets by Heinrich Isaac.” The Journal of Musicology 28/3. 231–288.

——— (2013). “Renaissance Improvisation and Musicology.” Music Theory Online 19.2. https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.13.19.2/mto.13.19.2.cumming.html

Dorschel, Andreas (2010). “Der ›Kunstregelbau‹. Kontrapunkt in Max Webers Fragment ›Zu Musiksoziologie‹.” In: Philosophie des Kontrapunkts. Ed. by Ullrich Tadday (=Musik-Konzepte Sonderband, Neue Folge, Vol. 11/2010). München: text & kritik. 135–142.

Elias, Norbert (1991). The Society of Individuals. Ed. by Michael Schröter. Transl. by Edmund Jephcott. New York: Continuum.

Ewell, Philip A. (2020). “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame.” Music Theory Online 26.2. https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.20.26.2/mto.20.26.2.ewell.html, DOI: 10.30535/mto.26.2.4

Foucault, Michel (2008). Die Hauptwerke. Mit einem Nachwort von Axel Honneth und Martin Saar. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp.

Janin, Barnabé (2012). Chanter sur le livre. Manuel pratique d´improvisation polyphonique de la Renaissance (15ème et 16ème siècles). Langres: Éditions Dominique Guéniot.

Jans, Markus (1986). “Alle gegen eine: Satzmodelle in Note-gegen-Note-Sätzen des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts.” Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis 10. 101–20.

Jeßulat, Ariane (2017). “Intellectum tibi dabo. Zur Soziologie des Kontrapunkts.” In: Musiktheorie im 19. Jahrhunderts. 11. Jahreskongress der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie in Bern 2011. Ed. by Martin Skamletz, Michael Lehner and Stephan Zirwes. Schliengen: Argus. 189–200.

Owens, Jessie Ann (1997). Composers at Work: The Craft of Musical Composition, 1450–1600. New York: Oxford University Press.

Said, Edward W. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage.

Schiltz, Katelijne and Bonnie J. Blackburn (2007) (Eds.). Canons and Canonic Techniques, 14th–16th Centuries: Theory, Practice, and Reception History. Proceedings of the International Conference, Leuven, 4–6 October 2005 (= Analysis in Context. Leuven Studies in Musicology 1), Leuven: Peeters.

Schröder, Gesine (2008). Tempus Musicae – Tempus Mundi. Untersuchungen zu Seth Calvisius. Hildesheim: Olms.

Schubert, Peter (2013). “From Improvisation to Composition: Three 16th Century Case Studies.” In: Improvising Early Music. Ed. by Dirk Moelants. Leuven: Leuven University Press. 93–130.

Schröder, Gesine (2008). Tempus Musicae – Tempus Mundi. Untersuchungen zu Seth Calvisius. Hildesheim: Olms.

Tenzer, Michael (2019). “Polyphony.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory. Ed. by Alexander Rehding and Stephen Rings. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 602–647.

Winterfeld, Carl von (1834). Johannes Gabrieli und sein Zeitalter 1. Berlin: Schlesinger.

Winterfeld, Carl von (1843). Der evangelische Kirchengesang und sein Verhältnis zur Kunst des Tonsatzes 1. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Winterfeld, Carl von (1845). Der evangelische Kirchengesang und sein Verhältnis zur Kunst des Tonsatzes 2. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Zarlino, Gioseffo (1558). Le Istitutioni Harmoniche. Venice: Franceschi.

Ita se n’er’a star: Insights for a Fourteenth-Century Tactus (Ita se n’er’a star e un’ipotesi sul tactus nel Trecento) (Part II)

Davide Daolmi

(English Translation: Giulia Accornero)

[…] Continuation of: Part I

As we have seen in Part I, the differences between SqA to SqB reveal the adoption of a different divisio to convey different tempi in proportional relation to a stable tactus. The function of this notational device will later develop into what is known as cut time (¤ ¢). In effect, if one compares the use of Italian and Gallic divisiones as presented in the Rubrice with the modern concept of integer valor, then the tempi minores and minimi are equivalent to the cut time (diminutum).[1] That the metrical solutions achieved through the system of divisions were maintained in white mensural notation, should not come as a surprise since the shift from black to white notation was of an exclusively graphic nature.

In this second part of the post, based on the Rubrice, I suggest that in the first half of the fourteenth century the Italian system adopted a tactus that was faster than that of France, and which, slowing down in the second half of the century, came to be adapted to the prevailing French model.

In other words, if Marchetto’s Pomerium presents Bs of different values only in relation to their perfection or imperfection, later, the Rubrice provide the means to adapt the tactus to both the S and the B as well as offers two tactus, i.e. an Italian one and a slightly slower French one.

The Rubrice, as observed by Gozzi 2001, provide an varied range of tempi that could be summarized as follows (t = tactus italico, t* = tactus gallico): [2]

Come spiegato nella prima parte, la trasformazione da SqA a SqB rivela l’adozione di una diversa divisio al fine di comunicare l’uso di diversi tempi in relazione proporzionale ad un tactus stabile. La funzione di questo espediente notazionale verrà in seguito assorbito dall’uso del tempo tagliato (¤ ¢). In pratica se alle divisiones italiche e galliche delle Rubrice si associa il moderno concetto di integer valor, i tempi minores e minimi trovano corrispondenza in quello che poi sarà il tempo tagliato (diminutum).[1] Questa anticipazione di soluzioni metriche che apparterranno poi al mensuralismo bianco non deve stupire: il passaggio da notazione nera a bianca fu una trasformazione esclusivamente grafica, e sarebbe stato poco probabile che princìpi così importanti come i rapporti fra durate venissero abbandonati.

Sulla base delle Rubrice si può fare un passo ulteriore e ipotizzare che il sistema italiano gestisse nel primo Trecento un tactus più rapido di quello francese, per poi subire un rallentamento nella seconda metà del Trecento allo scopo di adeguarsi al modello francese dominante.

In pratica se con Marchetto le diverse durate fra B sembrano riguardare solo il rapporto perfetta/imperfetta, in seguito con le Rubrice non solo si esplicita la possibilità di adattare il tactus sia alla S, sia alla B, ma si propone un doppio tactus di durata lievemente differente, dove quello francese è un po’ più rallentato.

Le Rubrice infatti, come ha notato Gozzi 2001, propongono una casistica assai articolata dei tempi di esecuzione che può essere così sintetizzata (t = tactus italico, t* = tactus gallico): [2]

In the above table, the dark grey background indicates that the division had already been identified by Gallo (1966/a: 61-63.) In addition to drawing up the propositional relationship between the Italian divisiones, the Rubrice offer an alternative tactus, termed rariora (here presented on light-gray background). While Gozzi (2001) has already drawn attention to the presence of a double tactus, I disagree with his claim that the adjective rarius stands for “sparse,” “infrequent”—that is, slower.  In fact, since the term denotes the faster variation of the senaria imperfecta (4/i), it should be understood in its common sense of “less frequently used”.[3] It is likely that the options termed rariora were used on occasion, only for certain musical genres.

(Where the divisions are framed by a dashed line, this is based on my own conjecture; they were not mentioned in the Rubrice, possibly because they were not in use.)

What I find particularly revealing in the Rubrice is the presence of two different tactus based on the speed of the Ms, as showed in the above table. The Italian system featured a uniform articulation of 4 Ms while the French system relied on a 3 Ms articulation, possibly used to provide a slower alternative.

In the Rubrice, these two types of tactus, in which the Ms stand in sesquitertian proportion (that is t e t*), appears to be an attempt to compare  local Italian practice with that imported from France. Given that the French tactus was based on the rate of the pulse (ideally t* = 72-80 bpm), we can assume that the Italian tactus would have had a pace of 96-106 bpm. We cannot determine, however, if and how these notational options shaped performance.

Although the French model would come to prevail by the end of the Trecento, most of the music in Italian notation, especially from mid-Trecento, seems better suited to a faster tempo.  Ita se n’era, despite the use of extremely small values, also requires  a quicker tactus.[4] (This would also corroborate its proposed date of composition, i.e. mid-Trecento.) It is therefore inappropriate to slow down the tactus to better accommodate the smaller values introduced by Lorenzo. This notation, in fact, might have been devised so as to record the extemporaneous embellishments of professional singers, which required a rapid execution to avoid ponderous phrasing.

Perhaps the reasons why Lorenzo’s solution was doomed to fail rests in his aspiration to write what, at that time, belonged to singers’ improvising ability and could work only in certain specific performative circumstances. Only a few decades later, however, the ars subtilior would again attempt to adapt the notation to express ornamental melodic passages.[5] Nevertheless, Lorenzo’s attempt opens a window onto mid-Trecento improvising practice. It confirms that singers used to introduce diminutions also in polyphonic practice and lends credence to the theory that the principles of tactus were already part of performance practice.

[1] While it is true that the two “devices” do not map perfectly onto each other, tactus theory has been ambiguous ever since its first formulations. In many treatises cut time is not simply a tactus doubled in speed (the beat alla breve), but rather an indication of acceleratio mensure (DeFord 2015: 126).

[2] I provide a detailed examination of the Rubrice—a synoptical edition based on the three extant manuscripts and a critical commentary—at  www.examenapium.it/rubrice.

[3] The difference between my table and Gozzi’s are limited to the senaria perfecta. For details, see the online edition mentioned in the previous footnote.

[4] While we cannot rely on one performance for statistical significance, the ensemble Platino87 has recorded the madrigal Ita se n’era  in the Cd La bella mandorla (Cpo, Köln 2012) adopting a metronome marking of approximately 108 beats per minute.

[5] «The resultant manuscript represents a ‘finished’ version, but there remains the possibility that it may have further and alternatively decorated by performers» (Greig 2003: 202).

Le Rubrice, oltre a mettere in proporzione le divisiones italiche (quelle su fondino grigio scuro già individuate in Gallo 1966/a: 61-63), descrivono anche soluzioni alternative, dette rariora, con tactus differente (fondino grigio chiaro). Gozzi (2001) aveva messo a fuoco quest’aspetto del doppio tactus, tuttavia interpretava l’aggettivo rarius con significato di ‘rado, diradato’, cioè più lento. Dal momento però che il termine identifica anche la variante più rapida della senaria imperfetta (4/i.) deve necessariamente esser inteso nel suo significato comune di ‘usato meno di frequente’.[3] Con tutta probabilità, le forme rariora erano occasionali e si usavano solo per alcuni generi musicali.

Le Rubrice non parlano delle forme che nello schema ho riquadrato con un tratteggio probabilmente perché non erano praticate (qui le propongo congetturalmente per completare lo schema).

Il dato tuttavia interessante è che lo schema mostra chiaramente come scaturiscano due diversi tactus legati alla velocità della M. Sulla base di una scansione uniforme il sistema italiano ne accoglieva generalmente 4, mentre l’andamento a 3M delle forme galliche poteva essere utilizzato per creare un’alternativa più lenta.

Questo doppio livello di M con due tipi di tactus in proporzione sesquiterza (t e t*), sembra un tentativo delle Rubrice di mettere in relazione la pratica locale (italica) con quella d’importazione francese. Dal momento che il tactus francese sarà associato alla pulsazione sanguigna (idealmente t* = 72-80 bpm) possiamo assumere che il tactus italiano fosse attorno ai 96-106 bpm. Evidentelemte è difficile dire quanto questo principio fosse realmente applicato nella pratica.

Sebben dalla fine del secolo sarà il modello francese a prevalere, tutta la musica in notazione italiana, almeno quella di medio Trecento, sembra preferire un ritmo più spigliato di quella francese. Anche Ita se n’era, malgrado l’uso di valori piccolissimi, richiede un tactus rapido,[4] e questo conferma la data di composizione attestata vicina alla metà del secolo. Inopportuno quindi rallentare il tactus per gestire meglio i nuovi valori introdotti da Lorenzo. Si tratta infatti di una forma di notazione che sembra voler restituire quelli che erano gli abbellimenti estemporanei del cantore professionista, passaggi che pertanto richiedono un’esecuzione rapida, necessaria per non rendere estenuato l’intero madrigale.

Le ragioni per cui la soluzione di Lorenzo non ebbe successo è perché forse pretese scrivere ciò che in quel momento apparteneva all’abilità dell’improvvisazione e poteva funzionare solo in specifiche circostanze performative (solo qualche decennio dopo l’ars subtilior tenterà anch’essa di piegare la notazione a prescrivere forme ornamentali della melodia).[5] Il fallimento di Lorenzo apre uno spiraglio sulla pratica improvvisativa di metà Trecento, non solo confermando un’ovvietà, ovvero che i cantanti amavano introdurre diminuzioni anche nella pratica polifonica, ma rendendo concreta l’ipotesi che i principi del tactus erano, nella pratica, già normalmente adottati.

[1] La corrispondenza non è puntuale, ma del resto la teoria del tactus, fin dalle prime formulazioni, rimane incerta. Il tempo tagliato, in molti trattati, non è semplicemente un tactus di velocità doppia (poi battuto alla breve), ma un’indicazione di acceleratio mensure (DeFord 2015: 126).

[2] Propongo una disamina dettagliata dell’intero testo delle Rubrice, con l’edizione sinottica dei tre testimoni e un commento critico, alla pagina www.examenapium.it/rubrice.

[3] Le differenze fra il mio schema e quello di Gozzi, in realtà limitate solo alla senaria imperfetta, sono esplicitate nell’edizione on line segnalata alla nota precedente.

[4] Per quanto sia significativa una sola esecuzione, l’unica in questo momento, l’ensemble Platino 87 ha inciso il madrigale nel Cd La bella mandorla (Cpo, Köln 2012) adottando un metronomo vicino a 108.

[5] «The resultant manuscript represents a ‘finished’ version, but there remains the possibility that it may have further and alternatively decorated by performers» (Greig 2003: 202).

Bibliographical References

Apel 1942
Willi Apel, The notation of polyphonic music: 900-1600, Cambridge ms: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1942, 61961, trad. it. Firenze: Sansoni, 1984.

Bonge 1982
Dale Bonge, Gaffurius on pulse and tempo: A reinterpretation, «Musica disciplina», 36 (1982), pp. 167–74.

DeFord 2015
Ruth I. DeFord, Tactus, mensuration, and rhythm in Renaissance music, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2015.

Gaffurio 1496
Franchino Gaffurio, Practica musice, Mediolani: Ioannis Petri de Lomatio, 1496; trad. it. ed. Paolo Vittorelli, Firenze: Galluzzo, 2017.

Gallo 1966/a
F. Alberto Gallo, La teoria della notazione in Italia dalla fine del xiii all’inizio del xiv secolo, Bologna: Tamari, 1966.

—— 1966/b
Mensurabilis musicae tractatuli, ed. F. Alberto Gallo, Bologna: Amis, 1966.

Gehring-Huck 2004
Julia Gehring, Oliver Huck, La notazione italiana del trecento, «Rivista Italiana di Musicologia», 39/2 (2004), pp. 235-270.

Gozzi 1995
Marco Gozzi, La cosiddotta ‘Longanotation’: Nuove prospettive sulla notazione italiana del Trecento, «Musica disciplina», 49 (1995), pp. 121-149.

—— 2001
Marco Gozzi, New light on Italian Trecento notation, «Recercare», 13 (2001), pp. 5-78.

Greig 2003
Donald Greig, Ars Subtilior repertory as performance palimsest, «Early Music», May 2003, pp. 197-209.

Sairisi 1975
Nancy G. Siraisi, “The Music of Pulse in the Writings of Italian Academic Physicians (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries)”, Speculum, 50/4 (1975): 689-710.

Sartori 1938
Claudio Sartori, La notazione italiana del Trecento in una redazione inedita del ‘Tractatus practice cantus mensurabilis ad modum ytalicorum’ di Prosdocimo de Beldemandis, Firenze: Olschki, 1938.

Sucato 2007
Marchetto da Padova, Lucidarium. Pomerium, ed. Marco Della Sciucca, Tiziana Sucato, Carla Vivarelli, Firenze: Galluzzo, 2007.

Wolf 1919
Johannes Wolf, Handbuch der Notationskunde, 2 voll., Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1913-1919.

The Singing Group: Polyphony and Power (Die singende Gruppe – Mehrstimmigkeit und Macht) (Part I)

Ariane Jeßulat

(English Translation: Ariane Jeßulat and Thomas Christensen)

I. Participation in Harmony

In the Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory, Michael Tenzer subjects our current understanding of “polyphony” to critical revision.[1] The initial question of “how do two sounds differ from one another?” opens up a space for reconsiderations outside of the traditional Western frame of contrapuntal theory.  In doing so, however, Tenzer leaves no doubt that certain historical perspectives are difficult to detach from the social and political conditions of their emergence and dissemination. On the other hand, this need not prevent us from hearing, viewing, and analyzing traditional Western repertoire from a different perspective.

In his essay on the colonizing effect of tonality on Christian hymns within African musical culture, Kofi Agawu draws attention to the important role of the collective.[2] In an analysis that demonstrates the radical effect cadential articulation can have in appropriated hymnal practice, Agawu also shows, as almost a side effect, what collective singing practices can do to tonal structures.

In this blog, I hope to spotlight the role of collective practices as they may have operated at the heart of occidental contrapuntal practice and theory.  My ideas, I should acknowledge, have been stimulated by the current spate of research on improvised polyphonic counterpoint in the Renaissance. In essence, I believe it is fruitful to see vocal polyphony of this time less as some a priori compositional “structure,” and more as an open space in which singing communities may exert agency through group dynamics by which communication and power may be distributed, appropriated, and even rejected. 

Let me begin with a well-known source from late 17th century that was already singled out by the 19th-century music historian, Carl von Winterfeld (1834, 94; 1843, 352–359; 1843, 18): the Melopoiia of Seth Calvisius (Schröder 2008). In the spirit of Edward Said, I would like to subject this text to a ‘contrapuntal reading’ thereby bringing out its little-noticed social elements.[3]   

Even before Calvisius introduces sounds (soni) as the basic material of all harmony in his Melopoiia, he inserts an introductory chapter, whose deeply social perspective may not at first be noticeable from its title: “De partibus harmoniae.”[4] Translated from the Latin according to traditional music-theoretical usage, this would mean, roughly, the “voices of polyphonic harmony.” However, after reading this second chapter (it follows directly the general definition of composition or “Melopoiia”), it becomes clear that such a literal translation of an intradisciplinarily-saturated expression would miss the point.

At first, the chapter seems to do what one traditionally expects of a music theorist of his day: Calvisius distinguishes performed polyphony, which can have up to fifty voices, from structural polyphony, which shall not exceed four voices. Not surprisingly, Calvisius explains the concept of harmony from the venerable Pythagorean tradition of numbers. But these numbers actually turn into social gestures; they gain meaning by the ways in which the singing group—through its makeup and its dynamic as well as social forces—play a role at least as important as acoustical proportions.

This idiosyncrasy culminates in the intentional mistranslation of the Greek term νήτη [néte—the highest note of the standardized tetrachord following Boethius]. After Calvisius associates the four strings of the ancient lyre with Latin voice designations, one reads the following:

I. Teilnahme

Im Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory unterzieht Michael Tenzer[1] das aktuelle Verständnis von „Polyphony“ einer kritischen Revision. Die Ausgangsfrage „wie sich zwei Töne voneinander unterscheiden“ öffnet den Raum für Betrachtungen, die sich von der traditionellen westlichen Rahmung in der Theorie des Kontrapunkts zu lösen versuchen. Dabei lässt er jedoch keinen Zweifel an dem Umstand, dass bestimmte historische Blickwinkel aus den gesellschaftlichen und politischen Bedingungen ihrer Entstehung und Verbreitung schwer herauszulösen sind. Andersherum sollte dies aber auch nicht davon abhalten, auch solch traditionell westliches Repertoire aus einem veränderten Blickwinkel zu hören, zu betrachten und zu analysieren.

Kofi Agawu[2] hat in seinem Essay über die kolonialisierende Wirkung von tonalen christlichen Hymnen auf die afrikanische Musikkultur hellsichtig auf die Rolle von Kollektiven hingewiesen. In einer Analyse, die die tiefgreifende Wirkung tonaler Kadenzmodelle auf appropriierte Hymnen nachweist, zeigt sich – quasi als Nebenwirkung – wie eine kollektive Gesangspraxis tonale Strukturen verändern kann.

Dieser Blogeintrag versucht, auf die Rolle kollektiver Praxen, wie sie auch im Herzen okzidentaler Kontrapunktpraxis und –theorie gewirkt haben dürften, stichprobenartig hinzuweisen. Die zahlreichen Forschungen zu improvisiertem, mehrstimmigen Kontrapunkt seit der frühen Renaissance spielen für diese Anregungen eine essentielle Rolle. Im Kern geht es darum, in sogenannten „Strukturen“ von Mehrstimmigkeit weniger a priori gegebene Räume von Tonalität zu sehen als vielmehr gruppendynamische Gesten der Verteilung, Aneignung und Ablehnung von Kommunikation und Macht.

Bewusst setze ich bei einer theoretisch schon seit der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts  „wiederentdeckten“ (Winterfeld 1834, 94; 1843, 352–359; 1843, 18),  aber hier einem contrapuntal reading[3] unterzogenen Quelle, an: der Melopoiia des Seth Calvisius (Schröder 2008).

Noch bevor Calvisius in seinem Lehrwerk die Klänge als Ausgangsmaterial jeder Harmonie einführt, schaltet er ein Kapitel davor[4], dessen zutiefst soziale Perspektive dem Titel erst einmal nicht anzumerken ist:

De partibus harmoniae

Direkt übersetzt nach den Standards eines musiktheoretischen Gebrauchs lateinischer Fachbegriffe hieße dies: Die Stimmen des mehrstimmigen Satzes. Nach der Lektüre dieses zweiten Kapitels – es folgt direkt auf die allgemeine Definition von Komposition („Melopoiia“) – wird allerdings klar, dass eine solche intradisziplinär gesättigte Übersetzung die Pointe verfehlen würde.

Das Kapitel scheint zunächst das zu tun, was man von musiktheoretischem Denken traditionell erwartet: Calvisius unterscheidet praktizierte Mehrstimmigkeit, die bis zu 50 Stimmen haben kann, von struktureller Mehrstimmigkeit, die 4 Stimmen nicht übersteigt. Natürlich erklärt Calvisius den Harmoniebegriff aus pseudo-antiker Tradition und natürlich spricht er über Zahlen. Diese Zahlen schlagen aber in soziale Gesten um, sie gewinnen eine Bedeutung, in der die Gruppe, ihre Zusammensetzung und ihre dynamischen wie sozialen Kräfte eine mindestens ebenso große Rolle spielen wie akustische Proportionen.

Diese Eigenwilligkeit gipfelt in der intentionalen Fehlübersetzung des Begriffs νήτη. Nachdem Calvisius die 4 Saiten der antiken Lyra mit den lateinischen Stimmbezeichnungen zusammengeführt hat, liest man folgendes:

“Et νήτην [néten] in senario Supremam vel DISCANTUM, quod in extremis sonis versaretur & primus ad discendum pueris proponeretur, quibus maximé propter vocis acumen conveniret, Cum νεός unde νήτη derivatur, interdum etiam adolescentem vel puerum significat.”

“And the νήτη with the length ‘six’ is called Suprema or DISCANTUS, because it moves in the highest notes and is first presented in lessons to boys, to whom it is especially suited on account of the height of the voice. Νεός (young) from which νήτη is derived, sometimes means ‘adolescent’ or ‘boy’.”

The entire derivation is as interesting as it is fanciful, ignoring completely as it does the changes Boethius made to the ancient tonal systems. It arbitrarily links modern voice registers with ancient theory, providing a very intelligible but historically inaccurate etymology.

Although Calvisius analyses the transfer of ancient music theory to the didactics of his time based on various passages from the second part of Gioseffo Zarlino’s Istitutioni Hamoniche[5], the argument focusing on the notion of the collective mentioned earlier is entirely his own: the chorus (the singing group) is treated before relations of consonance and dissonance. Mathematical relations are inseparable from social ones. The discantus (a boy) sings an octave above the bass in the ideal placement given by Calvisius and is subordinate to the bass in terms of social position, but particularly in regard to intonation. As concerns modulation and form, though, the leader is the tenor, even as the discantus is the most clearly heard. His pseudo-Vergilian hexametric verses make this clear:

„Und die νήτη mit der Länge ›sechs‹ nannten sie Suprema oder DISCANTUS, weil sie sich in den höchstens Tönen bewegt und zuerst im Unterricht den Knaben vorgelegt wird, denen sie besonders wegen der Höhe der Stimme entgegenkommt, Weil νεός, woher νήτη abgeleitet ist, heißt ja manchmal ›Heranwachsender‹ oder ›Junge‹.“

Die gesamte Herleitung ist als Erfindung hochinteressant, überspringt die Wende der antiken Tonsysteme bei Boethius, lässt ebenso eigenmächtig die modernen Stimmenregister aus antiker Theorie erwachsen und liefert schließlich eine sehr fassliche, aber historisch nicht zutreffende Etymologie.

Obwohl Calvisius den Transfer der antiken Musiktheorie auf die Didaktik seiner Zeit aus verschiedenen Passagen des zweiten Teils der Istitutioni Hamoniche[5] von Gioseffo Zarlino zusammenzieht, sind die hervorgehobene Position dieses Themas im Buch sowie die Zuspitzung auf die Gruppe an dieser Stelle seine persönliche Schwerpunktsetzung: Der Chor, die singende Gruppe, wird vor den Verhältnissen von Konsonanz und Dissonanz behandelt. Die mathematischen Verhältnisse sind offenbar von den sozialen nicht zu trennen. Der Discantus, der Junge, singt in der idealen Aufstellung, die Calvisius gibt, eine Oktave über dem Bass und muss sich seiner sozialen Stellung nach, ganz sicher aber hinsichtlich der Intonation nach dem Bass richten. Anführer, vor allem was Modulation und Formbildung angeht, ist dagegen der Tenor – besonders gut gehört wird hingegen der Discantus. Die pseudo-Vergilischen Verse in Hexametern machen dies deutlich:

Primus in aure sonis dominatur Cantus acutis.

Sed Tenor est vocum rector, ductorque canentum.

Altus Apollineum carmen depingit et ornat,

Bassus alit voces confortat, fundat & auget.

“The cantus is the first to reign with its high notes in the ear.

But the tenor is the guide and leader of the singing voices.

The alto paints and decorates the Apollonian song,

the bass nourishes, supports, grounds, and amplifies the other voices.”

This early modern arrangement of socialized hierarchies in the vocal ensemble – here only one among many – is well known. But in the Melopoiia, it almost comes close to being a Family Novel avant la lettre.

How would this work in practice?

Calvisius is known to be one of the last theorists to detail—if retrospectively—rules for improvised polyphony, so he knew and influenced that practice at that late period. But what do we know about the social parameters of musical communication while improvising with a group of pupils who likely possessed quite differing levels of competence? We must imagine that young boys would be singing the altus and discantus parts before their voices broke, while presumably a slightly more experienced student sings the tenor. But how could a tenor know when to close on a cadence, or perhaps initiate something else affecting the modulation, when the harmony had to be introduced by the bass—sung by the teacher—beforehand? Did the pupil direct the teacher in making as important a decision as when to cadence?

Much research has provided insight into historical improvisational practices over the last 15 years. Anna Maria Busse Berger, Jessie Ann Owens, Julie Cumming, Katelijne Schiltz, Peter Schubert, Philippe Canguilhem, Barnabé Janin,  and Markus Jans are some of the many scholars who have published excellent studies on the subject so that such improvisations can now be substantially reconstructed by singers.[6] It is odd, though, that these resurrected practices have not transformed the teaching of polyphony and counterpoint into a more social practice, a collective work of creative sociability that remains even when tonal structures change or disappear.

In the Melopoiia, Calvisius portrays this practice using the rhetoric of Caesar and Cicero as one whose social character goes back to far older forms of communication and teaching traditions rewritten in humanistic terms. Unlike other well-known instructional works, his 21st chapter is not a very practical one for introducing polyphonic improvisation, at least as concerns conveying the potential of a musically compelling group dynamic. A short cantus firmus comprised mainly of stepwise motion in the melody poses an almost insurmountable challenge for singers who may be trying to add voices in canonic imitation, no matter their level of expertise. At best, the result sounds little more than a didactic exercise of sequences.   

It is illuminating to see, however, how each of the 20 preceding chapters represent one step in the education of the vocal ensemble. Writing and “Singeschule” are intertwined in all of the chapters. The Melopoiia can arguably be seen as the first exemplar of the modern textbook in the history of music theory.

[1] Tenzer 2019, 606–609.

[2] Agawu 2016a.

[3] Said 1993, 71.

[4] Calvisius 1592, Cap. 2.

[5] Zarlino 1558.

[6] Busse Berger 2005 and 2015; Owens 1997; Cumming 2011 and 2013; Schiltz/Blackburn 2007; Schubert 2013; Canguilhem 2013 and 2015; Janin 2012; and Jans 1986.

„Als erster herrscht der Cantus mit seinen hohen Tönen im Ohr.

Aber der Tenor ist der Lenker und Anführer der singenden Stimmen.

Der Alt malt und schmückt das Apollinische Lied aus,

der Bass nährt, unterstützt, gründet und verstärkt die anderen Stimmen.“

Diese frühneuzeitliche Aufstellung der Funktionsträger im Vokalensemble – hier nur eine unter vielen – ist bekannt, kommt hier aber fast in die Nähe eines Familienromans avant la lettre.

Wie wirkte sich das in der Praxis aus?

Calvisius ist bekanntlich eine eher späte Quelle, in der detaillierte Regeln für improvisierte Mehrstimmigkeit gegeben werden, allerdings kannte, lehrte und beherrschte er die Praxis.  Sang im Bassus meistens der Lehrer? Wenn in Altus und Discantus Knaben vor dem Stimmbruch und im Tenor die erfahrenen Schüler sangen, wie wäre man besonders bei der Improvisation mit der Situation umgegangen, dass die unerfahrensten Mitglieder der Gruppe am prominentesten zu hören waren? Wie lösten Tenöre das Problem, eine Entscheidung für eine Klausel oder eine andere die Modulation großflächig betreffende Initiative ergreifen zu wollen, dabei aber gegebenenfalls den Bass vorher dazu zu bringen, dies auch für sie einzuleiten? Gaben Sie dann dem Lehrer im Bass Anweisungen?

Über all dies ist in den letzten 15 Jahren viel geforscht worden. Anna Maria Busse Berger[6], Jessie Ann Owens[7], Julie Cumming[8], Katelijne Schiltz[9], Peter Schubert[10], Philippe Canguilhem[11], Barnabé Janin[12], Markus Jans[13] und viele andere mehr haben wunderbare Bücher und Texte dazu publiziert, so dass solche Improvisationen inzwischen substantiell rekonstruiert werden können. Es ist schon fast verwunderlich, dass diese wieder eingesetzten Praxen die Lehre von der Mehrstimmigkeit und vom Kontrapunkt nicht viel mehr in eine soziale Praxis verwandelt haben, in eine Arbeit im Kollektiv, die Sozialitäten schafft, welche auch dann erhalten bleiben, wenn sich die tonalen Strukturen ändern oder aufheben.

Calvisius präsentiert in der Melopoiia in der archivierten Prosa Cäsars und Ciceros eine Praxis, deren soziales Gepräge auf wesentliche ältere Kommunikationsformen und Lehrtraditionen zurückgeht, welche er hier humanistisch überschreibt. Im Gegensatz zu anderen bekannten Lehrwerken ist sein eigener Lehrgang zur mehrstimmigen Improvisation im 21. Kapitel nicht besonders gut, wenn es darum geht, das Potential dieser musikalisch wirksamen Gruppendynamik auszuspielen: Ein viel zu kurzer mit hauptsächlich Sekundschritten auch „schädelspaltender“ Cantus firmus, zu dem in verschiedenen Kanonformen gesungen werden soll, lässt unabhängig vom Ausbildungsniveau der Gruppe nicht mehr als sequenzierende Etüden zu, in denen Höchstschwierigkeiten trainiert werden.

Erhellend ist jedoch der gesamte Lehrgang der Melopoiia, macht man sich klar, dass jedes der 20 vorangehenden Kapitel auf die praktische Lehre im Vokalensemble bezogen ist, dass Schriftlichkeit und „Singeschule“ auch in den Kapiteln ineinander greifen, die in der Geschichte der Musiktheorie bisher vor allem als Vorläufer für ein modernes Paradigma weitgehend textbasierter Musiktheorie rezipiert wurden.

[1] Tenzer 2019, 606–609.

[2] Agawu 2016a.

[3] Said 1993, 71.

[4] Calvisius 1592, Cap. 2.

[5] Zarlino 1558.

[6] Busse Berger 2005 und 2015.

[7] Owens 1997.

[8] Cumming 2011 und 2013.

[9] Schiltz/Blackburn 2007.

[10] Schubert 2013.

[11] Canguilhem 2013, 2015a, 2015b.

[12] Janin 2012.

[13] Jans 1986.

Continuation: Part II

Ita se n’er’a star: Insights for a Fourteenth-Century Tactus (Ita se n’er’a star e un’ipotesi sul tactus nel Trecento) (Part I)

Davide Daolmi

(English Translation: Giulia Accornero)

Since the end of the fifteenth century, mensural practice has relied on the use of a regular unit of time (tactus), generally bound to the semibrevis (S) and roughly set to the rate of a pulse.[1] But while scholars agree that mensuralism presupposes an isochronous articulation, little is known about the duration of such articulation. The shifting value of the unit of time—first the longa (L) in Franconian theory, then the brevis (B), and later the S—contributes to its ambiguity. A close study of Trecento sources and the transformation of notational practice, however, might reveal the existence of a shared pulse duration reasonably close to that of the body, a notion analogous to the later concept of tactus. The existence of a shared unit of time, however, does not preclude the performance of other tempi; these, in fact, would be understood as deviations from an ‘ideal’ condition, as in the later tactus theory.

A study of the mensural choices in Lorenzo da Firenze’s Ita se n’er’a star, together with a close reading of Trecento music theoretical treatises, suggests the existence of a tactus après-la-lettre. Ita se n’er’a star is a song transmitted in the Squarcialupi codex (Sq) in two different versions, the first one with the B as a temporal unit (SqA), the second using longer values (SqB).[2]

Some scholars have used the term longanotation to describe this rather common use of longer values to depict the same proportions; this terminology, however, is borne of a misunderstanding of the rules of Italian notation.[3] The case of SqB shows that the B, rather than being doubled, assumes different values in relation to the use of different divisiones. The use of different divisiones can be appreciated not only by comparing the same passage in the two versions, but also within different sections of SqB:

L’uso di un’unità di tempo regolare (tactus) in genere vincolata alla semibreve (S), più o meno corrispondente alla pulsazione sanguigna, è pratica mensurale che si riconosce a partire dal tardo Quattrocento.[1] Se una scansione isocrona è da sempre una prerogativa del mensuralismo, incerta è la durata di tale scansione. L’unità di misura che dalla longa (L) di Francone passa alla breve (B) e poi alla S, contribuisce all’ambiguità del valore di riferimento usato nella notazione nera. Tuttavia alcuni indizi e i modi con cui si trasforma la notazione nel Trecento, rivelano l’esistenza di una pulsazione di durata condivisa, assimilabile al successivo concetto di tactus, ragionevolmente vicina alla pulsazione sanguigna. Questo non esclude l’adozione di altri tempi ma, come per i secoli successivi, s’intendono opzioni che si allontanano dalla condizione ‘ideale’.

Il punto di partenza di quest’ipotesi, oltre a prendere in considerazione la trattatistica trecentesca, muove dal mensuralismo di Ita se n’er’a star di Lorenzo da Firenze, un caso emblematico trasmesso dal codice Squarcialupi (Sq) in due diverse versioni, la prima con unità di misura alla B (SqA) e la seconda con valori apparentemente raddoppiati (SqB).[2]

In merito all’adozione di valori più larghi, tecnica che si rintraccia più volte, è stato coniato il termine longanotation che tuttavia è un fraintendimento delle regole della notazione nera.[3] In effetti il comportamento di SqB non è di semplice raddoppio dei valori ma nell’utilizzo di B che, come nell’esempio, mostrano avere durate diverse in relazione all’uso delle divisiones. Tale differenza si verifica non solo fra una versione e l’altra ma anche all’interno della sola seconda versione (SqB):

While the term tactus did not exist at the time, I suggest that a similar notion was implied in the system of divisiones. This example, in fact, shows how a piece could feature Bs of different durations according to the divisio, and how those Bs are bound within a proportional system. The Bs in the quaternaria are not simply “quicker,” but  have 1/3 of the duration (as in measures 4, 7, 18-19, 22, 40-42) or half the duration in case of senariae imperfectae (m. 84). We could thus interpret this ratio in relation to a standard pulse (tactus) and thus determine their relative durations:

I teorici non collegano mai le divisiones italiane al tactus, perché il termine non esiste all’epoca, ma l’esempio mostra come si possano avere B di diversa durata in relazione alla divisio e che tali B siano vincolate da un rapporto proporzionale. Le B in quaternaria non sono semplicemente più rapide, ma durano 1/3 del tempo (altri casi: bb. 4, 7, 18-19, 22, 40-42) o eventualmente 1/2 in presenza di senariae imperfectae (b. 84). Se interpretiamo il rapporto in relazione alla pulsazione potremo quindi parlare di B in rapporto a quante pulsazioni (tactus) durano:

Clearly, SqA relies on three-tactus Bs of the divisio novenaria (octonaria in the refrain), while SqB features Bs of different divisiones (one tactus for the quaternaria, two tactus for the senaria imperfecta, three tactus for the novenaria).[4]

Music theoretical treatises of the time consider the B to have a different proportional duration according to its perfection (or lack thereof). The oldest treatise on Italian notation, the Ars music mensurate by Frater Guido, states that the perfect B is worth 3/2 of an imperfect B (“Tempus enim inperfectum deficit a perfecto ad minus in tertia parte sui”, Gallo 1966/b: 35); this is reaffirmed in Marchetto’ Pomerium (Sucato 2007: ii.1). However, both Wolf (1919/i: 287) and Apel (1942: vii) have expressed the idea that the divisiones were distributed within the very same B («unalterable value»). Their treatises, on the one hand, avoid explicitly addressing the issue of the Bs’ relative duration and, on the other, consider the duration of the Bs in the senaria perfetta (·p·) and imperfecta (·i·) to be the same, treating the two different divisiones as a matter of internal accents.

These scholars’ treatment of the relationship between the duration of the B and the different divisiones jeopardized the theorization of a fourteenth-century tactus based on the S.(If 2 Ss have the same duration as 3 Ss, the very principle of tactus falls apart.) Wolf’s and Apel’s interpretation, however, wasn’t completely unfounded, having been based on theories developed later than those of Frater Guido or Marchetto. Prosdocimo de Beldemandis discusses senariae of the same length (Gozzi 1995: 136). Possibly, these were the result of an early fifteenth-century adaptation of French forms, which favored the minim (M) as the unit of time for all the divisiones (with the exception of the ottonaria and duodenaria).[5] In other words, while Beldemandis claimed that perfect and imperfect Bs stood in sesquialter ratio, he considered the two senariae asamounting to the same value:

Appare a questo punto evidente che SqA utilizzi sempre B novenariae (nel ritornello octonariae), mentre SqB, mutando frequentemente divisiones, si ritrovi a usare B di tutte e tre le durate.[4]

La trattatistica è esplicita ne considerare B di durata proporzionale in riferimento o meno alla perfezione. Che la B perfetta duri 3/2 di un’imperfetta è infatti concetto già presente nel più antico fra i trattati di notazione italiana, l’Ars musice mensurate di Frate Guido («Tempus enim inperfectum deficit a perfecto ad minus in tertia parte sui», Gallo 1966/b: 35), ed è ribadito senza particolari novità nel Pomerium di Marchetto (Sucato 2007: ii.1). Tuttavia sia Wolf (1919/i: 287), sia Apel (1942: vii) hanno lasciato passare l’idea che le varie divisiones si distribuissero all’interno di una B sempre uguale a se stessa («unalterable value»). Oltre a non affrontare mail il problema della durata, i valori moderni di trascrizione ivi proposti lasciano per esempio supporre che una senaria perfetta (·p·) differisca da una senaria imperfecta (·i·) solo per la distribuzione degli accenti interni, non per la durata complessiva della B.

Questa interpretazione ha posto una forte ipoteca sia sull’esistenza di un tactus trecentesco, perché essendo in genere riferito alla S (ma in epoca successiva), applicato alla teoria trecentesca perdeva di senso: se 2 S potevano durare quanto 3 S il principio del tactus/S veniva a cadere. Le affermazioni di Wolf e Apel non erano del tutto infondate, ma si affidavano a una teoria più tarda, rispetto a Frate Guido o Marchetto. Di senariae con stessa durata parla infatti Prosdocimo de Beldemandis (Gozzi 1995: 136) quando nel primo Quattrocento, adottando di base le forme francesi, privilegiava la minima (M) come unità di tempo per tutte le divisiones ad esclusione di ottonaria e duodenaria.[5] In altre parole Beldemandis lasciava sesquialtero il rapporto di durata fra B perfetta e imperfetta, ma proponeva una corrispondenza fra senariae:

Gallo 1966/a was the first scholar to clarify that in music theoretical treatises before Beldemandis the Bs of perfect and imperfect senariae took a different duration. The anonymous Rubrice breves, for example, shows how the Bs amount to different durations according to the different divisiones: recto, minus and minimum: [6]

Fu Gallo 1966/a il primo a esplicitare che nella trattatistica precedente a Baldemendis le senariae avevano fra loro diversa durata, mettendo in luce che le anonime Rubrice breves calcolavano tempi proporzionali per eseguire le B, con tempi diversi in relazione alle divisiones, detti recto, minus e minimum: [6]

In the Rubrice one can clearly observe that the proportional relationship among the Bs relates to a single temporal unit of measure, a tactus of sorts, which could mediate between the French and Italian practice. This basic pulse corresponded to a S in the modus recto, 2 in the minus, and 3 in the minimum. According to this criteria, a S could last as much as a B since a ottonaria (2-tactus B) could be written as a double quaternaria (2B of 1 tactus each). I argue that the principles here described are the same we should use to interpret the two versions of Ita se n’era.

Le durate delle Rubrice mostrano chiaramente che i rapporti proporzionali fra le diverse B si relazionavano a un’unità di tempo, di fatto un tactus, che mette in relazione la pratica francese e quella italiana sulla base della pulsazione di riferimento sempre corrispondente a una S nel recto, 2 nel minus, 3 nel minimum. Pertanto, secondo questo criterio, una S poteva durare quanto una B, dal momento un’ottonaria (B da 2 tactus) poteva essere scritta anche come una doppia quaternaria (2 B da 1 tactus ciascuna). Il principio era quello applicato nelle due versioni di Ita se n’era.

[1] Gaffurio 1496: ii.3 (ed. 2017: 123-125). It is not helpful to consider the relationship between the tactus and the pulse to be solely metaphorical (as in Bonge 1982, and DeFord 2015: § i.7). Since Antiquity, phyisicans have established a strict relationship between music, rhythm, and blood pressure (Sairisi 1975).

[2] Ita se n’era (ca 1360) is particularly interesting because of its use of notational forms that were uncommon in times preceding the ars subitilior. See my interpretation in “La notazione sperimentale di Ita se n’er’a star” (2020); https://www.examenapium.it/lorenzo.

[3] The term longanotation, used for those pieces written in what seemed to be doubled values, suggests a shift of the time unit from the B to the L. Such a shift was justified as an application of French ars nova principles to the Italian notational system. Gozzi 1995, however, refuted this claim, arguing  that the terms longanotation is inaccurate insofar as the shift was illusory.

[4] The quick values (featured only in SqA) are not influenced by the duration of the B because this first piece uses only one kind of divisio. The notes with the arrow, for example, maintain the same speed no matter if they appear in the copula (tempus perfectum), or in the refrain (tempus imperfectum) (see my article cited in footnote 2). To think of them as portions of a B (as in Gehering-Huck 2004) would be to lapse again into the problematic assumption of a B of fixed duration.

[5] Minims within the divisio octonaria and duodeanria had to be performed «stricte», that is, at a faster pace (in sesquitera proportion); see Sartori (1938: 48) and more explicitly Gallo (1966/a: 92-94).

[6] Gozzi (2001: 15, 43) takes into consideration a slower alternative («morosa») of the tempus perfectum minus, corresponding to the quaternaria in Beldemandis (the Rubrice, in fact, are not explicit about the value of the quaternaria).

[1] Gaffurio 1496: ii.3 (ed. 2017: 123-125). Non aiuta considerare che la relazione fra tactus e pulsazione sanguigna sia solo una metafora (come in Bonge 1982, e DeFord 2015: § i.7). Il vincolo stretto fra musica, ritmo e battito cardiaco è sempre stato un punto fermo della fisiologia antica (Sairisi 1975).

[2] Il principale interesse di Ita se n’era (ca 1360) è nell’utilizzo di forme notazionali insolite in tempi precedenti l’ars subitilior. Ne offro una nuova chiave interpretativa in “La notazione sperimentale di Ita se n’er’a star” (2020); https://www.examenapium.it/lorenzo.

[3] Il termine, utilizzato per quei brani apparentemente scritti in valori doppi, suggerisce uno slittamento dell’unità di tempo dalla B alla L, slittamento di fatto inesistente, e che si assocerebbe all’applicazione di principi francesi all’ars nova italiana. L’uso improprio del termine longanotation è stato ben argomentato da Gozzi 1995 che esclude l’imitazione del sistema francese.

[4] I valori rapidissimi inventati da Lorenzo (presenti solo in SqA) non sono influenzati dalla durata della B. Le note a freccia, ad esempio, conservano sempre la stesa velocità (cfr il mio articolo cit. a nota 2) sia che compaiano nella copula (perfetta), sia nel ritornello (imperfetto). Pensarli come porzioni di B (come Gehering-Huck 2004) significa ricadere nell’equivoco di una B di durata fissa (cfr il contributo cit. a nota 2).

[5] In effetti le minime di ottonaria e duodenaria dovevano essere eseguite «stricte», cioè più rapide (in rapporto sesquiterzio); cfr Sartori 1938: 48, e più chiaramente Gallo 1966/a: 92-94.

[6] Gozzi 2001: 15 e 43, prende in considerazione un’alternativa un po’ più lenta («morosa») del tempo perfectum minus che corrisponde alla quaternaria di Beldemandis (in effetti le Rubrice non sono esplicite sulla quaternaria).

Continuation: Part II

Stories of Translation; or, Translation as Music Theory

Edwin K. C. Li

Translation plays a key role in the circulation of histories of music theory across the globe; yet stories of translation are often left untold. In this blog post, I recount two stories about my experience as a translator of music-theoretical texts. My goal is to show that stories of translation are part and parcel of history of music theory.


Three years ago I received the daunting task, together with Zhang Yan—Professor of Music Theory at East China Normal University in China—of translating Suzannah Clark’s Analyzing Schubert (2011) into Chinese. In Chapter 4 of her monograph, Clark discusses the use of the “negative-sounding words” such as “deformations,” “wrong,” “signs of decay,” “failures” in James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory.[1] I agonized over the word “deformation” for weeks. Initially I translated it into “變形,” which literally means “change in form/shape.” But the translation did not sound—literally and figuratively—negative at all; the linguistic context would be incoherent when the reader got to the point of “negative-sounding words” on the next page. Just when I was about to give in, Zhongyu Wang published an article entitled “On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory” in 2020. He translated “deformations” as “變異.”[2] The word (i.e., the combination of the two characters) literally means “change,” but the character “異” also harbors the meanings of “separated,” (分) “peculiar,” (怪) and “different” (別). His translation, I think, is successful on two fronts: first, it captures the meaning of the prefix “de-” (“off” or “away”) in “deformation”; second, it has the potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms with the character “異,” while my translation “變形” sounds more like an objective description of the change of form.

Wang’s translation, with its potential to be interpreted in neutral or negative terms, is a solution to two issues. First, it is a solution to a terminological confusion in English, because when Hepokoski and Darcy define “deformation,” they claim that the term “carries no negative charge, no negative assessment.”[3] They write, deformation “signifies only a purposely strained or non-normative realization of a musical action-space, a surprising or innovative departure from the constellation of habitual practices, an imaginative teasing or thwarting, sometimes playful, of expectations, presumably in order to generate an enhanced or astonishing poetic effect.”[4] Wang’s translation, if being interpreted in neutral terms, prevents such a potential confusion. Second, simultaneously, since Wang’s translation can also conjure up a sense of negativity, it maintains the coherence in Clark’s linguistic context.

Yet for all its merits, I hesitate to adopt Wang’s translation, because it has no implication of “form” whatsoever. While my translation “變形” might furnish a mode of listening that favors Sonata Theory over Clark’s critique of it owing to the word’s lack of “negative-sounding” elements, it does capture the process of moving away from a form, an important aspect in the etymology of “deformation.”[5]

In retrospect, my intuition about the Chinese language reveals my stubborn, perhaps culturally-conditioned, belief that while some characters or words can be interpreted in multiple ways, some of them can only contain a particular affective connotation. Is translation not, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, an act of liberating languages from their signification impasse?[6] If my translation “變形” can be “negative-sounding” in some unforeseen ways, where does my hesitation come from? The overwhelming feeling of the need to add a footnote to almost every word I translate? My lack of trust of the reader? My worry about my loss of control in the “afterlife” of languages, if not in the “afterlife” of modes of listening? To this date, the struggle has not come to an end.


I was writing a paper on Chinese Confucian and Taoist discourse about music (they are two major philosophical schools in ancient China).[7] The problem I encountered with translating Chinese into English was the way through which the two languages express meaning: if the English language can be construed as an unfolding of thoughts in a particular syntactical order of words, ancient Chinese is the condensation of thoughts into a single character. It was thus exceedingly difficult for me to translate a Chinese character into an English word, because no English word can possibly capture the polysemy embedded in a single Chinese character.

A challenging Chinese character to translate was “樂.” In the Book of Music 樂記—which is generally considered to be the culmination of Confucian thought of music in ancient China—“樂” has two meanings, each of which has a different pronunciation in Mandarin: first, when it is pronounced yuè, it refers to a conglomerate of art forms performed in an appropriate manner, context, and in accordance with certain rituals and dances; second, when it is pronounced , it means joy or to rejoice. More often than not they are presented as one in the Book of Music. But how could I translate it into a single word in English? I consulted many scholarly writings on this topic, and every scholar, as one could expect, translated the two pronunciations in their own way. For example, Scott Cook translated yuè as “music” and as “Music,”[8] while Park So Jeong chose first to adhere to Cook’s translation in 2013 but decided to retain the Chinese original in 2016.[9]

One important thing that I did not address in the paper is how translatability and untranslatability of the character can shape our understanding of what “樂” and “music” might mean, and how they come to mean anything. The semantic difference between “music” and “Music” is obscure, and Cook, I think, intended this to be so because, as he wrote, “ and yuè are essentially two moments of the same thing.”[10] To translate the character “樂,” for Cook, is to hide its meaning so that the obscurity can demonstrate the untranslatability of the original. Park’s decision to retain the Chinese original is a clear statement of untranslatability, which lures the readers into immersing themselves in the linguistic cultures and listening practices. The signifier-signified relationship between a word and its meaning breaks down in the declaration of untranslatability.


 Examples such as these abound in my translation processes over the years, but sadly, in this short blog post I cannot illustrate them at length. What I would like to share, however, are two humble observations: first, translation of music-theoretical concepts between languages exposes modes of listening in various cultures. The translation process does not only activate language renewal, but it also reinvigorates what a musical-theoretical concept might sound like, and sensitizes the reader’s listening within a particular worldview vis-à-vis their own. Second, the act and the refusal of translation constitute a history of music theory in and of itself. I noticed that the process of (not) translating and transforming music-theoretical concepts across languages and cultures has not received much scholarly attention. Perhaps translation has become such a habitual practice in a globalizing world that its everydayness papers over its hermeneutic power of revelation and its visualization of the translator’s self-positionality in the liminal space between the original and the translation. And perhaps translation is often regarded as a mechanical work, rather than as a knowledge-producing enterprise. Stories of translation await to be told as histories of music theory.


Benjamin, Walter. “The Task of the Translator: An Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, trans. Harry Zohn, 69–82. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. The original is published in Charles Baudelaire, “Tableaux parisiens”: Deutsche Übertragung mit einem Vorwort über die Aufgabe des Übersetzers, von Walter Benjamin [“Tableaux parisiens”: German Translation, with a Foreword on the Task of the Translator, by Walter Benjamin], 1923, trans. Harry Zohn.

Clark, Suzannah. Analyzing Schubert. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Cook, Scott. “Yue Ji 樂記: Record of Music: Introduction, Translation, Notes, and Commentary.” Asian Music 26, no. 2 (1995): 1–96.

Hepokoski, James and Warren Darcy. Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Li, Edwin K. C. “Mysticism as Philosophical (Non-)Foundation: Reconstructing a Daoist Critique of Confucian Discourse of Music in Early China.” Paper presented at the Music and Philosophy Study Group, Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, Boston, 2019.

Park, So Jeong. “Musical Thought in the Zhuangzi: A Criticism of the Confucian Discourse on Ritual and Music.” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 12, no. 3 (2013): 331–50.

––––––––––. “On Sound: Reconstructing a Zhuangzian Perspective of Music.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2015): 1–11.

Wang, Zhongyu. “詹姆斯.赫珀科斯基与沃伦·达西’奏鸣理论’创新探究.” [On the Innovations of James Hepokoski’s and Warren Darcy’s Sonata Theory] Journal of the Central Conservatory of Music, 1 (2020): 53–65.

[1] Clark 2011, 204.

[2] Wang 2020, 55.

[3] Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, 11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] A further complication is that Plato’s “form” is often translated as “型” rather than as  “形.” The former denotes a “mold” or “type,” while the latter a “shape” or “form.”

[6] Benjamin 1923.

[7] Li 2019.

[8] Cook 1995.

[9] Park 2013; 2016.

[10] Cook 1995, 25.

Reimagining Formalism for an Antiracist Music Theory (Part II)

Jade Conlee and Tatiana Koike

[…] Continuation of: Part I

In order to theorize high-level relationships within musical structure, music theory as it is currently practiced in Western academia has presupposed the ontological stability of its basic building blocks— notes, scales, and chords exist. Although the definitions of these terms have changed over time, the primary task of music theory has traditionally been to understand the ways in which these concepts interact, not to interrogate the philosophical underpinnings of their being. Unfortunately, we argue, the ontological stability theorists presume in order to study musical systems is not only unwarranted, but sits within a legacy of epistemic imperialism. As many critical race theorists have shown, during the Enlightenment episteme of reason, intellectual technologies such as abstraction and taxonomy instituted a generalizable understanding of truth that continues to dictate the realities of societies around the globe, irrespective of social particularities. These intellectual technologies have historically been implemented to invalidate and replace other forms of knowledge. In this post, we discuss a structural feature of music-theoretical discourse that has sustained the immanent positioning of music-theoretical terminology. We call it “the priorness axiom.”

            The priorness axiom posits music-theoretical systems as existing prior to both music and people’s perceptions of music. The presumption of priorness allows the theorist to circumvent the need to specify how their claims about musical structure relate to other people’s knowledge, because they situate music theory as something that people already have intuited. An example of priorness can be found in Heinrich Schenker’s appeals to nature, when he writes: “Music is the living motion of tones in the space given in Nature: the composing-out of the Nature-given sonority. The law of all life, the motion which, as procreation, issues forth beyond the boundaries of individual being, penetrates into man in this sonority which Nature has preordained in his hearing.”[1] For Schenker, the bridge between his theory of musical structure and human involvement is that musical structure’s a priori location in man’s ear. The music theorist then becomes a neutral conveyor of a naturally-arising phenomenon rather than a socially-contingent figure in histories of human knowledge production. Music theory is seen as ontologically preordained, prior even to the theorists who interpret it, rather than circumscribed by the theorist’s contingent and partial vantage on the world.

            We argue in our introduction that the priorness axiom continues to pervade more contemporary American music-theoretical writings. One example we analyze is the response to the New Musicology critique of formalist analysis in the 90’s, in which music theorists defended the discipline as being unapologetically about “the music itself.” These defenses hinged on positioning a deeply personal analytical engagement with the music through priorness, as these theorists often presumed that an individualized and unmediated engagement with music is elemental to the human experience of music more broadly. In this case, the experience of “the music itself” is positioned as prior to modes of musical experience other than the concentrated, autonomous listening experience on which music-theoretical formalism is built. Ultimately, we argue that priorness in American music theory is a colorblind position on music analysis: it enables theorists to cast musical structure as their object of study without taking into account how race (as a construct) shapes the question of access when it comes to modes of listening. Concentrated listening is acquired through training in conservatory settings of classical music pedagogy, which unevenly favors middle and upper class family upbringings in ways that are deeply scored along racialized and gendered lines in America. Moreover, community formations around other modes of listening are integral to how individuals express their sense of belonging. These modes of listening do not always involve the same attentiveness to “the music itself,” but can be informed by social and embodied musical meanings. Although defining the discipline as knowledge about “the music itself” may appear innocent on the surface, music theorists who ground their knowledge in colorblindness unwittingly help to sustain the present power relations that position Western universities as privileged producers of knowledge about the world.[2] The defense of “the music itself” fails to recognize the theorist’s privileged identification with formalism. Music theory can only address the diversity of human experience once it calls into question how its formalism has long been grounded in the universality of a particular white experience of music-loving. The priorness of concentrated listening positions formalist analysis as the only one worthy of study in music theory, while other kinds of subjective engagements with music are rendered outside the field of knowledge.

            The priorness axiom is undergirded by the idea of “natural law,” an ontological presupposition that everything is always already rationally ordered.[3] Reason, for Enlightenment thinkers, provided the link between man and God, epistemology and ontology: men produced knowledge about the world through reason, even as the world was already ordered by reason. Sylvia Wynter has shown that the Enlightenment episteme of reason instituted a racial epistemology by producing two categories of the human: those who possessed reason and those who did not. For Wynter, the modern idea of race came about at the dawn of European colonialism as a transformation of the older archetype of the “Other,” the infidel. But while infidels could convert to Christianity, race absolutized human difference because there was no way for racial Others to opt in to reason.[4] Summarizing the views of Renaissance philosopher Pico de Mirandola, Wynter writes, “While reason is not a god, ‘it partakes of some of God’s functions’ in that it is intended to rule over a ‘lower order of reality.’ The fundamental separation for Pico was one between two orders of creation, with man placed by God at the midpoint between them.”[5] In practicing reason, European men performed their privileged epistemic intimacy with God. By conflating the epistemology and ontology of musical structure, theorists could increasingly understand musical structure to be rationally prior to individual musical acts.

            The connection between natural law and reason justified colonization and enslavement, Wynter argues, as European imperialists constituted inferior races as those who “defied” natural law and behaved without reason.[6] The phrase “racial epistemology,” then, describes a situation in which a hierarchical conception of the human is implicated in the ways knowledge is produced and legitimated. As critical race theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva puts it, “As a signifier of irreducible and unsublatable mental difference, the racial is relevant only to mark the difference between post-Enlightenment European and other contemporaneous, coexisting social configurations.”[7] Reason’s bifurcation of the human is still at work in contemporary scholarship across disciplines. Ferreira da Silva observes that “the racial emerges in projects of knowledge that presume scientific universality, for which universal reason plays the role of an exterior determinant.”[8] Tautologically, it is Man’s unique ability to “discover” a reality ordered by reason that substantiates his superiority within that reality. Meanwhile, because of their estrangement from reason, racial Others cannot author their own reality within dominant, legitimated realms of knowledge. For Ferreira da Silva, “an analytics of raciality” is at work when authors of knowledge make other people into objects of a knowledge that does not belong to them.[9]

            Within music theory, priorness and formalism co-produce a racial epistemology in which the knowledge historically produced by white men is institutionally legitimized and allowed to speak for all. For this reason, we advocate in our volume for a definition of music theory that invites a plurality of different discourses. Discourses are viewed as culturally-acquired semiotic systems that situate people as subjects of knowledge in relation to the objects of the world, as well as in relation to sources of power. Music-theoretical discourses would be understood to systematize music in ways that render certain aesthetic relationships and parameters of knowledge legible vis-à-vis the theorist’s subject position, but no single discourse can speak for any other. To eliminate priorness is to allow for music-analytical discourses built around other subjectivities in our field.

[1] Heinrich Schenker, The Masterwork in Music, Volume I, ed. William Drabkin (Mineola: Dover, [1925] 2014), 46.

[2] Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel HoSang, and George Lipsitz write, “Behind the colorblind façade of the existing disciplines is the historical role that knowledge production has played in creating and fortifying racial projects ranging from slavery and segregation to imperialism and genocide. Historically situated against this backdrop, colorblindness thus becomes a series of moves and investments that conceal the fingerprints of the university in constructing the very conditions that colorblind frameworks refuse to name.” “Introduction,” in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness Across the Disciplines, ed. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Luke Charles Harris, Daniel HoSang, and George Lipsitz (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 5.

[3] As T.J. Hochstrasser writes, natural law as it appears in the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Enlightenment-era philosophers “was viewed as a set of eternal verities presented by God to humanity in finished and perfect shape, and found embodied in the moral and civil order as evidence of its divine fashioning.” T.J. Hochstrasster, “Natural Law” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005), 1607.

[4] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument,” The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3, Fall 2003: 266.

[5] Ibid., 287.

[6] Ibid., 297.

[7] Denise Ferreira da Silva. Toward a Global Idea of Race. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 29.

[8] Ibid., 20.

[9] For example, in the wake of Darwin’s theories, Ferreira da Silva writes, members of “inferior races” are “apprehended as exteriorizations or actualizations, effects or products of the temporal play of the exterior power that regulates and produces them” (Ibid., 112).

Reimagining Formalism for an Antiracist Music Theory (Part I)

Jade Conlee and Tatiana Koike

If music theory is a kind of worldmaking, what world, what political matrix, does music theory imagine? Right now, music theory is in the process of confronting the racist worldviews embedded in our field’s foundational texts and methods. In blog posts below, both Thomas Christensen and Alex Rehding comment on the need to “rethink” the relationships between people, ideas, and taxonomy in music theory. Our in-progress edited volume Key Terms in Music Theory for Antiracist Scholars: Epistemic Disavowals, Reimagined Formalisms takes up this task. Our book evaluates music theory’s constitutive claims to formalism, autonomy, and abstraction, showing how they have structured the discipline such that access to legitimate musical knowledge is deeply scored along racial, gendered, and geographic fault lines. 

The idea for this volume came during Yale’s 2020 graduate student conference, which we co-chaired along with our colleague Taryn Dubois. Kwami Coleman delivered a keynote lecture questioning the original distinction drawn between heterophony and polyphony by Carl Stumpf and Guido Adler. In contrasting the “illogical” multivoice singing of the folk in and out of Europe with the logic of classical polyphony, this distinction disguises differences of race and class as musical difference. Unaware of this academic distinction, mid-century French critics attempted to understand the work of American free jazz musicians through the lens of polyphony, prompting Coleman to ask, “What might it mean for us to ‘hear’ non-Western and improvised multivoice music with a principal melody as polyphonic instead of heterophonic?” 

In response to Coleman’s keynote, we began to reflect on our field’s own problematic history and how this history has been addressed to date. While many music theorists writing the history of our field have called out the racism and sexism of canonic thinkers, the standard responses have encompassed either calls to cancel the figure in question or to apologize for the thinker’s beliefs but to otherwise continue engaging with their work as before. These responses have done little to effect institutional change. As Philip Ewell has argued, racist music theorists remain integral to the definition of music theory through a whitewashing of the discipline’s history, which dissociates the claims of music theory from the racism of the figures who wrote them (Ewell 2020, 4.1.3). Ewell has convincingly illuminated the field’s white racial frame and the problematic writing of the discipline’s history that this frame legitimates. We see our intervention in this volume as being different from Ewell’s, though it is a complementary project that is highly indebted to his work. Our idea is to redefine the predominant discourse that presently constitutes music theory as a form of knowledge production.

Our central premise in this book is that music theory is presently a centralized discourse that is built from the workings of Western art music. Music theory has defined itself around a particular set of methodologies that have historically been used to elevate this canon of music, and these methods idealize the interpreter who engages in the concentrated, autonomous listening experience typically associated with musical works. This discourse also works to naturalize the music theorist’s subject position. Music analyses are typically posited as demonstrating either the workings of “the music itself” or a given fact of everyone’s hearing, which effaces any possibility for the music theorist to be a contingent and partial knower of the world (this is a structure we will explain in our second blog post in greater detail). While the field has significantly worked towards decentering the Western art canon as the only object worthy of study, the same centralizing discourse has remained intact. Music theorists have continued to employ the same methods of concentrated listening to an ever-increasing number of musical repertoires from throughout the world, and they have continued to trust in the idea that music-theoretical knowledge is authoritative and generalizable. Our volume asks: what would it mean for music theory to consist of a multiplicity of discourses that are each built around particular subjectivities and relationships to sound? The focus of our intervention in this book is to reconstruct our field’s analytical terminology in order to move the field towards this discursive shift. If terms such as pitch or scale presently have one centralized meaning because these terms are overdetermined through music theory’s predominant discourse, what if there was a way for music theory to allow for other meanings of these same analytical terms—meanings that would arise through discourses built around subject positions other than that of the authoritative Western academic?

Music theory’s fascination with “the music itself” has prevented the field from theorizing listening as a relational act imbricated in constructions of human difference. While historians of music theory have eloquently relayed the transformation of concepts like pitch and scale across centuries of literature, music theorists rarely account for the ways in which these concepts fail to honor the vast multiplicity of listening experiences that exist among different people today. In the classroom, scales and chords are positioned as things students must learn in order to “understand” music, regardless of the other forms of musical knowledge they may have brought into the room. To adequately account for music theory’s historical and present influence within a racialized global order, it is essential to view music theory as a form of worldmaking— as a field that produces knowledge not only about “the music itself,” but about people, nature, politics and power. Taking seriously the understanding of music theory as worldmaking requires redefining formalism to embrace variable subjectivities and listening relationships as constitutive elements of musical structure. 

To this end, we reimagine music theory as any mode of formalizing culturally acquired relationships to sound. This reformulation of music theory sees musical cultures as fluid and communicable, and it places the social transmission of knowledge at the center of musical analysis. Issues of power, race, and subjective relationality would then be integral to discussions of musical meaning because they structure the transmission of knowledge in today’s world. The chapters included in our volume work towards this goal by reevaluating the historical entanglement between music theory and racist ideologies, offering critical perspectives through which to evaluate music-theoretical epistemologies, or coining new terminology to describe perceptions of musical detail in specific cultural contexts. 

(to be continued)

Continuation: Part II

Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality (Part II)

Thomas Christensen

[…] Continuation of: Part I

I have to admit it was a rude shock when I learned of Fétis’s virulent racist views. It was especially deflating as I had invested so much time working on my study of his theory of tonality and its reception only to belatedly discover that my protagonist ended his life as an out and out racist. To be sure, there were unsavory moments in many of his earlier writings. But for reasons that I try to outline in my book, his earlier writings were tempered by Kantian liberalism. His full-frontal embrace of the most aggressive tenets of biological racism in his final writings was truly an alarming change of heart.

So what was I to do? I was not ready to give up my book project and simply “cancel” Fétis (as the expression seems to be today). My book was a historical sketch of an undisputedly important music scholar from the 19th century, even as the picture I was drawing became increasingly more complex and disconcerting. And I did not want to turn my story of Fétis’s Faustian choice to embrace the darkest corners of racial biological thinking into a didactic morality tale for our times. Anyway, as far as I know there are no statues of Fétis to take down. (Well, check that; there is a bronze bust of him to greet visitors in the lobby of the Brussels Conservatory of Music, which he helped to found.)


But what about his key concept of tonality? That is something that certainly still lives on in our discipline of music theory, even if we may not have always recognized its burdensome legacy. To be sure, few of us use the term tonality in the aboriginal way in which Fétis conceived it. Nonetheless, it may be that the term to this day contains something of its 19th-century DNA even if we may not be aware of it. Certainly, traces of its biological “frame” often seeps into the metaphors with which we sometimes speak of tonality.

Think of how we often trot out clichés about tonality using images of ontogenetic growth and decline: the 17th century saw the “birth” of modern tonality, the 18th century witnessed its full “maturation,” while in the late 19th and  early 20th century we see the “decay, ” “crisis,” or perhaps even the “death” of tonality. (Much of this rhetoric has been brilliantly analyzed by Brian Hyer in his New Grove entry on “Tonality.”) Fétis seemed to be ever vigil about policing the boundaries of tonalité moderne. It was one reason he was so obsessed with finding its precise birthdate (he arrived ultimately at 1605 for this happy moment); but he also worried about its degeneration with the increasing encroachment of the ordre omnitonique  and all its many affective affinities and vertiginous modulations. Even more objectionable, in his view, were the attempts of some modern composers to write hybrid varieties of tonality that combined features of modern tonality with antiquated modal resources, or worse, tonalities of the Orient. It was a sin of tonal miscegenation. It’s no surprise, of course, that in the 20th century, music critics within Nazi Germany condemned almost any deviation from the most conservative models of harmonic tonality as degenerate art (while at the same time claiming tonality as the exclusive musical patrimony of the Aryan race). Yet anxieties of the “borders” of tonality continue to be raised in theoretical literature. Schoenberg may have mocked the question of “Tonal oder nicht Tonal?” with a canon; but arguments over its answer became a veritable killing field in the world of 20th-century music aesthetics and analysis.

It’s surely unrealistic to say we should just jettison the term. If we didn’t have the word “tonality” we’d have to invent something as a synonym to describe a tonal practice that covers a huge swath and timespan of  Western music in which most of us intuit common salient features, even if we might disagree on the precise physiognomy of these features. No, we are probably stuck with the term.

But that doesn’t mean we need be insensitive to how we think about and use the concept of tonality in our theories and analyses. On the contrary, our increased awareness of its fraught origins in Fétis’s writings could inspire us to greater care in how we go about distinguishing  norms and varieties of tonality as well as defining their boundaries (if that is indeed what we want to do). For that matter, maybe the whole regime of our taxonomic-centered discipline might be due a good rethinking. In any case, as historians of music theory, perhaps we can play a salutary role in teaching our colleagues a little of the history in which some of the terms by which we analyze and teach music originated—and have become our own.  That kind of historical and cultural positioning is a frame that we all could use.

Fétis’s Racial Frame of Tonality (Part I)

Thomas Christensen

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Philip Ewell’s SMT plenary talk last year on music theory’s “White racial frame”—and also including the expanded essay he published this past summer and the recent issue of the Journal of Schenkerian Studies (devoted as a response to Ewell’s SMT talk)– has ignited a debate within the music-theoretical community that is unprecedented, a debate that has spilled over the boundaries of our publications and chat lists into the wider public sphere. (When was the last time the name of Heinrich Schenker or a mention of the Society for Music Theory has appeared in the news section of the New York Times or the Economist?)

As we know, the aspect of Ewell’s argument that has provoked the most impassioned response—both in support and in opposition—was his searing indictment of our discipline for harboring deeply embedded racial biases in the repertoire, tools, and language with which we study and teach music.  So ingrained are these racial contaminations, Ewell argues, that most of us are scarcely aware of their presence. Whether one agrees or not with his diagnosis of this condition and his prescription for cure, I think all of us should be grateful to Philip for the prod he has given us to face some uncomfortable questions honestly and fearlessly. 

It is not surprising that Ewell focused much of his essay on the writings of Heinrich Schenker, since Schenker’s writings have long been known to harbor some notorious moments of racial and nationalist commentary. But I think Ewell is right when he suggests that the problem goes beyond Schenker, as obvious a target as he is. And this is where the history of music theory might be useful to test that hunch. As scholars of historical music  theory, we have a particularly good perch to survey the history of our field and see what other skeletons might be hiding in our discipline’s closet. Thus we might have a useful role to play in confirming—or perhaps qualifying—Ewell’s indictment. For me, it is a charge that hit home personally.

In my own recently-published book on François Joseph Fétis (Stories of Tonality in the Age of François Joseph Fétis; University of Chicago Press, 2019), I stumbled upon a few of these skeletons as I read many of Fétis’s later—and lesser known—publications. And what I found was that it was not simply that Fétis expressed strong racial prejudices. (For a Belgian national writing at the dawn of Belgium’s infamous colonialization of the Congo, such prejudices were hardly unusual; on the contrary, they were ubiquitous and quotidian.) But what was truly startling, I found, was how these prejudices seeped into a key theoretical concept with which he is identified today: tonalité. As tonality is one of those “frames” by which music theorists have long used in their studies and analyses, it may come as something of a surprise to discover its deeply racist genealogy. 

I won’t try to rehearse the entire history here. (For those readers who are interested, I’d refer them to the fifth chapter of my book, where the whole sordid story is told.) But I can reduce Fétis’s essential conclusions to a series of bullet points: 

  • For Fétis, tonality was a patchwork of scale systems that have varied over time and space.  
  • Each civilization, people, and race have had a tonality that was uniquely suited to their character and needs based on the pitch content and tuning of its chosen scale system (the ancient Greek modes, Indian rags, Arabic Maqam, Chinese and Celtic pentatonic scales, and so on).   
  • The tonality used by a given people determines—but also limits—the kinds of music that can be created with it.
  • Only the European white race, with its advanced system of the diatonic scales of the 12 transposable major and minor keys, possesses a tonality that allows for true musical art. 

The following quotation from the first volume of his Histoire générale de la musique of 1869 illustrates Fétis’s racist views bluntly:

The true history of music begins only with the general history of this privileged [white] race, one which never has known the state of savagery, and who, upon making their first appearance in the world, showed themselves relatively advanced, cultivated, and of such great superiority over all other races that no comparison between them can be made. The white race alone is endowed with the faculty to modify itself perpetually, to present itself in history in a thousand differing ways. Contrary to the other races, one of which [the black race] remains in servitude and stays in a permanent state of social infancy, and the other [yellow race] which has attained a certain degree of civilization but one that it can never surpass,  the white race has developed over time all the consequences of its moral organization. It perpetually adds to the knowledge it has already acquired. It possesses a sentiment of beauty, of grandeur, and it is to it that we owe the creation of pure art and the progress of science.

(Histoire générale de la musique depuis les temps les plus anciens jusqu’à nos jours.  5 vols. Paris: Librairie de Firmin Didot Frères, 1869-1876. Vol. I, 108) 

And what is the reason for the superior development of the white race and consequently the music that it has produced over time? It turns out it can be attributed entirely to biology. The very opening sentence of his Histoire makes this clear: “The history of music is inseparable from the degree to which the special faculties of the races were cultivated” (HGM, Vol. I, i). If there was any doubt as to what Fétis meant by those ”special faculties,” he cut to the phrenological core in the opening sentences of Volume 2: 

The sentiment for music, among nations as well as individuals, is due to the conformation of the brain. . . . The relations of sounds do not affect people of races in the same way; what charms one displeases the other, precisely because the organs of the brain are not of the same dimensions.

(HGM II, i)

And let there be no mistake as to which race has won the prize in the lottery of brain size: it is the race blanche—the white race, “which alone has produced music that may be elevated to the dignity of art” (HGM I, vi). 

This last point should turn some heads with its obvious nod to the discredited “science” of phrenology. But Fétis was actually relying here upon the fashionable writings of Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, whose four-volume book “Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines” (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, 1853-55) he had devoured—and annotated–with enthusiasm. (Again, details and references to this information may be found with some further contextualization and elaborations in my book in Chapter 5.)    

(to be continued)

Continuation: Part II