Technical issues

It is important to remember that ever since the first performances of this music, practical consideration of availability and context played an important part in shaping performances. These include not only the availability of music, but also of personnel and instruments, as well as the goal of the performance and degree of attention given to it by its public.

With specific regards to the discussion of ficta, some instruments have notes which sound substantially better than others, and during playing, some note-combinations are impossible to execute. As with singers, this may be a simple question of a restricted range, but when ficta is introduced (and especially if combined with transposition) problems can become more complicated.

For example, the location of open strings and the techniques for their manipulation can have substantial effects. In an extract from M1, for example, it was deemed conducive to have a Lute playing the triplum part. It also transpired that the whole piece was to be sung a tone down, resulting in a two-flat key signature.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

We have extremely little information concerning the way instruments were set up and tuned in the Middle Ages, but for the particular instrument used, quick E-flat : F transitions are particularly uncomfortable. This was not deemed a problem as virtually all E-flat in the recorded extract (F in the score) were sharpened either explicitly or editorially. The only E-flat to be asked for appears at the very end of the section, where the triplum avoids joining the other two voices in a cadential progression towards E-flat (F in the original), and leads to G (i.e., A in score) instead. While it may have been preferable to hear an E-flat in the triplum as preparation for the tenor’s cadence note, and the only specific musical excuse for raising this note is a rather tenuous attempt to avoid a tritone with the motetus (this note creates a seventh with the tenor anyway, so a dissonance is unavoidable), it was not considered important enough to be worth the technical trouble and its potential implications on sound and line. This is not laziness on the part of the player, just practical thinking. It would have been possible to hide this issue by adding also two F-sharp (inflect the surrounding G in the score) to this bar. This would have strengthened the contrapuntal rift between the triplum and the other two voices at this point, and would preempt the following entry on a strong octave G (notated A). Especially as the recorded extract stopped before this next entrance, this was deemed too strong an intervention.

While opinion about Harp-tuning differ, it is common to tune it in a way mirroring the basic Guidonian hand, i.e. treat it as a diatonic instrument with an additional string for B-flat in all but the lowest octave. Tuning-in accidentals demanded by a specific work’s key signature is not a problem, as long as the signature is stable (hence there being no problem with recording the M1 extract with two flats). Adding to the chosen note-field is more difficult. Some say this was impossible, but at least modern if not historical practice allows the shortening of a string by pressing it firmly against the upper frame of the instrument before plucking it, and maintaining the pressure for as long as the note sounds. This gives the performer greater melodic flexibility, but can change the sound-quality of the notes involved and raises the risk of moving the brae-pins which create the buzzing sound of the instrument. Furthermore, some contexts make this impossible to execute. Reasons for this include the need for both hands to be used for plucking, the appearance of two consecutive but not adjacent notes requiring manipulation, or cases where the string which is to be shortened is already sounding, making the adjustment audible. The latter two elements appear in the extract recorded from Matteo da Perugia’s Se je me plaing for a different discussion.

Sound and Score

The recording only illustrates this song’s A-part, ending with its ouvert cadence. The contratenor’s progression here (played on the Harp) involves a leap from E to a notated A-flat before a resolution to G. To avoid the diminished interval, an editor may well suggest to use E-flat here, especially as it forms part of the cantus progression towards this cadence. Technically, doing this would require the shortening of both the D and the G strings simultaneously in preparation for this passage. Three problems rule out doing this in practice. The distance between the two strings is too great to apply sufficient pressure to both at the same time. The lack of time to transit from pressing one to pressing the other makes it impossible to do so consecutively. The note before this phrase was a D, which is still resonating when the E-flat should be played. Preparing the inflection would, therefore, become audible, either through the application of pressure to a sounding string or through the need to stop the vibration short in order to prepare the next note. The potential ficta E-flat was, therefore, avoided, with the version recorded inflecting only the specified note A-flat.

In all likelihood, regular performing teams would not have had to face many of these problems, as instruments would have been set up specifically to much the needs of one kind of music and a small number of co-performers. Still, as musician travelled often and had to adapt to new, sometimes one-off playing circumstances, such issues could easily have arisen also in the Middle Ages.


Uri Smilansky