4. Hierarchical order in the song

Even when songs contain pre-existing materials, these are most commonly reserved for single locations rather than as an underpining device streatching the entire length of the work. As a result, the songs do not have an established melodic basis, internalised by composer, performer and audience upon which to implement the kinds of processes applied to Chant in the motets. Structuring tools such as a degree of isorhythmic behaviour or the use of hockets do sporadically appear in the songs, but in drastically reduced frequency.

Most typically, only one voice carries a text, and textless voices do not offer any kind of implied texts as do the motet tenors. This changes the hierarchical designation of a work’s basis. In the motets, the (unordered) tenor is the only voice which has an independent meaning separate from the others through its performance as chant. In the songs, the only voice with the potential for being appreaciated independently of a polyphonic texture is the texted cantus (there is later evidence of use of some song tenors as dance accompaniment, but in such a functional shift one may ask whether any of the original meaning of the song is transferred onto the melody’s new use).

In this new hierarchical constellation, it does not make sense to order the central voice into a slow moving, regular rhythmic pattern as this would get in the way of the text declamation. Instead, it is the text structure that dictates the form, both in terms of the large-scale combination of repeating form-parts, and the common mirroring of musical phrases with lines of text. These, though, do not prescribe an exact length, as the speed of declamation is not constant, and melismas of different lengths can be inserted, most commonly at the beginning and / or the end of poetical lines.

In polyphonic settings, the second voice in the hierarchy is always the tenor. As with the motets, it tends to move more slowly and regularly than the cantus, and to the most part its total range sits a fifth lower than that of the texted melody. By aligning itself with or subverting the phrase structure and cadence locations of the cantus, it comments on and supports the melody. In providing a harmonic structure it can highlight and weaken points in the melody of the upper voice, bolster the expectations it creates or build surprises undermining the cantus. Whatever the setting, the contrapuntal duet between cantus and tenor has to be correct. Even when the tenor is in the middle of the harmonic texture, the interval between it and the cantus should be consonant. Only on very rare occasions would the tenor and a contratenor swap roles.

The addition of a third voice can involve either a triplum, moving in the same range as the cantus, or a contratenor, sharing the range of the tenor. Earlier three-part settings tend to incorporate a triplum, while the second part of the fourteenth century saw the establishment of the contratenor as the standard third voice. Both these voices can be more flexible in their rhythmic, harmonic and melodic behaviour, and offer a second layer of commentary on the central duo. In such constellations, the tenor tends more often to support the cantus and the third voice to destabilize the structure, but the degree to which each voice sticks to this expectation is one more tool in the composer’s arsenal of individualising a setting. Four-part settings incorporate both contratenor and triplum.

For other typical behaviour patterns of the different voices, see the discussion of their roles in medieval cadence formulae.


Uri Smilansky