3. The Contratenors of MS E

Some of the new contratenors to be found in MS E are simple expansions of the materials already present to the point of being formulaic. As such, they join in with the harmonic, melodic and expressive gestures already embodied by the older voices. It is indeed easy to imagine such cases arising from a specific performance context, where a performing group adjusted a pre-given work to fit its members and working context. Such additions could be created and circulated orally, and would only have been written down when oral transmission was not adequate or possible. Luckily, the creation of MS E seems to have been just such a unique case.

An example of such a voice addition is the triplum to B31:

MS Vg:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

MS E:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The added triplum joins in with the repetition and exchange of melodic gestures and rhythmic ideas. As an example of the former, see the movement of the cantus presented once and echoed once in the A-part of this song (cantus b. 13, contratenor, b. 20), then reworked and repeated in accelerating speed to become a unifying motif in the B-part (cantus bb. 39, 44 and 55, contratenor bb. 48, 49, 53 and 59). Like in the example of B22 above, the new triplum opens all three sections of the music with this motif (sometimes with slight variation) highlighting its importance, and proceeds to repeat it in three other places, including in third-parallels with the cantus to amplify the motif’s original first appearance (bb. 1, 10, 13, 37, 52 and 54). A similar pattern can be seen in the triplum’s rhythmic behaviour: throughout the piece, the original setting sporadically introduces some syncopations, most commonly a short rhythmic pattern including an eighth-note rest followed by a quarter-note and an eighth note. These are expanded and elaborated into a recognisable characteristic of the song both at the end of the A-part and in the musical rhyme (bb. 23-36, 62-69). Thus, the shorter motif appears in bb. 4, 11, 21, 23, 24, 25, 27, 31, 33, 35, 40, 62, 63, 64, 66, 68, and longer syncopations occur in bb. 1-3, 11-12, 14-15, 19-20, 25-27, 26-28, 28-29, 31-33, 32-34, 34-35, 45-46, 55-56, 64-66, 65-67, 67-68. The new triplum joins in, inserting the short rhythmic motif also into bb. 3, 7, and 18 and longer syncopations in bb. 20-21 and 46-47. Most instances of these occur within a short musical distance to the employment of these elements in other voices. The new voice closely follows the harmonic structure of the original, amplifying (but not pre-empting) all existing cadences. While unavoidably adding some harmonic friction, it does not introduce external sonorities which would change the overall colour.

The addition of a contratenor (as a third rather than a fourth voice) has a larger potential for changing the harmonic character of a given piece of music. Even a voice that remains very close to the old tenor, foreshadowing it both rhythmically and harmonically nearly always alters the emphasis and local direction. Here I will take R7 as an example:

MS A:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

MS E:     Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

In this song, for example, the progression towards octave-leap cadences (even if at times only partially realised) in bb. 5-6, 16-17 and 26-28 can be read as either a modernizing sonority, bringing the song to conform with more modern tastes, or as a subversive pitch, directing the ear towards an unfulfilled C tonal centre. Other places which can be said to introduce a new sound to the setting include the A in b. 10, the progression to a D sonority in b. 15, the destabilising imperfect sonority at the end of the A-part, and perhaps most strikingly, the weakening of the final cadence through the more likely use of B-flat and G (for this, and cadential progressions as a whole, see here). Also noteworthy is the contratenor bridge bb. 8-9, an effect common to a number of the MS E contratenors. The new contratenor composed for this song by Matteo da Perugia is discussed elsewhere. As it is set in a very low range, it changes the modal and harmonic character of large swathes of this song, even suggesting the possibility of a change to the final sonority by settling a fifth below the tenor cadence note.

A more interesting and perhaps more successful addition is the new contratenor of B4. In its two-part version, this song is already noteworthy as the only chanson employing red notation. In MS E, however, this is transformed into a rare case of notated mensural change. By itself, the cantus melody does not suggest the change.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The sequence in bb. 9-14 can be read in the manner of a hemiolia (reading the section in 2/4) starting at the beginning of b. 9. The tenor of the two-part version found in MSS C, Vg, B, A, and F-G indeed creates the 2/4 effect by transitioning to red notation here, but places a crotchet rest at the beginning of this bar, causing its rhythmic pattern to contradict that of the cantus, whichever way it is read. This, of course, matches and attracts attention to the word ‘estrange’ which sets the first appearance of this central rhythmic combination.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The tenor also propels the song forward by inserting a quick-moving ‘up-beat’ rhythmic figure every time a rest longer than a quaver appears in the cantus (as well as in b. 15, which has a rest in the repetition of the musical rhyme). It also strengthens the role played by the ‘short-long’ division of the bar prevalent in the texted parts of the melody. This rhythmic feel is generated not only through note-values, but also by the positioning of the underlay (b. 1, 5, 6, 8, 25, 27, 30 and 38). The positioning of stressed and unstressed syllables in the underlay can also perform a subversive rhythmical role. Following word stresses (matched by parallel movement leading to a unison), one can read the beginning of the B-part in 2/4, alluding to the effect that is so central to the setting of this song as a whole.

The version in MS E refines this further.

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The underlay of b. 22-26 in MS E is adjusted so that the second note of the bar more or less consistently carries a stressed syllable, matching the pattern of bar 1 (‘biau-TÉ’, ‘dou-COUR’). This creates the sense of a temporary shift in the beat. In the same manner as the new voice added to R7, the contratenor here uses the octave progression in cadential and pseudo-cadential progressions (b. 6-7, 13-14, 15-16, 35-36 and 37-38); it also contributes to the propulsion of the work, with quick rhythmic movement supporting the tenor bridge in b. 7, and before the final arrivals of each of the three form parts.

The rest of the contratenor part tends towards long lines of stepwise motion, often placed in pitch underneath the tenor for relatively long stretches, giving it a melodic smoothness and harmonic importance that allows it to compete with the tenor rather than simply support and amplify it. The beginning of the B-part is most striking in this regard, with its slow stepwise descent covering a ninth, at the end of which it usurps the tenor role in the cadence to B-flat (b. 19-24). This makes the contratenor’s treatment of the rhythmic friction between cantus and tenor more interesting. While the rhythms of the last 9 bars of the A section match those at the end of the song in both the old voices, they do not share the length of the musical rhyme. The tenor repeats only the last four and two-thirds bars compared to the cantus’ nine, allowing the new contratenor more freedom of choice in its treatment of the sections in question. Interestingly, the new voice shadows the progression of the tenor in the first iteration of this rhythmic pattern (b. 9-12), but highlights the cantus grouping in the repetition (b. 31-6). This serves to underline the rhythmic tension on which the song seems to be based.

B23 offers a different perspective on the MS E contratenors.  Here, there appears not to have been a straightforward act of addition, or if there was, its results are rather questionable, and demand further explanation.

MS A:     Sound and Score (MS A)     ¦      Facsimile

MS E:     Sound and Score (MS E)     ¦      Facsimile

When looking at the new setting as a whole, the clashes between the old triplum and new contratenor can be hard to swallow: particularly the cadence at b. 11, as well as those of the A-part ouvert and before the refrain. In the first case, the old setting has a perfection which is destabilised by the new voice. The latter two had an imperfect sonority already in the original setting, with the new contratenor adding a normal perfect interval in relation to the cantus and tenor. In all three cases, one of these voices settles on the fifth degree of the sonority and the other on the sixth, resulting in a protracted second or seventh between them - precisely where a perfect point of arrival may have been expected. One must decide whether to maintain this four-part version, with these inherent problems, or to reject it and find another solution for the piece.

In defence of the four-voiced version, one can argue that this is given in the manuscript. And, even if we imagine an original user of this source having had the opportunity to hear the setting in MS A performed, he or she may not think this performed version more authoritative than that written in MS E. On the contrary: if the listener were aware of the kinds of practical adjustments music undergoes for performance, and, furthermore, had seen the MS E version written as it is as part of an impressive presentation manuscript, such a listener might surmise that the larger setting was closer to the composer’s intention. Indeed, the clashes appear between voices lower down the voice hierarchically. Even if not usually to this extent, four-part settings often include clashes as well as parallel progressions between contratenor and triplum. While such an experiment may teach us more about our sensibilities than on Medieval aesthetics, I would suggest that after some repeated listening, the ear gets used to the oddities of this version, and a return to a three-part setting can feel empty. Choice of instrumentation can also make a significant difference to how one experiences the piece. Playing the triplum and contratenor voices on plucked stringed instruments with a relatively quick decay allows the clashes to feel like a colouring in of the sustained sound of the structural cantus-tenor duet.

An alternative reading is to see this version in MS E as an amalgamation of two three-voiced renderings. There is evidence that other works in this source were a result of more than one exemplar, making such an assumption more likely. If this was the case, the second setting would have circulated more or less as in the example below. (No alterations were made to the cantus and tenor, even though it is likely that a two-version scenario would have lead to variants between these voices, too.)

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

As with other settings of the time, it seems that the new contratenor of MS E was generated with reference to the tenor alone, applying a number of standard formulae regardless of the behaviour of the texted melody. These include prevalent use of stepwise sequencing (b. 9-10, 27-29, 38-40, 60-63); repetition (b.54-55); rhythmic ‘harmonic-filler’ motifs based on repetitive fifth leaps over a static tenor (b. 2-4, 7-8, 43-44, 49-50), and more direct rhythmic and / or melodic paralleling of the tenor (b. 1-2, 14, 23-24, 30-31, 33-34, 51-52 and 65-66). Together, these formulae cover half of the new voice. Such habits may hint at performance practice, by which an initially improvised contratenor was performed while reading – or having memorised – the tenor voice. Most of the time, this leads to perfectly satisfactory results, with some of the sounding dissonances being dismissed as accidental rather than essential (i.e., involving ficta, which are anyway not part of the basic harmonic system rather than with the combination of pitch-names and their behaviour). Examples for such sounding but non-structural problems are found in b. 15-16 and 19. At other times, harmonic problems may have been a result of a ‘wrong call’ by the contratenorista – harmonizing well with the tenor, but not with the cantus. This happens when the distance between the tenor and contratenor reaches a fifth, as in b. 3-4, 42, and 49, but is not overly problematic for the setting as a whole. Yet other dissonances clash with both original voices. At times it is possible to argue that a melodic gesture is the cause of such behaviour (as in the octave leap leading to b. 17, or the stepwise descent b. 45-47), while at others there seems no reason for a particular gesture (for example, at the beginning of b. 48). Instead of using bridges, this contratenor propels points of traditional arrival by inserting at times surprising imperfect consonances in relation to the tenor (see b. 7-8, 11-12, 15-16, 33, 36 and 58).

If the new contratenor was indeed the outcome of improvisatory practice using the tenor as an anchor, the same procedure and results were likely to have arrived at regardless of whether it was an added fourth voice or a replacement third voice.

The three-voiced setting still has its problems, but as we have seen, they are all relatively easy to explain and do not make the version unusable. While the amalgamation theory provides audibly more satisfactory outcomes, it does necessitate explaning why a four-voiced score occurs in MS E and how the materials upon which the scribes drew may have circulated. The source presentation may be due to a simple misunderstanding, or even a lack of interest in the audible problems of the four-voice version. Still, for a three-voice version to arise, either a two-voice version of this song had to be in circulation, or a process of reduction must have taken place. The little evidence we have on this issue is not conclusive. The circulation of Machaut works outside of his dedicated manuscript is discussed separately, but it does suggest that his attempts to control his materials did not prevent the circulation of conflicting versions.

Even within his set of dedicated manuscripts, the two-part version of R21 in MS E is very close to the cantus-tenor duo of this song’s one other copy in MS F-G, even though this version sports three voices. While some small variants do occur (most notably in the text placement and the repetition of one line in MS E), it is still possible for one version to have been a reduction of the other. MS E presents two versions of R17, a three-voice setting in the music section and a two-voice one integrated into the Voir dit. The smaller setting in the Voir dit has substantial enough differences from the transmission of this song elsewhere to suggest this is a separate, independent version, and not a simplification of the three-voice scoring.

The only case of conflicting settings of the same size, R18, suggests larger reworking and independent circulation rather than the simple act of substituting one contratenor for another.

MS A:     Sound and Score (MS A)     ¦     Facsimile

MS E:     Sound and Score (MS E)     ¦     Facsimile

While the cantus remains stable (the lengths of its long notes starting b. 4 and at the cadences of the two form-parts are contextual - for more on this and the question of Modus, see here), both tenor and contratenor change between the versions. The general contours of the voices remain the same, but both lower voices diverge substantially in b. 4-9, and then to a lesser extent towards the end of the piece. While the version of MS A maintains a sense of mirroring between the form-parts and projects large-scale rhythmic stability, the MS E version increases voice-independence and inserts additional syncopations which serve to project irregularity and disjuncture.


Uri Smilansky


***********************STOP PRESS!!!!!!!!************************

The Complete Poetry and Music of Guillaume de Machaut Volume 1 is out now!!!!

Volume 1: The Debate Poems is now available in print.

You can also enjoy the entire volume online via the Middle English Texts Website.

Edited and translated by R. Barton Palmer, with art historical commentary by Domenic Leo, and musical commentary by Uri Smilansky, the volume contains  Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaigne, Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, and Le Lay de Plour.




The Ferrell-Vogüé Machaut Manuscript

Full colour facsimile with introductory study by Lawrence Earp, Domenic Leo and Carla Shapreau. Preface by Christopher de Hamel

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The Art of Grafted Song: Citation and Allusion in the Age of Machaut by Yolanda Plumley

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