1. The language of 'Modality'

I use ‘modality’ here as a useful alternative to ‘tonality’, even though the topic is historically and historiographically much more complex. I use the term to denote the assignation of relative importance to specific locations within the note-field (or collection of pitches) of a piece, marking out central, secondary, peripheral and irrelevant sonorities in the context of a work. Late medieval ‘modality’ in this sense is much more flexible than ‘tonality’ even though by this stage of its development patterns of usage and expectation-based frameworks have been formed. These are referred to as ‘tonal-types’ in the professional literature.

The use of terms such ‘note-field’ is particularly pertinent to medieval theory. The system of musica recta and musica ficta took as its basis the assignation of a finite and specific collection of pitches as conducive to music proper. Originally, these formed two octaves and a sixth, from G an eleventh under middle C to E a tenth above it, using only “white notes” and B-flat in the upper two octaves. During the 14th century this was extended a bit on both sides. The selection was governed through the combination of hexachords, each consisting of six notes maintaining a strict intervallic formula of tone-tone-semitone-tone-tone and identified (in ascending order) by the names ut : re : mi : fa : sol : la. These began on G in three octaves and C and F in two. The G or ‘hard’ hexachord consists of the notes G : A : B-natural : C : D : E, the C hexachord uses C : D : E : F : G : A, and the ‘soft’ F hexachord includes F : G : A : B-flat : C : D. The names derive from the shape – and therefore, quality – of the B in medieval notation in the F and G hexachords (modern notation still represents this difference, with the sign for flat being a rounded miniscule letter ‘b’ and that for sharp and natural deriving from an angular version of the same letter), and the circumvention of the discussion of its characteristics in the C hexachord.

This is not to say that medieval musicians and theorists refused to acknowledge that pitches outside this selection existed. On the contrary: even the sanctified corpus of liturgical chant included pitches not included in this collection, forcing there to be a regulated procedure for exceeding it. What is important here is that the system is conceptually finite rather than open-ended, and that it didn’t include octave-correspondence. Combining the first appearance of each kind of hexachord – G/C/F – into a ‘note-field’ for a song would result in the inclusion of B-natural in the lower octave and a B-flat in the upper. When a B-flat under middle C is signaled in the signature, this is generally what is meant, not that all B in all octaves should be lowered. While inflecting the lower octave may prove to be necessary, it cannot be taken for granted. I would suggest that at this time and place in music history, signature accidentals offer a voice-specific indication of the specific combination of hexachord used in a certain part of a piece rather than offering a notion of a ‘key’. While many ficta “corrections” are likely to result (see discussion of harmonic considerations below), it is possible for voices to share a range, but operate within separate overall ‘note-field’ systems. Within one song, one voice can incorporate B-flat into its basic system, cancelling it when necessary, while another can have a B-natural in its basic constellation, flattening it when appropriate.

In order to generate notes other than those on the Guidonian hand, all that had to be done is to construct hexachords on locations other than F, G and C. As the intervallic relationship within any hexachord has to remain stable, starting a hexachord on D requires the use of an F-sharp and B-natural above it. Similarly, starting one on B-flat implies a later use of E-flat a fourth above. For clarity’s sake, each new note-name is defined in relation to the hexachord for which it is the only addition to name is affiliated with hexachord within which it is the single new deviation from the already familiar note-field. Thus, E hexachords are affiliated with the ‘creation’ of G-sharp, even though it requires also the use of F-sharp (more simply derived by a D hexachord) and C-sharp (more simply derived by starting a hexachord on A). As a notated G-sharp implies an operational E hexachord, it is highly likely that such a sign would automatically suggest also the use of F-sharp and perhaps C-sharp if they appear in the close vicinity. The newly manufactured note-name always occupies the third degree of the hexachord (mi) when sharpening and the fourth degree (fa) when flattening, this being the only location on the hexachord where consecutive notes are a semitone rather than a tone apart. The names of the signs used to indicate sharpening and flattening – fa-sign, mi-sign – were derived from this characteristic. Technically speaking, they mean “perform the note in question as if it was a mi to the note directly above it (or a fa to the note directly below it), that is, only a semitone away from it, rather than a tone, as is the norm”. The separation between notes available by their own right (i.e., appearing on the Guidonian system) and fictitious ones that need to be manufactured out of Guidonian notes in order to exist supplied the tags musica recta for the former and musica ficta for the latter. Strictly speaking, all notated accidentals affecting notes other than B fall into the ficta category as well as the unwritten additions (which affect B as well). While written and unwritten inflections may well require different treatment, it is not obvious the separation between them is as absolute as modern practice suggests. As part of this discussion, I will also mention the possibility of avoiding also of specified inflections.

Hexachord combinations imply certain ‘modal constellations’. Each combination points towards certain sonorities as more or less stable points of arrival. This results in a reduced variety of ‘modalities’ for the composer to interact with and manipulate. ‘Pointing’ occurs according to the ease by which hexachord combinations allow for the formations of cadences in different locations (on the medieval cadence, see here), both in terms of the availability of perfect intervals with which to ‘harmonize’ the point of arrival and the ease by which they allow for strong arrivals. While more details will be given bellow, a few simple examples can illustrate this point.

For a pitch to be considered a good candidate for a strong arrival, it had to be possible to approach it in stepwise motion, using a semitone from one side and a whole tone from the other. C, F and E, for example, form natural candidates for strong arrival-points in a non-inflected context. B-natural is also surrounded by such a constellation, but as the basic system includes F-natural and not F-sharp, it is impossible to harmonize this pitch with a fifth without resorting to ficta. Harmonic considerations, therefore, rule it out as a central point of arrival, at least in polyphonic settings. In a context that incorporates a B-flat, C loses its obvious structural position, and A gains in importance as a potential cadence point. The direct arrival potential to F and E is less affected by the inclusion or otherwise of B-flat, but it does nonetheless make a difference through the availability or otherwise of a pure fifth above the cadence note and the ease with which this fifth can be arrived at. Two more locations were in common use as they harmonize the pure fifth both above and below them regardless of the use of B-natural or B-flat, and require the addition of only one ficta note in their approach. These are G and D, which require the addition of transitory F-sharp and C-sharp respectively.

Some hexachord combinations are more useful than others, and as a result became more popular. This had to do with the musical and stylistic requirement to identify at least two central sonorities as contrasting arrival points in more or less any piece. These are commonly referred to by their French terms, using ouvert for the open-ended cadence and clos for the final sonority. As a result, a manageable number of tonal types gradually came into existence, creating expectations of modal behavior (for an example of an unusual combination and the resulting high level of editorial ficta necessary, see Ma dame ma coungie douné discussed in a different context here). Once a type was chosen, changes in the combination of hexachords, through the use of written in accidentals or the spontaneous addition of ficta, served either to strengthen the preparation and effect of the available central sonorities, or to confound expectations and create a momentary (or indeed, protracted) new modal and hexachordal constellation.

In my opinion, it is not surprising that medieval theorists stuck to debating hexachords when describing ficta. After all, hexachords were part of the basic musical terminology learned by schoolboys learning to pray, and had the specific relevance as the explanation for the difference in use and sound of B-natural and B-flat. Furthermore, the same terms were used by the same theorists also in describing the basic modal theory as applicable to chant and liturgical use. In that context, accidentals which exceed the strict application of the eight Church Modes (and their in-built, unwritten instruction for Psalm-singing) are usually viewed as problem to be solved rather than an inherent flexibility in the system to be used for expressive purposes. Furthermore, most theoretical teachings present the basic, systemic form of musical theory, and are geared towards offering an access point to the abstractions of the musical world rather than towards practical music-making by hardened professionals.

It is important to note that while joint origins and terminology result in a degree of overlap, my application of ‘modality’ in the context of newly composed music of the middle and late fourteenth century differs from the kind of modality inherent in the system of the Church Modes. Still, I would imagine that in practice, musicians were not likely to have been over technical in this context. A D-centered ballade, for example, would more likely be referred to as operating within a (perhaps extended) D-Dorian world, even if it included C-sharp and G-sharp which are not a part of the Church Mode of that name. The alternative, describing it as a D-based work using a combination of Hard-Natural-Soft-Natural-Hard hexachords with the odd transition to hexachords beginning on A-la-mi, E-la-mi and a-la-mi-re, would perhaps be technically accurate but rather cumbersome and unhelpful.

I also find it unsurprising that direct chromatic transitions were not allowed by the theorists (with the notable exception of Marchetto da Padova, who asserts it should be applied for harmonic reasons in the Italian style of the time). After all, this prohibition routinely appears as part of the basic teaching of the liturgical system of music, and not as a stylistic guideline for newly composed materials. As newly composed works incorporate passages which anyway go against the grain of the basic hexachordal and modal system, and which offer unusual interpretational problems to the performer, the possibility of direct chromaticism does not seem to me entirely out of the question (see further discussions here and here). As far as I am concerned, a practiced user can manipulate hexachord syllables to understand and perform any melodic combination which is useful within a medieval context. As learning hexachords and mutating between them was the first step in musical education for centuries, all educated medieval performers would fall into this category. Mutating between hexachords is, of course, easier with some melodies than with others. Some progressions fit more naturally with the character of the system, while less usual ones require a higher degree of forethought and planning. Just as with the accommodation of unusual harmonies within later tonal thought, none can be ruled out as impossible. In this context, it would only be natural for beginners to follow theorists’ advice and stick to one hexachord for as long as possible, but I see no reason to assume the same attitude was maintained by, let’s say, a practiced contratenorista.


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

"It is a vast manuscript of royal luxury, 390 leaves of parchment, 314 mm. by 220 mm., illustrated with 118 enchanting miniatures by a workshop of court illuminators led by the Master of the Bible of Jean de Sy.They include pictures of gothic chivalry and romance, with mythology and natural history. Music is included on 235 pages of the manuscript, with almost the entire corpus of the ballades, lais and motets of Machaut, as well as his great polyphonic setting of the Mass, the four-part Messe de Nostre-Dame.The manuscript has never before been photographed in its entirety or reproduced in colour."

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

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"Presents the first detailed exploration of citational practices in the song-writing tradition of fourteenth-century France. The first monograph-length study on the Ars nova chanson with new evidence about the emergence of the new polyphonic chanson. Provides new evidence about the circle of poets and composers who engaged with Machaut and created a new style of poetry and song. Explores little studied collections of lyrics and songs of the period and provides fresh insights and perspectives on Machaut's works."