Intentionally difficult passages

Many works include passages which cannot be ironed out to conform to normal expectations. Some pieces even take such difficult progressions as central, repeated motifs, making it clear that they are an intentional compositional device, especially as very often it would have been easily to avoid them if the composer so wished. This is especially clear in a monophonic context. In such difficult passages even the most sophisticated of ‘automatic pilots’ may lose its way, and other ways of deciding on a reading and internalizing their meaning has to be found. While being expressive devices not necessarily tied to the use of ficta, they can be affected by the way ficta is applied to them. Finding the “best” solution and sticking to it, even in a relatively straightforward case like the following extract, may again not be the most effective strategy.

Score     ¦     Facsimile

While it might be enough for the performer to know that this is a difficult (and therefore potentially important) location, and to try smooth it over in performance, the ambiguity of the passage can be treated also as an audible effect. As with earlier examples, the choice of ficta in this extract depends on structural interpretation. Furthermore, changing the location of the audible surprise inherent in the notated tension between C-sharp and B-flat can change the importance given to the words which are set to each location. Thus, a performer who wants to separate ‘A cuer pensis’ from ‘Regret et devis’ and stress ‘Regret’ as a central sentiment, can opt for C-natural above the syllable ‘Reg-’.

Sound and Score

 In the repetition though, the list-character of the text may cause a performer to want to keep the two text lines closer, stressing the last word in each. Here, the first C-sharp would anyway mark out ‘esperis’, the inflection could then be maintained also for the next note, smoothing the transition from one line to the next, and the notated B-flat – and the audible surprise maintaining it entails – highlighting the word ‘paradis’.

Sound and Score

Different interpretations, or perhaps the setting of the other two texts to which this music applies, may call for a direct continuity and the avoidance of a sounding surprise. In this case, one option would be to perform all three C’s sharpened and avoid the B-flat altogether.

Sound and Score

A second option would ignore the C-sharp and maintaining the B-flat.

Sound and Score

In the first option, the line is dramatically unified through the juxtaposition of the initial F and the subsequent extended C-sharp and the low point B-natural. The second option is flatter, and perhaps more suitable for a less involved text. In either of these two versions the ambiguity suggested by the notation can perhaps find some other performance-related outlet in the execution of this section.

There are other possibilities, of course, depending on the way previous points of discussion are applied. If, for example, augmented melodic progressions are accepted and new signs are not taken as cancelling old ones, it is possible to maintain C-sharp throughout the extract as well as performing the specified B-flat. In my eyes this is a rather is problematic reading, but under specific circumstances, one that may be allowable for exceptional expressive needs.

IIn the polyphonic context, the temptation for over correction and standardization can be very strong. When making decisions about such problematic cases, one should, again take into consideration their wider context. A number of examples of understandable case of conflicting ficta have already been mentioned in other contexts. As an example of strong structural considerations which affect cases of problematic ficta notation, one can look at b. 119 of M1.  

Sound and Score     ¦     Facsimile

The notation indicates the performance f-sharp in the triplum against an F in the tenor. Locally, it is easy to avoid the clash by infecting also the tenor, especially as its next note (after a rest) is a G, and the motetus is holding an A which, together can act as a leading cadential sonority. The generic context, as well as structural elements of this specific work, warns against this option. This motet uses a liturgical melody for its tenor, and as with all such motets, the authority of the chant melody generally meant its pitches should not be manipulated. This piece takes the tension between F and G cadences as a structuring tool which mirror its textual concentration on opposition and duality. This location marks the culmination of this harmonic interplay. Avoiding the clash would, therefore, not only grate on the religious sensitivity prevalent in its original context, but diminish the structural construction and expressive effect of the work as a whole. This work is discussed in much more detail here.


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."

"Vol. 1 introductory study (225 pages colour/mono), vol. 2 facsimile (789 full colour pages) on 150gsm matt art paper. Full size reproduction, hard bound in buckram, presented in hard slipcover."

Available now from DIAMM Publications.

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

Available now from Oxford University Press

"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."