Subtracting ficta

Written in accidentals are obviously part of the medieval text. Still, a number of sections of the first discussion of musica ficta demonstrated how unstable they are between or even within our surviving sources. With many inflections, we cannot be certain as to their link with Machaut’s original intentions. There comes a point, therefore, where we can legitimately inquire as to the extent to which we disregard accidentals provided in the original.

To an extent, this is not such a substantial departure from the procedures described up to now. While adding flats and sharps generally appear on a neutral background, adding naturals imply the avoidance of a given instruction, be that in the context of the duplication of a specific inflection or in the context of a key-signature accidental. Furthermore, one preceding discussion presented the possibility of attaching inflections to specific texts, and changing them (i.e., ignoring given accidentals) when the same music is set to different words. Another signalled the possibility of interpreting intentionally difficult passages as queues to the performer which can, at times, be ironed out (again, through the avoidance of some given signs) in practice. Similar justifications of avoiding specified inflections can be found in other context, such as the intentional weakening of cadences. While a reason should be found, it seems ignoring what is there is not such a controversial possibility after all.

Some would go as far as to say that the actual musical text (itself not immutable, as ornamentation and improvisation habits attest) does not include accidentals at all. Those signs given are then put at the same level of authority as those suggested by editors (which are rarely, if even, universally accepted). They can, therefore, be easily ignored without much worry.

As the effect of accidentals can be so great, and a large degree of consensus between sources still not that uncommon, this seems to me a bit too extreme a view. I see no reason not to include such pitch-changes as part of the medieval composer’s expressive arsenal, even if the performer’s expressive tool-kit includes also the possibility to disregard or alter them.


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."