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


***********************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."