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Saturday morning quotes 3.1: No accident

May 18, 2013

Verdelot1To begin our third year of weekly Saturday morning quotes we step backwards in time and offer a small antidote to the surfeit of Dowland’s Elizabethan melancholy, from which we have all suffered for far too long.  Besides, what alternative could possibly bring more pleasure than a discussion of 16th-century music theory?

Today we quote from Pietro Aaron (c. 1480 – 1545), a music theorist who was greatly concerned with accidental accidentals.  We also revisit the music of Philippe Verdelot and, for your listening pleasure, we provide a link to our newly available recording of one of his early madrigals.

One of the more problematic obstacles to sight-reading modern editions of historical vocal music is the seemingly arbitrary application of accidentals, either completely absent or indiscriminately sprinkled about the page by certain editors like so much confetti.  It turns out accidentals have always been problematic:

“It will now be considered whether the singer should or indeed can recognize at once the intent and secret of a composer, when singing a song he has not seen before.  The answer is no, although among those who celebrate music there are some who think the contrary.  They give the reason that every composer considers that his songs are to be understood by the learned and experienced, by a quick and perceptive ear, especially when imperfect fifths, octaves, twelfths, and fifteenths occur.  I say that only God is master of such things, and such intelligence belongs to Him only and not to mortal man.  For it would be impossible for any learned and practiced man to be able to sense instantly an imperfect fifth, octave, twelfth or fifteenth without first committing the error of a little dissonance.  It is true that it would be sensed more quickly by one than another, but there is not a man who would not be caught.  For this reason, I say that those who do not indicate the sign of b molle where it might naturally appear to be otherwise, commit no little error, because propositum in mente retentum, nihil operatur [an intention retained in the mind accomplishes nothing].”

-  Pietro Aaron, Toscanello in Musica (1529 edition), Appendix: Aggiunta del toscanello a complacenza de gli amici fatta

Philippe Verdelot (c. 1480 – 1530, or 1550, or your wild guess is as good as that of the experts) is generally acknowledged to be among the first serious composers of the Italian madrigal.  Verdelot is a favorite of ours whom we have mentioned frequently on this blog, and his Il Primo Libro di Madrigali, a collection of madrigals printed in four separate part-books, was presumably first published in 1533.  Arrangements of the same music for solo voice and lute may be found in the near-contemporary Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto da cantare et sonare nel lauto, intavolati per Messer Adriano, published by Scotto in 1536.  A second edition published in 1540 identifies the mysterious Messer Adriano as Adrian Willaert.

Typical of Verdelot’s music, there is a high degree of ambiguity as to the application of accidentals.  Reference to the lute intabulations of the lower voice parts confirms the conventional cadential sharps, which can then be extrapolated to the cantus line when otherwise absent.  But of course there is ample opportunity for introducing bizarre sonic moments if one does not follow the precepts of good taste and apply a judicious eye to spotting mistakes in the original prints.

An example of our approach can be heard in our newly available recording of Verdelot’s ‘Madonna per voi ardo’, originally recorded for our CD, Sfumato, but omitted because we simply had too much material.  We make it available here for listening or download in a variety of digital formats at whatever price you choose.  Please enjoy.

2 Comments
  1. Edward Mast permalink

    Being a relative newcomer to the study and playing of early notation, I generally leave decisions of where to add accidentals to my more experienced fellow recorder players. Certainly, my exposure to primarily ‘modern’ music probably doesn’t equip me to make judgements about how composers of the 14th – 16th century meant for their compositions to sound. I can believe, however, that years of study and performance of early music could attune the ear in a way to make such judgements at least reasonable. Certainty must remain elusive, I would think.
    Ned

  2. Yes, modern conventions of harmony can seriously obscure the logic of earlier compositions, which is really an interactive horizontal logic based on modal relationships rather than the vertical harmonic logic we’re accustomed to in more modern music. Understanding is made even more complex by the fact that musicians were expected to read from a single part and keep their ears attuned to the contrapuntal activity, something most modern players resist unless they are orchestral musicians. However, there are ways to gain a better understanding of the old stuff, and Henry Purcell summed it up when he advised those seeking greater insights into harmony to “score much”. Works for me.

    RA

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