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Saturday morning quotes 4.24: Musica recta

October 25, 2014

Our last post touched on the enduring qualities of a given piece of music, qualities that are made manifest through its adaptability to arrangement and to be played (with the fingers and vocal cords) and enjoyed by others.  Not unlike the rest of our modern cultural hallmarks where irony rules the airwaves and planned obsolescence is the key to commerce, it turns out we’re not seeing much in the way of enduring music being produced.  Music that requires treatment via special electronic effects is not at the same level of sophistication as music that reveals its quality through structural integrity inherent in the sensitivity and intelligence of composition. Full stop.

Now that we have that out of the way, we progress to the idea of interpretation of music of quality, usually music of the past.  Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) was for the better part of the 16th century hailed as the composer who represented the gold standard in terms of sensitivity, intelligence and enduring quality of his music. Though Josquin’s music was primarily for voices, the enduring quality is made evident in the many 16th-century adaptations that survive for lute alone, lute duet. and for solo voice and lute.

Josquin’s music, like most other printed vocal music of the period, omitted trivial details such as where and when one applies a sharp or a flat to a particular note.  Since Josquin wrote so much of his sensitive and attractive music using strict canon among two or more parts, solutions to the application of accidentals is usually fairly straightforward.  But academics love to make a career out of making the simple things complex, and many (non-lutenist) academics approach editing Josquin’s music without the simple fix of asking a lutenist how it goes.

“Clearly, if we were to rely solely on theoretical statements to reconstruct the oral traditions which sixteenth-century vocal notation only partly records, the conflicting nature of these statements would limit our endeavours. However, the accuracy of such reconstructions can be increased when the vocal works in question also survive in tablatures – the only sources of Renaissance polyphony which record precisely the pitches of various oral traditions associated with a given motet. The very act of translating vocal notation into ciphers requires the intabulator to make implicit solmization practices explicit.”

– Robert Toft, “Traditions of Pitch Content in the Sources of Two Sixteenth-Century Motets,” Music & Letters, Vol. 69, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 334-344

A particularly fine example of an arrangement, or intabulation, of an effective piece is Josquin’s beautiful five-voice motet,”Inviolata, integra et casta es, Maria,” a composition that incorporates the chant melody in the tenor voice, appearing in canon a fifth above in the alto voice.  The math of canonic imitation is masked by Josquin’s inimitable melodic gift incorporating less strict voices that artfully hint at the chant tune.

Arranged and published as a duet for two vihuelas by Enriquez de Valderrábano in the fourth book of his Silva de Sirenas (1547), there were also intabulations for solo lute by Sebastian Ochsenkun (1521–1574) and Hans Gerle (c.1500–1570).  Our recording of the piece for solo lute is from Gerle’s Tabulatur auff die Laudten (1533).

Musica recta is the application of appropriate sharps and flats to old music, a practice that was so well understood by any garden variety musician of the 16th century that there was no need to mention it.  We have written on the subject in the past, and we continue to say that the application of accidentals to 16th-century vocal music is not a complex issue.  Just ask a lutenist.

4 Comments
  1. John Lenti permalink

    I have had to argue this point more than once–from ficta in Renaissance polyphony to double-dotting in French baroque music, the arcana are so often made nicely explicit in our tablature that lutenists should be the arbiters of all questions pertaining to performance practice.

  2. Erika permalink

    “Music that requires treatment via special electronic effects is not at the same level of sophistication as music that reveals its quality through structural integrity inherent in the sensitivity and intelligence of composition. Full stop.” I so agree.

    Sounds produced by a random number generator are not music.

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  1. Saturday morning quotes 5.44: Accidentals | Unquiet Thoughts

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