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Saturday morning quotes 5.44: Accidentals

March 19, 2016

Just as civilization has witnessed the decline and disappearance of once great historical cities and important cultural landmarks through plain ignorance or outright malicious machinations, such has also been the case with the understanding of the performance conventions of historical music.  For centuries, trained singers fully knew how to sing their music with a complete understanding of the hexachord and its mutations, and how to spot where, when and why to apply implied sharps and flats. But not today.

With a millennium of notated music at our disposal we have a very modern luxury of dipping into all manner of historical music.  But every genre of historical music possesses the common characteristic of an ever-changing and sometimes ambiguous set of stylistic conventions, many of which were never described and preserved for posterity.  At the onset of the early music phenomenon, it was quite common to hear performances of 12th-century monophonic songs on the same concert program or recording as a chanson by Sermisy and a set of Elizabethan lute songs.  While there seems to be a bit less of that among today’s professional early music performers, one is nevertheless still subjected to a significant slathering of the performer’s personal interpretive quirks; modernisms applied to a mix of chronologically and nationally diverse musical styles.  Simply sight-reading old music will never result in a transparent, sensitive and empathetic rendering based on a deep understanding of important stylistic details of a particular era or genre.

This is particularly true of vocal ensembles.  One finds an attitude among trained singers that since they can manage to read the notes on the page, they merely require a good full-score edition with the proper marks and they can sing anything that comes their way.  But with most early music, modern editions can vary wildly in quality and accuracy—and in the proper notation of accidentals.  What many modern musicians (maddeningly) call musica ficta actually refers to the editorial application of information that was omitted from the original source material—omitted because historical singers conventionally knew when and how accidentals were applied.  And they were required to use their ears since they typically sang from individual part-books rather than a full score.

“Late-medieval notation operates on linear planes, symptomised by the persistent use of notation in separate parts for vocal polyphony, a presentation which is not designed for simultaneous visual control by one musician. This linear quality obviously applies to mensural notation, with its dependence on contextual evaluation, and I now believe it to be equally valid for the notation of pitch.  In late-medieval terms, as already stated, a note may be identified in isolation as a semibreve; F, but the actual sounding pitch of the F in relation to other sounding pitches is as dependent on context as is the precise duration of the semibreve. The context dependency operates in two ways: visually, from the individual notated part (i.e., what the singer would do in monophony or expect to do in polyphony unless forced to do otherwise); and aurally, from the process of listening and adjusting to simultaneities that may require the singer to do something other than scrutiny of his own part would have led him to expect.”

“What  singers of the time did instead of depending on visual grasp of the musical entity was to make music by applying their knowledge of contrapuntal  simultaneities, acceptable sounds, to the incompletely prescriptive notation. No notation has ever been fully prescriptive, and the success of a notation depends in different ways on the kind of musical equipment to be presumed for those who realise it. Late-medieval singers were in a very real sense collaborators with the composer in making the music happen—realising it—within the limits of his intentions.  Those limits included the possibility of different realisations, of different actual sounds at some but perhaps not all places which are underprescribed by our standards—as indeed they do for many later repertories demanding initiatives from the performer.”

– Margaret Bent, “Diatonic ‘Ficta’” Early Music History vol. 4, 1984, p. 14.

Singing early music requires more than modern sight-singing skills, and showing up and reading your part, however accurately, is simply not good enough if singers wish to sing music of the 15th and 16th centuries without committing musical barbarisms.  A basic understanding of the hexachord and how hexachords overlap is fundamental.  And finding a trusted editor is essential, because it takes a significant degree of compositional understanding to accurately place those little sharps and flats in parentheses above the notes.

And those little notes are not optional.  The reason they are in parentheses is because a conscientious musicologist attempted to create an interpretive score that provides intelligent singers the necessary information while following proper editorial procedures.  That is to say the editor is not adding arbitrary information to the original source but instead clarifying what has been left out—because historical singers didn’t need it.

We have mentioned this subject before here and here, but it is surprising how frequently the matter becomes a topic of discussion and debate.  One despairs. Singing early music without a proper understanding is the aural equivalent of the unfortunate restorations of historically significant art and architecture we have seen of late.

Lutenists familiar with vocal polyphony have a much greater insight into proper application of accidentals because historical tablatures clearly mark their use. It seems apparent that the only ones who really understand the application of sharps and flats in vocal polyphony today are lutenists who sing.


  1. You are so right. I just heard a tenor say he always prepares that well at home he only needs a dress rehearsal with his ensemble.

  2. Thank you for your comment, J. I think truly conscientious musicians always prepare their music ahead of time and rely less on sight-singing skills, however good they may be. I have found that excellent sight-singing skills can frequently lead to laziness among singers and inattention to the important musical details which can only be learned through careful study and repetition. And uninformed choral directors can be the worst offenders, often valuing quantity over quality. I think each singer should participate with an equal amount of informed responsibility, as anyone who plays a memorized or improvised arrangement in a band will understand. I like the quote from Margaret Bent cited above:

    “Late-medieval notation operates on linear planes, symptomised by the persistent use of notation in separate parts for vocal polyphony, a presentation which is not designed for simultaneous visual control by one musician. This linear quality obviously applies to mensural notation, with its dependence on contextual evaluation…”


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