A More Subtle Day Thread

“Late Mediaeval avant-garde music” would perhaps seem to be an oxymoron. But there was a remarkable, if short-lived, musical style in the late middle ages that could quite reasonably be described as just that – a style that, like atonality, serialism, minimalism, and other modern movements, reveled in experimentation for its own sake and was composed for afficionados rather than catering to popular taste. I speak of the genre now typically referred to as Ars Subtilior.

To put this in context, we have to go back to the predecessors of this style. The term Ars Antiqua (the Old Art) is used to describe the polyphonic music of chiefly France, but also the rest of Europe, from about 1170 to 1310. Polyphony means music in which there are different melodic lines going on at the same time – it stands in contrast to earlier monophony, in which all the voices sang in unison.

In those days, music notation was very different from what we are used to today, and in particular it did not originally include a way of specifying the length of each note. Instead, there were a number of standard rhythms, rhythmic modes. The appropriate rhythmic mode would be indicated at the beginning of the part, and then the performer would apply that rhythm to the pitches written on the staff. Obviously, the fact that all music had to conform to a small set of standard rhythms was quite restrictive. In the late 1200s, innovations in music notation appeared that allowed composers to write with greater rhythmic freedom. Along with other cultural trends, this contributed to the rise of a new style in the early 1300s, called, simply enough, Ars Nova, “the New Art”. This style was more expressive, more varied, than Ars Antiqua, and also contrasted with the earlier style in that much of it was secular, as opposed to sacred.

At the very end of the Ars Nova period, after the death of its leading composer Guillaume de Mauchat, and even as the new conceptions of harmony that would dominate the music of the Renaissance were taking root, there was a remarkable development and elaboration of the Ars Nova style among a group of composers in Paris, Avignon, and northern Spain, which is today known as Ars Subtilior, “the More Subtle Art”. Further innovations in musical notation allowed these composers even greater rhythmic freedom, and their compositions show them exploring that freedom with real zest, writing complex and experimental music. This is music that was not written to satisfy popular taste, nor to glorify God (it is almost entirely secular), but for its own sake. Here, for instance, is “Fumeux fume par fumee” (“The smoker smokes for smoke”), a very bizarre song written by someone known to us only as Solage:

There is, moreover, a real playfulness seen in many of the manuscripts. The love-song “Belle, Bonne, Sage” by Baude Cordier is notated in the shape of a heart. His song “Tout par compas suy composés”, a circular canon whose end returns to its beginning so that it can be repeated over and over as many times as the performers desire, is written in a literal circle. Even more remarkably, its lyrics are entirely self-referential, declaring “I was composed by compass”. Here’s a performance of “Tout par compas”, with a neat video showing how the manuscript works.

Another remarkable piece is “Le ray au soleil” by Johannes Ciconia. It is written as a single line of music, but a riddling inscription at the end of that line indicates how the music is to be sung by three voices, the second at one third the tempo of the first and the third at four thirds the tempo of the first, thus forming what is called a prolation canon. This is remarkable not just for the puzzle-like way it is notated, but because the ratio of 4:3:1 for the different parts is so unusual.

Ars Subtilior throve but briefly, from about 1380 to 1415. Those dates, not entirely coincidentally, correspond pretty closely to the Avignon papacy from 1378 to 1417, during which period that city, where many of the style’s composers were based, was a center of cultural activity. But Ars Subtilior, a genre by and for connoisseurs, was never destined to last for very long. A simpler style, distinguished from Medieval music by its emphasis on triadic harmony based on intervals of thirds and sixths, was already taking over in most of Europe, and would be the foundation for the Renaissance style that dominated until about 1600, and Ars Subtilior was quickly forgotten.

Incidentally, as I finish writing this header, I realize that without really intending them to be related, I’ve now written three headers on the subject of what you might call “dead ends” in music – novelty ragtime, Beethoven’s late quartets, and Ars Subtilior. All three consist of works of surprising complexity, come at the end of a stylistic period as a kind of “last gasp” of that style, and were more or less forgotten or ignored by later musical history. An interesting point that has just now occurred to me is that in two of these cases, the styles were spurred on by “technological” advances – the invention of player pianos in the case of novelty ragtime and the development of more nuanced rhythmic notation in the case of Ars Subtilior. Anyway, that’s it for Abstruse Musings with Aiwendil for today. Here’s one more Ars Subtilior piece I rather like.

Have a good day thread!