The subtilitas with which Machaut expressed his implicitly aristocratic outlook on art and culture took an explicit and even somewhat technocratic turn in the work of the generations of poets and musicians who followed him, and who looked upon him as a creative father. One of the leading French poets at the end of the fourteenth century, Eustache Deschamps (ca. 1346–ca. 1407), the author of over a thousand ballades, actually labeled himself Machaut’s apprentice, successor, and heir.3 (According to at least one authority he was even more than that: he was reputed to be Machaut’s nephew.) In his treatise Art de Dictier et de Fere Chançons (“The art of poetry and making songs”) of 1392, Deschamps purported to transmit his master’s teachings.
Most of the book concerns what Deschamps called musique naturele or “natural music,” meaning poetic versification. (This was a time-honored use of the word “music”; recall St. Augustine’s treatise De Musica, which concerned nothing but the meters of what we would call spoken poetry.) Nor is Deschamps known to have been what we would call a composer. But in one passage he juxtaposes musique naturele with musique artificiele or “artful music,” that is, music as we would use the term. While either music can be practiced by itself, and while either is pleasant to hear, they achieve their fullest beauty, Deschamps maintains, in “marriage,” through which “melodies are more ennobled and made more seemly with the words than they would be alone,” and “poems are made more delightful and embellished by the melody and the tenors, trebles, and contratenors of music.” This may seem an early enunciation of the idea that the various art media are mutually reinforcing and achieve their full potential in synthesis—an idea now typically associated with Romanticism and with Richard Wagner, an opera composer who wrote his own librettos. More likely Deschamps was merely invoking what he and his contemporaries took to be the normal state of affairs, in which poetry implied music and vice versa. The division of the two was an arbitrary rhetorical device that enabled Deschamps to specify what it was that each component—the verbal and the musical—contributed to the overall effect.
So it is noteworthy that the words are described as the bearers of gentility and seemliness—moral qualities—and the notes are the agency of artifice, embellishment, and delight. The period in which Deschamps lived was the period of the final (some say decadent) phase of the Ars Nova—an explosion of convoluted musical artifice and intricate embellishment that, it is often said, reached a height of sumptuous complexity unrivaled until the twentieth century.
To speak of rivalry in this case is quite appropriate, since the whole “explosion” was predicated on the idea of emulation—not just imitation, but the effort to surpass. And since contests of this sort can be objectively won or lost only on the basis of technique, technical virtuosity—in the handling of complex contrapuntal webs, in the contrivance of new rhythmic combinations, in the invention of new notational devices for representing them—became the primary focus. In the name of subtilitas, composers at the end of the fourteenth century became involved in a sort of technical arms race.
A treatise on advanced notation (Tractatus de diversis figuris) attributed to Philippus (or Philipoctus) de Caserta, an Italian-born composer who flourished around 1370–1390 at the papal court of Avignon, spelled it all out. Philippus wanted to go beyond the limits of Philippe de Vitry’s practice, as set out in the Ars Nova treatises (and as exemplified by the motets in Ex. 8-1 and 8–3). Where Philippe had posited his four basic tempus/prolation combinations as alternatives, Philippus wanted to be able to combine them all “vertically,” that is, as simultaneous polymeters.
To make these polymeters as explicit and unambiguous as possible, Philippus compiled or invented a great slew of bizarre note-forms to supplement the standard time signatures; they involved two (or even three) ink colors, filled and void note-heads, all kinds of tails and flags, sometimes employed in tandem (one extending upward from the note-head, the other down or to the side). He did all this, he said, to achieve a subtiliorem modum, a style or way of composing with greater subtilitas—with greater refinement, greater decorativeness, greater sophistication, and especially with ever more flamboyant technique. Since the 1960s this style has been called the “Ars subtilior” after Philippus’s assertion, following a suggestion by the German musicologist Ursula Günther.4 Previously it had been called the “mannered style,” after the standard—that is, nineteenth-century—terminology of Germanic art history. That name obviously connoted a certain disapproval of excess; the idea of discarding it seemed remarkably timely in the 1960s, when many contemporary composers, especially in the academy, were enthusiastically advancing an ars subtilior of their own.
Philippus cast himself demonstratively as Machaut’s heir by quoting the text incipit from one of Machaut’s ballades, and the refrain of another, in a ballade of his own, En remirant (“While gazing at your darling portrait”), of which the first section is shown in Ex. 9-21. The choice of genre was significant: the grand strophic ballade had replaced the motet as the supreme genre for ars subtilior composers. The incipit of Philippus’s ballad (both words and music) was later quoted in turn by Ciconia, the migrant Fleming whom we met in chapter 8, and who may have been Philippus’s pupil. Thus did composers seek to establish and maintain dynasties of prestige. Ex. 9-22 shows the quotation from En remirant in Ciconia’s virelai Sus un fontayne (“Beneath a spring…”). The quotations from Machaut come in the third strophe of Philippus’s text, not shown in the example.
The other way in which composers established prestige, of course, was through the sheer virtuosity of their composing, manifested at once in their contrapuntal control of very complex rhythmic textures and in their notational ingenuity. Fig. 9-5 shows the original notation of Philippus’s ballade. It is not a particularly outlandish example of ars subtilior notation, but a representative one. Comparison with Ex. 9-21 will show the kinds of rhythmic stunts composers like Philippus enjoyed contriving and how they were achieved. As usual in this style, the tenor plays straight man to the cantus and contratenor, its relatively steady tread supplying an anchor to ground their rhythmic and notational subtleties.
The latter were of four main types. There are lengthy passages in syncopation initiated by innocent-looking little “dots of division,” like the one that comes after the second note in the cantus. There is interplay of perfect and imperfect note values, represented by contrasting ink colors (red standing for the opposite of whatever the prevailing mensuration happens to be). The groups of three red semibreves near the beginning of the contratenor (third line from the bottom), and in the tenor (its single color shift), show this relationship of perfect and imperfect in most basic terms: the three red (imperfect) semibreves equal the same length of time as two black (perfect) ones. This very common and characteristic 3:2 proportion was called hemiola (from the Greek) or sesquialtera (from the Latin), both meaning “one-and-a-half”
There are superimposed and juxtaposed time signatures throughout. Most of them involve the two signatures that represented the extremes of mensural practice: , which denoted perfection at every specified level, and , which denoted imperfect divisions at every specified level. The latter signature, moreover, is reversed to , a diminution (reduced value) sign that could have various meanings depending on the context. Here it means that all values are halved, so that there are four minims rather than two in the time of a normal semibreve. There is a lovely little passage in which the three voices all go into diminished imperfect time, but not together: first the cantus (near the end of the first line in fig. 9-5, on the words “en laquel”); then the contratenor, near the end of its first line (third up from the bottom of the page); and, finally, even the tenor, as if nudged by the other parts, bestirs itself for just four notes, its one and only signature change.
Finally, there are the ad hoc note shapes without which no self-respecting ars subtilior composition would be complete. There are two such shapes in En remirant, both borrowed, as it happens, from the Italian-style notation at which we will take a look in the next chapter. What seem like minims with stems down (near the end of the “A” section in the cantus, and again on its “rhyming” repeat near the end of the “B” section) are sesquitertia semibreves, meaning that four of them take the normal time of three. And the curious red notes with stems both up and down (called dragmas) near the end of the second line in the cantus are sesquitertia minims, reproducing the same 4:3 relationship at a higher level of rhythmic activity.
Perhaps you have noticed that the red dragmas mean the same thing as minims under . Such redundancy is typical of ars subtilior notation and proves that notation as such was for composers like Philippus a focus of “research and development” in its own right. That kind of showy overcomplexity is just the sort of excess—an excess of fantasy, perhaps, or maybe just an excess of one-upsmanship—that earned the ars subtilior its reputation as a “mannered” or “decadent” style. Many modern scholars seem to find it annoying as well as fascinating (perhaps because overcomplexity is a vice from which scholars have not invariably been immune). Contemporary audiences seem to have found it agreeable.
(3) See Chistopher Page, “Machaut’s ‘Pupil’ Deschamps on the Performance of Music,” Early Music V (1977): 484–91.
(4) See Ursula Günther, “Die Anwendung der Diminution in der Handschrift Chantilly 1047,” Archiv für Musikwissenschaft XVII (1960): 1–21.