Ars Subtilior

If today we are in a Renaissance of the Renaissance, then we might continue the analogy and ask about the previous generation. Much has been made of the connections between the fourteenth century and our own, what with the wars and plagues and large-scale deaths. Of course there was also the almost unprecedented movement toward complexity in music, and so the connection between what is called the Ars Subtilior repertory of roughly 1370-1410 and the total serialism of the 1950s has been drawn many times. This brief flowering of highly sophisticated songs in a thoroughly medieval idiom presents many fascinating features which are only slowly being appreciated. Although the phrase "ars subtilior" (the more subtle art) does occur in a contemporary treatise, the period has no such self-conscious name for itself. The label is a retrospective one used to designate the increased melodic & rhythmic complexity of the music which follows the earlier Ars Nova. Of course the "ars nova" term was one which was used at the time, and its original use was accompanied by changes to both rhythmic notation and harmonic theory. The Ars Subtilior was a gradual shift of practice, continuous with the Ars Nova music of Machaut and others. In fact some of Machaut's late songs could be described as Ars Subtilior in style, and so there is a thread of personal continuity which is perhaps analogous to e.g. Beethoven and the beginning of the Romantic movement.

As is typical of the retrospective view, there is a tendency to evaluate this repertory as a tortured utterance... derived from either the hardship of the age or by some presumed need to wash away the medieval worldview with the Renaissance style. Indeed the simple volume of verbiage necessary to describe the Ars Subtilior, as evident above, automatically gives it a secondary historical position. What one misses in such an appraisal is the refinement of the music itself, and the wealth of allusion & detail which it displays. The subtlety of the art is very real, witnessed partly by the famous puzzles with which some pieces are described, but primarily by the oblique quotations and references with which the songs are filled. Although the art of quotation certainly carried into later fifteenth century songs and sacred polyphony, it became more explicit, less subtle. The Ars Nova was a period in which secular music held the upper hand in artistic and technical developments, a state of affairs which did not hold in either the earlier or directly following eras. Such a situation serves to underscore an analogy between the end of this repertory and Jazz, as Jazz was a distinctly secular and even irreverent phenomenon. More fundamentally, the Ars Subtilior is easily the most syncopated Western music prior to Jazz. The rhythmic independence, long flowing melodies, and subtlety of allusion combine to give many Ars Subtilior songs a surreal stream-of-consciousness feeling which might be likened to improvisation. Such a freewheeling interpretation can cast a different light on the "mannered" label which this music is sometimes given.

Nonetheless, the surreal and convoluted thinking behind the music is tangible and in sharp contrast to the more straightforward exuberance of the young Dufay. While it is tempting to view that shift in idiom with a sense of relief today, and indeed the Ars Subtilior pieces can be tough nuts to crack, it was also the beginning of the end for medieval harmonic theory. Although time & conditioning have given many people the sense that full-fledged tonality is the height of musical sophistication, one can note one major strength of the medieval system, and that is that it found a structural role for every diatonic interval. As soon as the third became the cadential interval, the fifth became an outcast due to its simpler sonic character. In the medieval system, the intervals were viewed as a spectrum from more to less stable, and the conclusive role of the fifth did not prevent the third or even the second from being in play. There would seem to be a special richness in this conception, and it is as much an inability to hear thirds as passing tones as anything which serves to make the late fourteenth century perplexing. In that sense, it is the sudden redefinition of the third which breaks the independence of line and confuses the harmonic motion, and the degree of syncopation which some of these pieces use makes their lines all too easy to break. Indeed, it was the sheer stability of the medieval view of interval which allowed the music such melodic independence while maintaining the confidence that relationships would not become confused. In other words, it was a ritualization of constraint as a backdrop to the most wide-ranging flights of fancy. Perhaps one can draw a more fruitful analogy with the late tonal composers of c.1900 and their oblique key references, references which can only be followed against long-standing expectations. In this case, we could view Ciconia as a sort of Mahler, with Dufay as Schoenberg!

Well, musical analogies are always fun, especially if we can play off the more usual ones. However, the Ars Subtilior is more than an analogy. It is also repertory of melodic richness, rhythmic ingenuity, and structural grandeur. It is refined and sophisticated, with enough depth of allusion to keep the mind occupied, yet with a suppleness of line derived from a joy in pure sound. Like most medieval musical styles, it is found in a small number of principal sources. As usual, the circumstances of production are unclear, and so it is difficult to know the geographic range of the Ars Subtilior phenomenon. The three largest sources survived in Italy, although three fourths of the pieces have French lyrics. The repertory essentially starts with the Codex Chantilly which contains several works (among 113 total) tangibly linked to the courts of Avignon, Foix and Aragon. The beginning of the codex has been partially replaced, and so the circumstances of its production are particularly sketchy, and there is some controversy as to whether it was copied in Italy or France. The next most significant manuscript is the Modena Manuscript which was apparently produced entirely in Italy, beginning at the court of Pavia. In many ways, it is the apotheosis of the Ars Subtilior style, as it contains the glimmering of the transitional generation and generally a stronger correlation between parts. The contents (104 pieces) are still mostly French, but with significant Latin and Italian items. It must be noted that many of the French songs are attributed specifically to Italian composers, confirming something about the genesis of the style. To illustrate the sheer capriciousness of medieval manuscript survival, the most voluminous source (228 pieces) is actually the Turin Manuscript which was produced in French-ruled Cyprus and brought to Italy as a wedding gift. It is also overwhelmingly in French, with significant Latin works. The style also has some notable Latin examples in the English Old Hall Manuscript, side-by-side with the descant style which proved to be its undoing. For recording recommendations, the interested reader can refer to the appropriate section in my medieval secular list. Some concrete remarks on individual works will be prepared in the coming months.

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Todd M. McComb