IID: The Ars Nova In France

The rapid rise of polyphony in the 12th and 13th centuries depended upon corresponding advances in style and notation. It was an age of rapid invention. But once these innovations had been transformed into usable techniques, composers could concentrate on extracting the full potential of what had been learned. This process of consolidation and refinement was the task of the 14th century. Four major trends can be discerned; first, increasing secularization; second, the growing dominance of polyphony; third, the emergence of national idioms and forms; and fourth, an increasing preoccupation with musical technique.

Since music is a social art, it is altogether natural for musical trends to mirror the society producing them. The 12th and 13th centuries together formed a stable, unified period, one marked by relative peace and the central authority of the Church. Feudal society appeared to work well, creating conditions that were ripe for social and economic improvement. The growth of trade, for instance, led to the appearance of great urban centers and the establishment of universities. Each of the three major social institutions enriched musical life: the castle courts supported the aristocratic art of the troubadours and the trouvères; the cathedral contributed the new art of polyphony; and the universities supplied a forum for the composers and theorists to disseminate their musical discoveries. Not surprisingly, much happened quickly.

Alas, the prosperity did not last long, for a combination of reasons. The institution of the papacy was in trouble, and in 1305 its site moved from Rome to Avignon for a variety of political reasons. This lengthy "Babylonian Captivity" (1305-1378) was followed by an even more troubled time, the so-called "Great Schism" (1378-1417), where there were two and for a time even three rival popes. Not until 1417 was the Church reunited at Rome under a single Pope. During this protracted period of religious confrontation, people lost faith in the Church's ability to cement society together. But things were hardly better in the secular sphere. Strife was the byword, both within and between countries. England and France embarked on a more than Hundred Years' War (1338-1453). The Black Death (1348-50) in just a few years decimated an estimated one-third to one-half of the population of Europe. All classes experienced discontent: the old feudal aristocracy was declining in the face of a rising bourgeois, and peasants wanted their say in the changing social order. A new age was at hand.

The Ars Nova

Two treatises appearing in France around 1320 provided a name for this age in music, Philippe de Vitry's Ars Nova(New Art) and Ars novae musicae(The Art of the New Music) by Jean de Muris. Modern scholars liked the term Ars Nova so much that they adopted it as a convenient catchphrase denoting 14th-century polyphony; by extension the polyphony of the preceding century (some expand it to include the Notre Dame school) became the Ars Antiqua. More specifically, Ars Nova refers to the music of 14th-century France; the Italian counterpart is dubbed the Trecento.

Either way, the novelty of the age was--at least in the eyes of the theorists--almost entirely a matter of notation. Even this is misleading, for no new notational system appeared, but rather refinements upon the now standard Franconian/Petronian mensural system. In this old system duple divisions of the beat (as in 2/4 or 3/4 meter), while feasible, were neither theoretically recognized nor adequately provided for, thanks to the longstanding mystical belief in the perfection of the number 3 (the Trinity, etc.). Until the 14th century ternary divisions (equivalent to our 6/8 or 9/8 meter) were the norm. The 14th-century theorists, interested more in practicality than in numerological mysticism, placed duple and triple mensuration on an equal footing. The smallest note of the old system, the semibreve, in theory capable of a wide range of time values, in practice was limited by the inescapable fact that all semibreves were identical in shape. Thus their values were completely dependent on context. It remained for new theorists like Vitry to modify the semibreve by giving it upward or downward tails turning it into an independent note value in its own right, dub it a minim, and allow it, too, to be divided into both threes and twos. The upshot was an enormous enlargement of rhythmic possibilities at every level. Whereas virtually all metricized music prior to 1300 can be transcribed in the equivalent of modem-day 6/8, Vitry's innovations permitted four distinct meters: 6/8, 9/8, 2/4, and 3/4. Moreover, these could even be combined simultaneously. Individual note values, too, could be notated with a precision and variety previously impossible.

More than any other medieval musician, Guillaume de Machaut marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. He was the last representative of the trouvère tradition, yet the quintessential learned artist as well. He took holy orders at an early age, though he lived and worked almost entirely in courtly circles: like his most illustrious Ars Nova predecessor, Philippe de Vitry, Machaut was at once poet, composer, canon, and servant of kings. But unlike Vitry, who apparently devoted little time to artistic pursuits during the last 40 years of his life, Machaut miraculously managed to make the most out of all his careers.

Notational advances in the 14th century were but the means to an end: the triumph of polyphony. The principal musical action took place in the two mainstream countries, France and Italy, where old forms were revised and new ones invented to accommodate multipartite music. In France the chief novelties were the isorhythmic motet, the creation of polyphonic mass movements, and the extension of polyphony to such troubadour/ trouvère forms as the ballade, virelai, rondeau, and lai. A new, entirely polyphonic form was devised--the strictly canonic chace. In Italy secularization was even more thorough. The Italians had their own equivalents of the virelai and the chace, the ballata and caccia, and a form all their own, the madrigal. In both countries the harmonic language grew increasingly refined. Towards the end of the century, this was to lead to the ever more complex development of L'Ars Subtilior,of which some of the best-known examples are to be found in the Chantilly Codex.

The earliest major source for isorhythmic motets is the Roman de Fauvel; the next important source of French Ars Nova music is a manuscript, theIvrea Codex, now residing in the Chapter Library at Ivrea.

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