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A new reading of Binchois's Mon seul et souverain desir

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2015



The copyist of the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canon. Misc. 213 was detailed and well versed in numerous notational styles, and as a result, examples of unusual notation in this manuscript have drawn a critical eye. Yet the unique transcription of Binchois's rondeau Mon seul et souverain desir, in which the copyist alternates between the two common note shapes for the semiminim in the cantus voice, has thus far gone unexplained. This notation has no rhythmic significance; as such, it appears to be a superficial anomaly. In this article, I lay out a rationale for a reading of the notation of the semiminims in this piece as potentially deliberate and meaningful. Over the course of compiling the manuscript, the copyist increasingly aligned semiminim shape with prolation: the full-black shape is used exclusively in minor prolation, whereas the void flagged shape becomes more frequently restricted to major prolation. Since the rondeau is in minor prolation, I suggest that the copyist might have used the void flagged figure in order to suggest a momentary shift into major prolation. In so doing, the copyist might have left to us a witness of a performance practice in which the mensural and rhythmic possibilities inherent in the built-in tension between and were explored.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press, 2015 

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1 For an overview of the manuscript's history, see Fallows, David's introduction to Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Canon. Misc. 213, Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Music in Facsimile 1 (Chicago, 1995), 14 Google Scholar. After registering for a free account, images of the manuscript may be viewed on the Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music (DIAMM):

2 Only the later additions on fols. 14v–16r are in a different hand, although part of fol. 15v was notated by the Canonici copyist. For discussions of this person's overall quality and accuracy, see Reaney, Gilbert, ‘The Italian Contribution to the Manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canonici misc. 213’, in L’ars nova Italiana del trecento, ed. Gallo, F. Alberto (Certaldo, 1970), 443–64Google Scholar; Schoop, Hans, Entstehung und Verwendung der Handschrift Oxford Bodleian Library, Canonici misc. 213, Publikationen der Schweizerischen musikforschenden Gesellschaft, Serie 2, vol. 24 (Bern, 1971)Google Scholar; Graeme Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons: Chronology and Style in the Manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canonici misc. 213’, Ph.D. diss., Harvard University (1987); Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, especially 5; Elizabeth Randell Upton, Music and Performance in the Later Middle Ages (New York, 2013).

3 Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 6.

4 Most notably, see Rehm, Wolfgang, Die Chansons von Gilles Binchois (1400–1460), Musikalische Denkmäler 2 (Mainz, 1957)Google Scholar; Dahlhaus, Carl, ‘Zu einer Chanson von Binchois’, Die Musikforschung, 17 (1964), 398–9Google Scholar; Christoffersen, Peter Woetmann, ‘Prenez sur moi vostre exemple: The “clefless” notation or the use of fa-clefs in chansons of the fifteenth century by Binchois, Barbingant, Ockeghem and Josquin’, Danish Yearbook of Musicology, 37 (2009), 1338 Google Scholar; Mengozzi, Stefano, ‘“Clefless” notation, counterpoint and the fa-degree’, Early Music, 36 (2008), 5166 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See Rehm, Wolfgang, ed., Codex Escorial chansonnier (Kassel, 1958)Google Scholar and the information found on DIAMM: The text of this rondeau is also preserved in an anonymous collection of poetry, Le Jardin de plaisance et fleur de rethoricque, printed in 1501 by the Parisian printer-bookseller Antoine Verard. This collection contains numerous other fifteenth-century chanson texts, including eleven others set by Binchois. For more information, see Kathleen Frances Sewright, ‘Poetic Anthologies of Fifteenth-Century France and their Relationship to Collections of the French Secular Polyphonic Chanson’, Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2008); Droz, Eugénie and Piaget, Arthur, Le Jardin de plaisance et fleur de rhétorique, vol. 1: Reproduction en fac-similé de l’édition publiée par Antoine Vérard vers 1501 (Paris, 1910)Google Scholar; vol. 2: Introduction et notes, Societé des Anciens Textes Français (Paris, 1925).

6 Another piece in Canonici, Mourir me voy by R. Libert (fol. 76r), also uses two different semiminim shapes in the cantus, but while the void flagged shapes are original, the black unflagged shapes were originally part of a triplet group. The first of the three was subsequently voided, creating a minim and two semiminims in its place. Mon seul et souverain desir is the only piece in which both shapes were originally written as such. It also makes use of full-black semiminims in the contratenor voice.

7 Besseler, Heinrich, Bourdon und Fauxbourdon (Leipzig, 1950)Google Scholar; Hamm, Charles, A Chronology of the Works of Guillaume Dufay based on a Study of Mensural Practice (Princeton, 1964)Google Scholar; Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, 140–2. Major prolation did not disappear completely, of course, although much fewer pieces in the later fifteenth century used major prolation in all voices simultaneously; it did, however, take on additional connotations, such as augmentation in the tenor line. See Berger, Anna Maria Busse, Mensuration and Proportion Signs: Origins and Evolution (Oxford, 1993)Google Scholar, especially ch. 4.

8 The alignment of semiminim shapes with particular mensurations is discussed in Hamm, A Chronology, especially 26–7, and Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, particularly ch. III.

9 See, in particular, Hamm, A Chronology; Robert D. Reynolds, ‘Evolution of Notational Practices in Manuscripts between 1400–1450’, Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University (1974); Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’; Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library.

10 Dahlhaus, ‘Zu einer Chanson von Binchois’.

11 Mengozzi, ‘“Clefless” notation, counterpoint and the fa-degree’.

12 Slavin, Dennis, ‘Questions of Authority in Some Songs by Binchois’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 117 (1992), 2261 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Figure 3 adapted from page 47.

13 Besseler, Bourdon und Fauxbourdon; Hamm, A Chronology; Reynolds, ‘Evolution of Notational Practices in Manuscripts between 1400–1450’, 287. See especially ch. V of Reynolds.

14 Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, 151.

15 Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 42.

16 Ibid. , 6, 18.

17 The phenomenon is not exclusive to these two sources but is predominant in musical manuscripts of the early fifteenth century.

18 Heinrich Besseler was the first to date the manuscript to the 1430s, overturning Pierre Aubry's earlier assessment that it dated to c.1460. In several subsequent publications, Walter Kemp more specifically suggested c.1430–45, due to the high number of concordances with the latest gatherings of Canonici. This has become the generally accepted date range for Escorial and is cited as such both in the Census-Catalogue of Manuscript Sources of Polyphonic Music 1400–1550 (Neuhausen-Stuttgart, 1979–88) and in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel, 1994–2008). However, in his A Catalogue of Polyphonic Songs 1415–1480 (Oxford, 1999), David Fallows suggests a more narrow window of between 1436 and 1440, due to the overlap between Escorial and the last gatherings of Canonici, which date to c.1434–6. See Aubry, Pierre, ‘Iter Hispanicum . . . II. Deux chansonniers français à la Bibliothèque de l’Escorial’, Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, 8 (1906–7), 517–34Google Scholar; Besseler, ‘Studien zur Musik des Mittelalters: I. Neue Quellen des 14. und beginnenden 15. Jahrhunderts’, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, 7 (1925), 167–252; Rachel Coupe, ‘The Relationship of Style and Method in Burgundian Music of the early- to mid-fifteenth century’, Ph.D. diss., New York University (2006); Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 19–20; Fallows, A Catalogue of Polyphonic Song 1440–1480, 15; Kemp, Walter H., ‘The Manuscript Escorial V.III.24’, Musica Disciplina, 30 (1976), 97129 Google Scholar.

19 The anonymous Puisque fortune (fols. 17v–18r) is in , but uses full-red semiminims; the anonymous L’onneur de vous (fols. 57v–58r) is in , but has one pair of black flagged semiminims in the cantus. Additionally, the anonymous Bien veignant (fols. 33v–34r) uses the flagged shape in the lowest part, but the full-red minim shape in the cantus. This is the only instance in Escorial in which both shapes are used in the same piece, but since each is in a different voice part, this peculiarity may reflect the use of multiple exemplars and would necessitate closer study to determine further mensural or notational significance.

20 Graeme Boone suggests this eleven-year spread in his dissertation, but David Fallows leans towards a slightly shorter span, between 1428 and 1434. I use the longer set of dates here only because they are inclusive of Fallows’ own time frame. See Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, 112–13; Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 20.

21 Boone dates the last five gatherings (IX, II, III, IV and I) to after 1430, with the last two gatherings to between 1434 and 1436. See Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, 112–13.

22 Boone suggests, after Hamm, that the pieces containing full-black semiminims can be dated to 1433 or later. He also observes that these pieces are found clustered together in the later gatherings, implying fairly unified phases of copying that are ‘suggestive of a fairly abrupt change in notational procedure’. See Boone, ‘Dufay's Early Chansons’, 26, 150–2; Hamm, A Chronology.

23 Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 6, 18.

24 The one exception to this, as noted in Table 3 above, is Jacobus Vide's Vit encore ce faux dangier; the cantus part has been edited by what appears to be a later hand, substituting a void minim and two full-black semiminims for an original semibreve. As these semiminims are the result not of the Canonici copyist but of a later editor, they are not considered within the body of this article. See footnote 43 below.

25 Laurenz Lütteken suggests, due to the specific focus of the manuscript on secular song and certain types of motets, the quality of the handwriting and the musical notation, and so forth, that the copyist was not an amateur music lover but an expert or scholar of high social status. He proffers the composer Johannes de Quadris as a candidate for the copyist, a suggestion that Fallows considers ‘the most attractive of the informally suggested candidates’. Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 4; Lütteken, Laurenz, Guillaume Dufay und die isorhythmische Motette: Gattungstradition und Werkcharakter an der Schwelle zur Neuzeit (Hamburg, 1993), 125–7Google Scholar. See also note 2 above, in particular Boone, Upton.

26 For example, the Binchois rondeau Jamais tant que je vous revoye leaves a semibreve rest out of the cantus voice, while none of the voice parts in Prepositus Brixiensis's O spirito gentil match in length. Gilbert Reaney's edition of O spirito gentil transcribes a string of void flagged semiminims in the cantus at the end of the first section as a set of semiminims followed by a sextuplet, but he does not explain his editorial process. If his reading is correct, this is the only piece in all of Canonici in which the same semiminim shape had two different rhythmic durations in the same piece, but it is not within the scope of the current article to determine the accuracy of this interpretation. See Slavin, ‘Questions of Authority’, 46–8; Reaney, Gilbert, ed., Early Fifteenth-Century Music v, Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 11 (Rome, 1955)Google Scholar.

27 As Figure 3 shows, the copyist of the Escorial copy transcribes the last two semiminims in that phrase a second lower than does the copyist of Canonici. Also, in the phrase occurring two perfections before the fermata, the Canonici copy transmits a dotted minim and a void flagged semiminim, whereas the Escorial copy shows a minim and two full-red semiminims. This is the only rhythmic variance between the two manuscripts with regard to semiminims; the last three semiminims of the rondeau's cantus voice differ slightly in pitch.

28 Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 4.

29 The eight pieces featuring semiminim revisions are:

  1. 1.

    1. Hugo de Lantins, Tra quante regione el sol si mobele (fols. 36v–37r)

  2. 2.

    2. Benoit, De couer joyeux je veuil chanter (fol. 54r)

  3. 3.

    3. Binchois, Toutes mes joies sont estaintes (fol. 61r)

  4. 4.

    4. Arnold de Lantins, Sanctus (fols. 70v–71r)

  5. 5.

    5. Brollo, Vivere et recte reminiscere (fol. 71r)

  6. 6.

    6. R. Libert, Mourir me voy il est pic de ma vie (fol. 76r)

  7. 7.

    7. Binchois, Je ne pouroye estre joyeux (fol. 78r)

  8. 8.

    8. Binchois, Liesse m’a mandé salut (fol. 79v)

Most of these have have full-black semiminims that were created from full-black minim triplets, although numbers 2 and 8 have full-black semiminims that were created from void flagged semiminims; the de Lantins Sanctus contains both types of revisions. All these pieces are in unsigned with the exception again of the de Lantins Sanctus, which is explicitly signed and . The nature of these revisions is such that it is impossible to tell when or by whom they were done, but they are consistent with choices made by the Canonici copyist throughout the later stages of the manuscript and therefore this person is perhaps the most plausible candidate for the reviser.

30 Examples of these shifts in Canonici are Arnold de Lantins's troped Kyrie Verbum incarnatum, which moves from to and back, is found on fol. 63r–v, while Baude Cordier's six works, featuring a variety of mensuration signs and numerals, are found between fols. 97v and 123r.

31 Boone, Graeme, ‘Marking Mensural Time’, Music Theory Spectrum, 22 (Spring 2000), 143, at 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 McGee, Timothy, Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer's Guide (Toronto, 1985), 22 Google Scholar.

33 McGee's argument, as well as his study of the Du Fay ballade, are re-presented in Ross Duffin's chapter entitled ‘Early Du Fay’, in A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music, ed. Ross W. Duffin (Bloomington, 2000), 235–47.

34 See Duffin, ‘Early Du Fay’, 237–9.

35 Ibid., 239. Numerous other scholars have also discussed the rhythmic flexibility and gestural fluidity of, and irregularities in, mensural and rhythmic patternings in fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century music; see Heinrich Besseler, Bourdon und Fauxbourdon; Brown, Howard Mayer, ‘On the Performance of Fifteenth-Century Chansons’, Early Music, 1 (1973), 110 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Haar, James, ‘The Trecento’, in idem, Essays on Italian Poetry and Music in the Renaissance, 1350–1600 (Berkeley, 1986)Google Scholar; Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, ‘Articulating ars subtilior song’, Early Music, 31 (2003), 618 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Slavin, Dennis, ‘Some Distinctive Features of Songs by Binchois: Cadential Voice Leading and the Articulation of Form’, The Journal of Musicology, 10 (1992), 342–61Google Scholar; Stone, Anne, ‘Glimpses of the Unwritten Tradition in Some “Ars Subtilior” Works’, Musica Disciplina, 50 (1996), 5993 Google Scholar. Gilbert Reaney also points to the close relationship between and in early fifteenth-century music, although he refers such ‘hemiola fluctuation’ as ‘a feature cultivated as much and probably more in England than on the continent’. See Reaney, ‘The “International” Style and the Oxford Manuscript, Bodleian Library, Canonici Misc. 213’, Musica Disciplina, 41 (1987), 24 Google Scholar.

36 Greig, Donald, ‘Ars Subtilior repertory as performance palimpsest’, Early Music, 31 (2003), 196–8, 190–202, 205–9, at 198CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 See Frederick Hammond, ed., Liber de musica Iohannis Vetuli de Anagnia, Corpus scriptorum de musica 27 (n.p., 1977).

38 Kellner, P. Altman, ‘Ein Mensuraltraktat aus der Zeit um 1400’, Anzeiger der Oesterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse, 94 (1957), 7385 Google Scholar; Rausch, Alexander, ‘Mensuraltraktate des Spätmittelalters in Österreichischen Bibliotheken’, in Quellen und Studien zur Musiktheorie des Mittelalters, vol. 3, ed. Bernhard, Michael, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Veröffentlichungen der Musikhistorischen Kommission, Band 15 (München, 2001), 293303 Google Scholar; Wolf, Johannes, ‘Ein Breslauer Mensuraltraktat des 15. Jahrhunderts’, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft, 1 (1918–19), 331–45Google Scholar; Karen Cook, ‘Theoretical Treatments of the Semiminim in a Changing Notational World, c.1315–c.1340’, Ph.D. diss., Duke University (2012), 206–11. Also, in late fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century Italian treatises, the semiminim was frequently assigned multiple possible shapes, although in a uniquely Italian fashion these shapes created different proportional durations. The Canonici copyist would likely have been familiar with this practice, given the older Italian repertory he preserved in the manuscript; while in Mon seul et souverain desir the two shapes create the same rhythm, the idea of using two shapes to denote two different events might be related to this earlier practice. See ibid., 164–73.

39 See Reynolds, ‘Evolution of Notational Practices in Manuscripts between 1400–1450’; Slavin, ‘Some Distinctive Features of Songs by Binchois’; Reynolds, ‘Toute Biaulte Et Toute Honneur, a Neglected Chanson of the Fifteenth Century’, Musica Disciplina, 39 (1985), 4551 Google Scholar; Stone, ‘Glimpses of the Unwritten Tradition in Some “Ars Subtilior” Works’; Fallows, David, ‘ Prenez sur moy: Okeghem's tonal pun’, Plainsong & Medieval Music, 1 (1992), 6375 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 This idea is similar to Anne Stone's reading of the complex notation of Sumite karissimi in the manuscript Modena, Biblioteca Estense, Alpha.M.5.24 (often referenced as Mod A); she suggests that its copyist might have been attempting to notate performative gesture, namely the insertion of a slight rhetorical pause, the result of which was a syncopated phrase that warranted the use of unusual notation. In Mon seul et souverain desir the notation might also indicate performative gesture as regards a play on the tension between major and minor prolation. See Stone, ‘Glimpses of the Unwritten Tradition in Some “Ars Subtilior” Works’.

41 See Fallows, David, ‘Binchois and the Poets’, in Binchois Studies, ed. Kirkman, Andrews and Slavin, Dennis (Oxford, 2000), 199219 Google Scholar.

42 Slavin, ‘Questions of Authority’; Brothers, Thomas, Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson: An Interpretation of Manuscript Accidentals (New York, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomas Brothers, ‘Accidentals in Binchois's Songs’, in Binchois Studies, 251–76. See also Schoop, Entstehung und Verwendung der Handschrift Oxford Bodleian Library, Canonici misc. 213.

43 A ninth possibility is Jacobus Vide's Vit encore ce faux dangier, found on fol. 21v. The cantus part shows an interpolation in a later hand of a void minim and two full-black semiminims (see Table 3 and note 24).

44 Fallows, Oxford, Bodleian Library, 39.

45 Another piece in gathering IIIx, Tra quante regione el sol si mobele, also contains a pair of full-black semiminims; it is found earlier in the gathering, on fols. 36v–37r and thus might have been copied before the Benoit piece. These semiminims are also the result of a later revision, as they were originally part of a full-black minim triplet, the first of which was subsequently scraped out. This revision is not noted in Fallows's inventory.

46 Carter, Timothy, ‘It's all in the Notes?Early Music, 41 (2013), 81–2, at 82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Canonici here offers ‘Ne ie ne puis riens sans vous voyr’, thus adding in the missing syllable, albeit awkwardly.

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