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Phrasing in medieval song: perspectives from traditional music

  • Warwick Edwards (a1)


During the course of a series of articles relating medieval Italian songs to oral and unwritten traditions, Nino Pirrotta comments on a peculiar anonymous two-voice setting from the fourteenth century whose verses seem to have been broken and shattered by the music. Word repetition ‘does not result in a more effective or more understandable rendition of the text; on the contrary, it so fragments and stutters it that any meaning is lost, except as a pretext for the melody which submerges it’. The song in question, Dolce lo mio drudo, is part of a group of unica with Calabrian associations found in the oldest layer of the Reina manuscript. Pirrotta transcribes the song in full and analyses the text and its cognates in detail. It is a ballata with irregularities. I quote in Example 1 just the refrain, together with an indication of the syllable count, in order to facilitate comparison with what follows.



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1 Pirrotta, N., ‘;Polyphonic Music for a Text Attributed to Frederick II’, Music and Culture in Italy from the Middle Ages to the Baroque (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 3950, on p. 44;originally published as ‘Musica polifonica per un testo attribuito a Federico II’, in L'Ars nova italiana del Trecento, 2 (Certaldo, 1968), 97112.

2 Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, MS n. a. fr. 6771, f. 29v. The piece is also published in Italian Secular Music, ed. Marrocco, W. T., Polyphonic Music of the Fourteenth Century 11 (Monaco, 1978), no. 27.

3 Magrini, T., ‘Dolce lo mio drudo: La prospettiva etnomusicologica’, Rivista italiana di musicologia, 22 (1986), 215–35. For further details see Baud-Bovy, Samuel, Chansons populates de Crite occidental (Geneva, 1972) and Magrini, , Forme della musica vocale e strumentale a Creta, 2nd edn (Milan, 1985).

4 Transcription by Warwick Edwards, after Grèce: Musique populaire de tradition orale: Chants des Akrites, LP (Ocora 558 600). I am grateful to Athanassios Papazaris for assistance in transcribing the words. The translation is reprinted here by kind permission of Harmonia Mundi France. A series of variant versions of the melody are transcribed and discussed in Baud-Bovy, Chansons populaires, 219ff, and one of them is recorded on the accompanying disc. In this, and in the further traditional song transcriptions following, I have only notated the performance features pertinent to this article. In particular I have refrained from indicating durational values for the examples from Greece and Herzegovina. The notes certainly have values - and in many cases they are not particularly difficult to express in standard modern notation; yet it is far from certain whether such notation, based on the regular temporal recurrence of a hierarchy of accentual patterns, reflects the song rhythms as singers perceive them, or whether it falsifies them and misleads. The use here of a common notational system for modern traditional renderings and for nonmensural medieval songs does not necessarily compel us to infer similarity of thought processes, though I have to admit it is suggestive. There is of course a need to study the rhythms of traditional song in their own right, and to ask whether these too can lend insight to those of medieval song.

5 Lomax, A., ‘Folk Song Style’, The American Anthropologist, 61 (1959), 927–54, on p. 930.

6 Plainsong and Medieval Music, 1 (1992), 112.

7 Zumthor, P., Toward a Medieval Poetics, trans. Philip Bennett (Minneapolis and Oxford, 1992), 3.

8 See Edwards, W., ‘Text Underlay in Marguerite of Austria's Chanson Album Brussels 228’, Muziek aan het Hof van Margaretha van Oostenrijk (Peer, Belgium: Musica, 1987), 3347; ‘Parallel Performance Traits in Medieval and Modern Traditional Mediterranean Song’, Actas del XV Congreso de la Sociedad International de Musicologia, TV: Free Papers, Revista de Musicologia, 16 (1996), 1979–87.

9 Bartók, B. and Lord, A. B., Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs (New York, 1951), 9.

10 Ibid., no. 31d. For discussion of melody-stanza structures see pp. 36ff (I have substituted the expressions ‘isosyllabic’ and ‘heterosyllabic’ for Bartok's more equivocal ‘isometric’ and ‘heterometric’). See also B. Bartók, Rumanian Folk Music: IV. Carols and Christmas Songs (Colinde), ed. B. Suchoff (The Hague, 1975), 7ff.

11 This is, I think, the only instance of the phenomenon in Bartók and Lord's collection, notwithstanding that it comes from a location, Gacko, which provided a large number of their recordings.

12 Bartók and Lord, Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs, 74ff.

13 Ibid., no. 23a.

14 Transcribed from an unpublished field recording made by Athanassios Papazaris. I am most grateful to him for allowing me to quote it here. For numerous further examples of line-, word- and syllable-interruptions see Baud-Bovy, Chansons populaires.

15 Bartók and Lord, Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs, 76.

16 Transcribed by Warwick Edwards from Les Traditions populaires en France, I: Auvergne, LP (Ocora: 558 520).

17 See Treitler, L., ‘Reading and Singing: On the Genesis of Occidental Music-Writing’, Early Music History, 4 (1984), 135208, on pp. 163ff.

18 Though readers who can turn to the recording and become listeners will be left in no doubt as to Mme Reichert's relish for her cheeky text.

19 See also the example quoted and discussed in my ‘Parallel Performance Traits’.

20 Ibid., opening paragraph.

21 Stevens, J., Words and Music in the Middle Ages: Song, Narrative, Dance and Drama, 10501350 (Cambridge, 1986), 33.On armonia, see also pp. 20–1 and Chapters 11 and 12.

22 Ibid., 47, 499.

23 Stevens, J., ‘amson dux fortissime: An International Latin Song’, Plainsong and Medieval Music, 1 (1992), 140, on p. 18.

24 Arlt, W., ‘Secular Monophony’, in Performance Practice: Music Before 1600, ed. Brown, H. M. and Sadie, S. (London, 1989), 5578, on pp. 65–6. See also his ‘Nova cantica: Grundsätzliches und Spezielles zur Interpretation musikalischer Texte des Mittelalters’, Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, 10 (1986), 2652; and his ‘Musica e testo nel canto francese: dai primi trovatori al mutamento stilistico intorno al 1300’, La musica nel tempo di Dante: Ravenna, 1986, ed. Pestalozza, Luigi (Milan, 1988), 175–97, discussion, pp. 306–21.

25 Randel, D. M., ‘Reading the Text of the Middle Ages in the Polyphonic Conductus’, Revista de musicologiía, 13 (1990), 451–68, on p. 468.

26 Arlt, ‘Secular Monophony’, 65.

27 Karp, T., ‘Interrelationships between Poetic and Musical Form in Trouvère Song’ in A Musical Offering: Essays in Honor of Martin Bernstein (New York, 1977), 137–61. See also Marshall, J. H., ‘Textual Transmission and Complex Musico-Metrical Form in the Old French Lyric’, Medieval French Textual Studies in Memory of T. B. W. Reid, ed. Short, Ian (London 1984), on strophic musical settings of irregular stanzas.

28 Eco, U., Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (New Haven and London, 1986), 98.

29 Zumthor, P., Essai de poétique médiévale (Paris, 1972); English trans, by Bennett, P., Toward a Medieval Poetics (Minneapolis and Oxford, 1992), 209.

30 Bent, M., ‘Text Setting in Sacred Music of the Early 15th Century: Evidence and Implications’, in Musik und Text in der Mehrstimmigkeit des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts, Göttinger musikwissenschaftliche Arbeiten 10 (Kassel, 1984), 291326, on p. 315, after de Coussemaker, C. E. H., Scriptorum de tnusica medii aevi nova series a Gerbertina allera (Paris, 1864–76), III, 124–8.

31 See for example Bent, M., ‘Deception, Exegesis and Sounding Number in Machaut's Motet 15’, Early Music History, 10 (1991), 1527.

32 Page, C., Discarding Images: Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France (Oxford, 1993), Chapters 2 and 3.

33 The text punctuation of the sources is recorded in the various volumes of The Byrd Edition, gen. ed. Brett, P. (London, 1977).

34 Mettman, W., ed., Alfonso X, o Sabio: Cantigas de Santa María (Coimbra, 1959–64).

35 See Cummins, J. G., ‘The Practical Implications of Alfonso El Sabio's Peculiar Use of the Zé;jel’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 47 (1970), 19.

36 van de Boogaard, N., Rondeaux et refrains du Xlle siècle au debut du XlVe (Paris, 1969).

37 Zumthor, , Toward a Medieval Poetics, 196.

38 The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edn (Oxford, 1994).

39 See Garey, H., ‘The Fifteenth Century Rondeau as Aleatory Polytexf’, Musique naturelle et musique artificielle: In Memoriam Gustave Reese, ed. Winn, M. B., Le moyen francais 5 (Montreal, 1979), 193236, esp. pp. 224–5; Garey, , ‘Can a Rondeau with a One-line Refrain be Sung?Ars lyrica, 2 (1983), 921; Brown, H. M., ‘A Rondeau with a One-line Refrain Can Be Sung’, Ars lyrica, 3 (1986), 2335; Fallows, D., ‘Secular Polyphony in the 15th Century’, in Brown, and Sadie, , eds., Performance Practice: Music Before 1600, 201–21, on pp. 212ff.

40 Arlt, ‘Secular Monophony’, 66.

41 Arlt, ‘Nova cantica’.

42 Discarding Images, 99–100.

43 Music for the Lion-Hearted King, Gothic Voices, dir. C. Page, CD (Hyperion CDA 66336).

44 Edwards, ‘Text Underlay in Marguerite of Austria's Chanson Album’, 44–5.

45 Discarding Images, 110–11.

46 Treitler, L., ‘Oral, Written and Literate Process in the Transmission of Medieval Music’, Speculum, 56 (1981), 471–91. See also his ‘Reading and Singing’; ‘ “Unwritten” and “Written Transmission” of Medieval Chant and the Start-up of Musical Notation’, Journal of Musicology, 10 (1992), 131–91.

47 See Strohm, R., ‘Unwritten and Written Music’, Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, ed. Knighton, T. and Fallows, D. (London, 1992), 228–33, on p. 231.

48 Treitler, L., ‘Transmission and the Study of Music History’, in International Musicological Society, Report of the Twelfth Congress, Berkeley 1977, ed. Heartz, D. and Wade, B. (Kassel, Basel and London, 1981), 202–11, on p. 209.

49 Binkley, Thomas, ‘The Work is Not the Performance’, in Knighton and Fallows, eds., Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, 3643, on p. 40.

50 Strunk, Oliver, Source Readings in Music History (New York, 1950), 123–4.

51 Carruthers, M., The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1990), 161–2.

52 Ibid., 87–8.

53 Ibid., 63–4.

54 Treitler, L., ‘Orality and Literacy in the Music of the European Middle Ages’, in The Oral and the Literate in Music, ed. Tokumaru Yosihiko and Yamaguti Osamu (Tokyo, 1986), 3856, on p. 43.

55 Arlt, ‘Secular Monophony’, 61. As a contributor to,The Byrd Edition, I can scarcely refrain from referring here to my earlier footnote on that edition's text punctuation policy.

56 Randel, D. M., ‘,Dufay the Reader’, in Music and Language, Studies in the History of Music 1 (New York, 1983), 3878.

57 Stevens, , ‘Samson dux fortissime’, 1415.

58 Treitler, L., ‘The Troubadours Singing their Poems’, The Union of Words and Music in Medieval Poetry, ed. Baltzer, R. A., Cable, T. and Wimsatt, J. I. (Austin, Tex., 1991), 1548, on p. 16.

59 Village Music from Romania: Oltenia - Moldavia - Transylvania (Collection Constantin Brᾰiloiu), AIMP, 9–11 (3 CDs, AIMP 9–11, 1988), sleeve-note.

60 This article is a revised version of materials presented at the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology, Geneva, 23–8 September 1991; at the Annual Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Music, Newcastle upon Tyne, 10–13 July 1992; as well as at the London Colloquium on 20 July 1995 in memory of Michael Morrow.

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Phrasing in medieval song: perspectives from traditional music

  • Warwick Edwards (a1)


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