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‘Stroke’ and ‘strene’ notation in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century equal-note cantus firmi

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2008

Hugh Benham


Several writers, notably Dr Margaret Bent, have drawn attention to simple forms of notation that were occasionally used in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English music in preference to ‘normal’ mensural notation. This study investigates the employment of these notations in plainsong-based cantus firmi that have, exclusively or predominantly, notes of a single value, and comments on the relationships between such notations and the more widely used notational systems of plainchant and polyphonic music.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1993

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1 See particularly the article by Dr Bent referred to in note 2. See also Bent, M. and Bowers, R., ‘The Saxilby Fragment’, Early Music History, 1 (1981), 127;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Hughes, A., ‘The Choir in Fifteenth-Century English Music: Non-Mensural Polyphony’, Essays in Musicology in Honor of Dragan Plamenac, ed. Reese, G. and Snow, R. J. (Pittsburgh, 1969), 127–45;Google Scholar and Rastall, R., The Notation of Western Music: An Introduction (London, 1983), pp. 105–8.Google Scholar

2 Bent, M., ‘New and Little-Known Fragments of English Medieval Polyphony’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 21 (1968), 137–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Merbecke, J., The booke of Common praier noted (London, 1550), sig. Aiir.Google Scholar

4 There appears to be an important connection between the availability of polyphony based on stroke and strene notations in fifteenth-century England and the involvement of choirs, as opposed to soloists, in polyphonic singing. This matter is discussed by Andrew Hughes in ‘The Choir in Fifteenth-Century English Music’ (see n. 1). The use of non-mensural notation for a single (cantus firmus) part – the subject of the present article – is referred to briefly there, and the possibility of choral performance for such a part, solo performance for the other parts, is raised (p. 145).

5 Such notation is occasionally found outside England and outside these dates, as in a Benedicamus from Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ital. 568 (c. 1400), shown in facsimile 75 of Apel, W., The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900–1600, 5th edn (Cambridge, MA, 1953), p. 379.Google Scholar

6 Ten are mentioned in the article. Others include Oxford, Christ Church, MS 45 and London, British Library, Add. MSS 18936–9.

7 See Miller, C. K., A Fifteenth-Century Record of English Choir Repertory: B.M. Add. MS. 5665; A Transcription and Commentary, unpublished dissertation, Yale University (1948).Google Scholar

8 The partbooks are discussed, and the contents listed, in Bray, R., ‘British Museum Add. MSS. 17802–5 (The Gyffard Part-Books): An Index and Commentary’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 7 (1970), 3150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 See Bray, R., ‘The Part-Books Oxford, Christ Church, MSS 979–93: An Index and Commentary’, Musica Disciplina, 25 (1971), 179–97,Google Scholar and Bray, , ‘John Baldwin’, Music & Letters, 56 (1975), 55–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10 Except for two minor works by Baldwin, John, Redime me Domine and Pater noster, that are preserved in Oxford, Christ Church, MSS 979–83 as items nos. 161 and 162.Google Scholar An In nomine by John Sadler, the third item in his partbooks Oxford, Bodleian Library, MSS Mus. e. 1–5, perhaps alone among pieces of this kind, has black notes for its cantus firmus. It is interesting that Tallis and Byrd were prepared to see ordinary void mensural notation used for equal-note cantus firmi in their works when they supervised the publication of the 1575 Cantiones sacrae – even though some pieces circulated in manuscript with ‘special’ notation.

11 See Harrison, F. LI., ‘Music for the Sarum Rite: MS 1236 in the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge’, Annales Musicologiques, 6 (1958), 99144.Google Scholar For a complete edition, see The Music of the Pepys MS 1236, ed. Charles, S. R., Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 40 (n.p., 1967).Google Scholar

13 Bent, , ‘New and Little-Known Fragments’ (see n. 2), 144–8.Google Scholar

15 For a complete edition, see The Old Hall Manuscript, ed. Hughes, A. and Bent, M., Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 46 (n.p., 19691973).Google Scholar

14 See Bukofzer, M. F., Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music (New York, 1950), pp. 86112;Google Scholar and Summers, W. J., English Fourteenth-Century Polyphony: Facsimile Edition of Sources Notated in Score (Tutzing, 1983), plates 80–4.Google Scholar

15 John Taverner: III, Ritual Music and Secular Songs, ed. Benham, H, Early English Church Music 30 (London, 1984), pp. 91108.Google Scholar

16 Including the four-part version of Taverner's first setting of Dum transisset sabbatum (see John Taverner: III, pp. 119–26, and Ex. 4 below).Google Scholar

17 See, for example, More, Mother Thomas, ‘The Performance of Plainsong in the Later Middle Ages and the Sixteenth Century’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 92 (19651966), p. 126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

18 Concerning the performance of plainsong in notes of equal length in this period, see, for example, More, , ‘The Performance of Plainsong’, pp. 125–6.Google Scholar

19 The sections in question are ‘Et exspecto’ (Credo), ‘Osanna in excelsis’ (Benedictus), and (with perfect (‘dotted’) semibreves in prolatio perfecta) ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (Agnus Dei); see John Taverner: I, Six-Part Masses, ed. Benham, H., Early English Church Music 20 (London, 1978), pp. 43–4, 59–60 and 71–4.Google Scholar

20 As described in Benham, H., Latin Church Music in England c. 1460–1575 (London, 1977), pp. 124–5.Google Scholar The Mass is published in Robert Fayrfax, Collected Works, ed. Warren, E. B., Corpus Mensurabilis Musicae 17 (n.p., 19591966), I, pp. 3363, the antiphon in III, pp. 42–50.Google Scholar The plainsong phrase is even appropriately labelled (‘planum cantum’) in the bass part of the antiphon, as given in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tenbury MS 1464, f. 17v.

21 The number here refers to Charles's edition, and is included because the Pepys manuscript has more than one setting of the hymn.

22 Except for that mentioned in n. 20 above. Black notation, incidentally, is in use throughout one part of some keyboard pieces, as in British Library, MS Royal Appendix 56 (c. 1530) and Add. MS 29996 (c. 1547–9). Such notation is not restricted to equal-note parts nor to cantus firmi, and is not considered further here, except to note that it is frequently employed ‘to mark off a middle voice from the neighbouring ones’ (Apel, , The Notation of Polyphonic Music 900–1600 (see n. 5), pp. 1112), and that it is not coloration.Google Scholar

23 John Sheppard: I, Responsorial Music, ed. Chadd, D., Early English Church Music 17 (London, 1977);Google Scholar and John Sheppard, Collected Works: II, Hymns, ed. Bray, R. (Oxford, 1981).Google Scholar

24 See Latin Motets I, ed. Edwards, W., The Byrd Edition 8 (London, 1984), pp. 137–55, 168–77 and 178–88,Google Scholar and Cantiones sacrae II, ed. Brown, A., The Byrd Edition 3 (London, 1981), pp. 163–73 and 212–22.Google Scholar Baldwin's, John Redime me Domine and Pater noster (referred to in n. 10 above) may be later than Byrd's pieces, but are of limited importance.Google Scholar

25 See, for example, Kerman, J., ‘Byrd's Motets: Chronology and Canon’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, 14 (1961), pp. 371 and 374;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Latin Motets I, p. vi,Google Scholar and Cantiones sacrae II, p. viii.Google Scholar

26 Brett, P., ‘Edward Paston (1550–1630): a Norfolk Gentleman and his Musical Collection’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, 4 (1964), 5169.Google Scholar

27 The Paston scribes do not always employ the special notation, however; for instance, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tenbury MSS 341–4 present the cantus firmus of Tallis's Dum transisset sabbatum (Thomas Tallis, ed. Buck, P. C. et al. , Tudor Church Music 6 (London, 1928), pp. 257–61) in ordinary semibreves – possibly because the source used by the copyist was notated in this manner.Google Scholar

28 Benham, H., ‘“Salve Regina” (Power or Dunstable): a Simplified Version’, Music & Letters, 59 (1978), 2832.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 All musical examples give the original plainchant alongside the cantus-firmus notation for comparison. The plainsong sources used are printed ones from the sixteenth century: such sources presum ably enjoyed fairly wide circulation, and must represent some kind of ‘standard’ at a time when plainchant notation was not rigidly systematized even within a particular geographical area.

30 Inverted commas here and in similar contexts mark the use in stroke or strene notation of a note or ligature shape apparently derived from plainsong notation.

31 Furthermore, in some late medieval liturgical sources diamond-shaped notes began to acquire ‘a metrical and a rhythmic significance being worth roughly half the square punctum and reserved for the singing of a single short syllable’ (More, , ‘The Performance of Plainsong’ (see n. 17), p. 131).Google Scholar Merbecke distinguishes the ‘square note [that] is a semybreve’ and the diamond-shaped ‘pycke [that] is a mynymme’ (The booke of Common praier noted).

32 See, for example, Rastall, , The Notation of Western Music (see n. 1), p. 106.Google Scholar

33 This subject requires further investigation, with detailed comparative study of contemporary plainsong sources' use of the cephalicus and of repercussive neumes.

34 The name ‘strene’ is Merbecke's. There is a reference in the late fourteenth-century Choristers' Lament to a ‘streinant wit3 to longe tailes’, but it seems not altogether clear if this concerns the plica of mensural notation or the cephalicus of plainsong notation.

35 John Sheppard: II, Masses, ed. Sandon, N., Early English Church Music 18 (London, 1976), pp. 139–62.Google Scholar

36 Robert White: III, Ritual Music and Lamentations, ed. Mateer, D., Early English Church Music 32 (London, 1986), pp. 110.Google Scholar

37 Despite the usual avoidance of mixing square- and diamond-shaped notes; see, for example, the reference above to Trouluffe's Nesciens mater from the Ritson manuscript and n. 31.

38 Harrison, F. LI., Music in Medieval Britain, rev. edn (London, 1963), p. 393.Google Scholar

39 John Taverner: III, pp. 146–51.Google Scholar

40 Bray, R., ‘British Library, R.M. 24 d 2 (John Baldwin's Commonplace Book): An Index and Commentary’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 12 (1974), p. 150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 Sheppard's Playnsong Masse for a Mene is perhaps the ultimate in strene notation, with its use (in all four voices) of dotted strenes, dotted ‘puncta’, (white) minims, and semibreve (and other) rests.

42 The contents are listed in Noble, J., ‘Le Répertoire instrumental anglais: 1550–1585’, La Musique instrumentale de la Renaissance (Paris, 1955), pp. 91114.Google Scholar See also Edwards, W., ‘The Performance of Ensemble Music in Elizabethan England’, Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 97 (19701971), pp. 116, 118–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43 John Sheppard, Collected Works: II, pp. 70–4.Google Scholar