The Ars Subtilior was a brief period in the end of the 14th century, when composers went nuts. The Ars Subtilior composers wrote music that was more complex that anything heard before—and often anything heard centuries since in Western music: more modulations, more polyrhythms, more music scores shaped as eye music.
It was a short-lived movement, and even its name was bestowed it by a twentieth-century musicologist: the 15th century backed away from its experimentation. Likewise it was a geographically restricted movement: basically the antipope's entourage in Avignon, although one of the Ars Subtilior manuscripts is from the court of the French kings of Cyprus. And it has remained a bit of a niche even in contemporary recordings. CDs are few, and the first CD I knew of played down the intellectual stuff in its selection, in favour of the imitations of birdsong.
I was introduced to the Ars Subtilior by my friend Christina Eira, who I did my linguistics PhD with. Christina had done her Music Honours thesis on a new transcription of Solage's music.
[McCarthy, Eira. 1986. An analysis and alternative system of edition of the seven ballades of Solage, MS Chantilly. BA (Hons) Thesis. University of Melbourne, Department of Music.]
Solage was one of the main composers in the Ars Subtilior school; Christina's transcription aimed to reflect more closely what Solage had originally written, rather than fitting to the expectations of later classical music.
The piece Solage is best known for is Fumeux fume par fumee, "The smokers smoke through smoke", which involves a dizzying series of low-pitched modulations. Annoyingly, it gets more attention for people trying to work out what kind of weed you could get hold of to smoke in the 14th century, so as to write that kind of trippy music, man.
But the piece where the clash between notations is most obvious is Calextone qui fut dame terrouse, "Callisto, who was a mortal lady". The lyrics aren't really the point of Ars Subtilior, but two trends converge in Solage's lyrics: the notion of courtly, romantic love which the troubadours invented, and a proto-Renaissance fascination with Greek mythology. Of course, the actual Zeus did no such thing as make Callisto his vrai epouse "true spouse"; but Zeus' "love-'em-and-convert-them-into-a-constellation" tactics were not much of a topic for a troubadour anyway.
Calextone is in 6/8, and the tenor is mostly slow-moving bass notes. But the cantus strays off from normal 6/8, and the countertenor strays off even more.
Beyond the hockets you'd expect in this era of music, there is a middle section where the counterenor is playing 2/2 to the cantus' 6/8. That's a hendiadys (two against three) which isn't that unusual in Western music; but Solage ends up with four beats against three—and syncopation in the four beats, at that. The bass also slips into 3/4 on occasion.
What stands out even more, though, is the cantus and countertenor both interrupting their 6/8, interspersing another new bar off one beat. This happens in the very first bar of the piece:
- The cantus starts a 6/8 bar—
- gets one eighth note in (1)
- then starts a new triplet (1+3)
- and another two, adding up to one and a half bars of 6/8 (1+3+3+3)
- and then closes off its initial triplet, and catching up with the remaining voices, by adding two more eighth notes (1+3+3+3+2)
So the way it is notated—and Christina's transcription tries to capture—instead of two bars of 6/8, you have half a bar of 6/8, interrupted by one and a half bars of 6/8.
This is not as bad as it gets, either. As bad as it gets is further down, when the countertenor does this series of stunts:
- gets half a bar in (3)
- then switches to a new 3/4 bar (3+2+4)
- then starts another bar of 6/8,
- gets one eighth note in (3+2+4+1)
- then starts two bars of 6/8 from scratch (3+2+4+6+6)
- and catches up with the other voices again by filling out two more beats in the interrupted triplet from before (3+2+4+6+6+2)
- —while the other voices are not holding dotted half notes, like at the start, but doing their own merry hocketting 6/8 thing, on the beat instead of off it.
This is, like, mindblowing stuff. It's mindblowing enough that the previous editor of Solage, Willi Apel, had no patience for it. I can't scan it in to show you, because the Melbourne Uni Library's copy has gone missing some time in the past ten years. But just as editors don't care about scores being arranged in the shape of hearts or harps, Apel didn't care about this business of interrupting triplets. This is just syncopation, he decided, and that's how he notated it.
Which is not doing as much violence to the text as you might think: it *is* syncopation. The new barlines are merely putting into the top voices the metrical context set by the tenor, and it's not like Solage could notate syncopation as syncopation, with the notation he used. And when you hear the music performed, it doesn't sound like bizarre interruptions of bars: it just sounds like 6/8 syncopation. Solage actually gives his game away by starting his off-beat syncopation half a bar before one of his runs of interrupted bars (countertenor, second bar):
Or, in a less experimental notation:
But the original, polymetric orgy of Solage's Calextone deserves to be seen, so I've put Christina's transcription into LilyPond, and put up a video of the transcription along with the music. LilyPond coped with what I threw at it, although not without some scars. There is no way I could get the final bar to be right justified, and MIDI generation conked out before the end (so there is one countertenor note in the wrong octave).
The lyrics make for unseemly gaps too: the manuscript did not line syllables up with notes, but just dumped one phrase at a time over the music. That's why different performances of Calextone distribute the syllables differently. (Gothic Voices sample, Capilla Flamenca sample.) I tried to reproduce that in Lilypond, which should allow it at least for expressive marks; but that proved beyond me too.
(That lax treatment of text makes for a bad combination with Solange's melismatic runs, and composers at the time were not fastidious about what vowels to do melismata on. /y/ is not melisma-friendly.)
And after repeated frustrations with GarageBand and iMovie, I couldn't be bothered fixing the bar misalignments to the music at the very end. Nor do I feel that apologetic in rendering the three voices as guitar, sax, and bass. I wasn't left with much choice in iMovie 09, which doesn't read MIDI natively, leaving me at the mercy of GarageBand's default instrument selection. (iMovie 09's Precision Editor looks to me a step backward from iMovie 08 anyway, but I get stubborn about things like that.)
After all that, I've put Calextone up on YouTube. It's not as smooth an experience as I'd have liked, and I'd rather you downloaded the PDF, and followed along to a professional recording. Like Gothic Voices', who have recorded all of Solage's works. As of this writing, their recording has been slipped into YouTube as well; but because I'm happy to have forked out the money to buy the CD, I'm refraining from linking to it.
If you do find a vocal recording—like, oh, say, on the Related Clips window of YouTube—it's worth it just to hear the archaic pronunciation of joieux, as [ʒwɛˈjø]. Yes, Solage spoke Joual.