The Ars Nova in England

IN the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries much English music appears conservative beside contemporary French compositions, though this is not altogether a correct impression. In the Middle Ages French influence was almost overpowering in music as in other artistic fields, but insular England had its sturdy and sonorous Church music and an unspoiled vein of lyric song. French influence was most evident in the eastern counties and the abbey of Bury St Edmunds a most important centre for it. In the fourteenth century Ars Nova music was soon cultivated there in the form of the motet, as an Oxford manuscript from Bury containing at least two French motets proves. The French language itself was usually replaced by Latin, which may account for the complete absence of French polyphonic songs in fourteenth-century England, even though Chaucer translated two of Machaut's lyric poems into English and obviously knew the Frenchman's work well. In any case, although Ars Nova notation gradually became general in England, it cannot be said that its use was widespread before the second half of the century. At Bury, however, not only the Paris-inspired Four Principles of Music was well known at this time but also Egidius de Murino's brief guide to the complex notation of the late Ars Nova.

The situation is complicated by the very varied collection of fragments that exist from this period. Often these are odd pages or parts of pages which may come from almost anywhere in England. Mere chance has preserved an important batch of separated pages from Worcester, which was a conservative if active centre of musical composition in the fourteenth century. These pieces date generally from the early part of the century and consist mainly of motets (e.g. Alleluia psallat / Alleluia concinet). Mass pieces tend to have the interpolated words of tropes. At Fountains Abbey, equally distant from Bury St Edmunds, manuscripts dating from the second half of the fourteenth century contain polyphonic sequences, antiphons, and. motets in a more advanced English style, employing developed Ars Nova notation. Mass pieces gradually become more popular, and a British Museum manuscript, probably from Tattershall in Lincolnshire, as well as one from Durham Cathedral, are evidence of this. The Kyrie even enjoyed considerable favor, though later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this was not the case. The repertory of the Chapel Royal, which followed the king on his journeys and was not stationary in London, seems to have consisted of little else but Mass sections in conductus and motet style about 1400, though here, if nowhere else, the French polyphonic song style was gradually introduced. French influence is particularly obvious in the repertory in question, for isorhythm occurs in it in both Mass and motet and the complex rhythmic manipulations of the late Ars Nova are one of its most noticeable features.

Secular song was not altogether as inconsequential as the manuscripts suggest. But after all the French language was as welcome as English at court, as we may judge from the presence there of French poets like Jehan de le Mote and Oton de Granson. Hence the lack of English songs in manuscripts is not surprising, though from a large number of lyrics no music has been preserved. The pieces of music that do remain show a remarkable freshness and simplicity which contrast strikingly with the art for art's sake that is contemporary French music. Records at Durham prove that secular music was welcome in monasteries on special occasions, for on St Cuthbert's Day, for which a three-part Kyrie is preserved, minstrels were invited to perform. Even secular songs tended to be polyphonic, and one early-fourteenth-century example with the second part missing (Bryd one brere) is another example of ecclesiastical destination, for it is written on the back of a twelfth-century Papal bull. From about the same period comes a short lullaby (Dou way, Robin) which has been used as the tenor of a motet.

In the fourteenth century the non-liturgical but religious or moralizing song gained ground at the expense of the simple, descriptive nature lyric. Angelus ad virginem was a very wellknown example which Chaucer mentions in his Canterbury Tales. It dates as a melody from the thirteenth century, but is set polyphonically in the common fourteenth-century style with the original melody in the middle of a three-voice setting. An English translation of the Latin is known, and this is but one example of the interchange between the two languages that continued till well into the fifteenth century. The carol, which developed from this type of song, could be written in either language, and was not merely a Christmas piece like the modern carol. There are few remains from the fourteenth century, and all the music occurs in fifteenth-century manuscripts. Originally it must have been a dance-song with a single voice part and a form rather like the French virelai. Most known pieces are, however, polyphonic, and there is a widespread tendency to contrast two-part solo verses with three-part chorus for the refrain or 'burden'. One of the best-known carols is the so-called Agincourt song (Deo gratias Anglia), a proud expression of thanksgiving for the success of king and country in France, but most carols were simple songs of praise to God or the Virgin Mary.

It cannot be said that Ars Nova influence affected the carol or secular song much before 1400, but odd pieces in English exist after that date in continental song-style. On the other hand, like the carol, other secular pieces are reminiscent of the conductus with note-against-note writing, sometimes very primitive harmony and textless passages separating those with text. A drinking-song from the Carmina Burana occurs in one collection of carols set as a three-part isorhythmic motet, but it is curiously simple for this type of composition. A factor which affected both carols and much fifteenth-century continental music was the peculiarly English form of harmony consisting principally of chains of thirds and sixths. Based on the extension of a primitive type of improvised harmony in two parts, this English discant, as it is generally called, first appears in the manuscripts in three parts at the end of the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century it was extremely common and can generally be recognized immediately by the setting of all three voices in score, as in the old conductus. At Fountains Abbey the plainsong, which was usually in the middle voice, was distinguished from the rest by red notation, a feature mentioned by Philippe de Vitry in his Ars Nova but not otherwise known in French fourteenth-century music. All through the fourteenth century the improvisatory nature of this English harmony remained clear, and it could not develop till Dunstable and his contemporaries incorporated the sweet consonances of this style into the accepted traditional harmonic system of the Middle Ages. That is why, by the side of Mass settings, antiphons, and sequences in English discant style, the motet style was retained for more elaborate pieces.

Although isorhythm. was eventually adopted by English composers, the English motet tended to preserve certain characteristics generally which have made it appear conservative. The use of similar or identical texts for both upper voices of a three-part motet is very common, while in France differentiation of these texts was considered desirable. The first few words or the first line of text might well be identical in the upper voices of English motets, even where the continuation was quite different. Before isorhythm. became popular, the principle of voice exchange was often used to hold the musical structure together. Essentially this was a matter of one part taking over the music of the other and vice versa every few measures, but the technique was worked out with great subtlety. Canon was frequently employed by composers writing at the end of this period, and one cannot help seeing in this the influence of semi-learned compositions like Sumer is icumen in and the so-called rotundelli or rounds. If Sumer is icumen in could be sung in up to six parts, full sonorities were always pleasing to Englishmen and many fourteenth-century compositions are in four parts, while even five-part writing occurs in the Old Hall manuscript, though in France no five-part compositions are extant before Dufay. Pycard achieves this by employing two canons simultaneously in a Gloria, though Mayshuet's motet is in five distinct parts.

It was only in the fifteenth century that composers began to enter their names in manuscripts of English provenance, and the Old Hall manuscript contains such names as Aleyn, Cooke, Burell, Damett, King Henry, Byttering, Tyes, Excetre, Leonel Power, Pycard, Rowland, Queldryk, Jervays, Oliver, Chyrbury, Typp, Swynford, Pennard, Lambe, and the Frenchman Mayshuet (Matheus de Sancto Johanne).

Matheus de Sancto Johanne (Mayshuet de Joan), composer of three ballades, two rondeaux, and a five-part motet, was chaplain and clerk to Louis, duke of Anjou, in 1378. Connections with the Papal court at Avignon are revealed by a Latin ballade in honor of Clement VII. His secular compositions tend towards the more complex style of the late fourteenth century, in which lengthy syncopations and cross-rhythms sometimes become the be-all and end-all of the writing (cf. Fortune fausse). Nevertheless, Matheus usually avoids the extremes of this style and, if his melodies are usually less interesting than those of Trebor or Senleches, he is one of the first to use the melodic sequences which give a more modem flavor to many late fourteenth-century songs, as in Inclite flos. Byttering, an early-fifteenth-century English composer, is capable of writing complex isorhythmic motets and canonic Glorias, which, nevertheless, retain their appeal and do not deteriorate into mere form-play. On the other hand nothing could be simpler and more pleasing than the Nesciens mater, with its modern triple time and up-to-date English harmonies. And yet this innocuous movement too is bound together by the plainsong which infiltrates all three voices.

King Henry's Gloria and Sanctus are in two quite different styles. The archaic style of the Sanctus suggests Henry IV, who is known to have played the recorder. It is also reminiscent of Aleyn's Gloria, though it does briefly change time from 6 to 3 at the Benedictus. Still, the chordal style predominates, and, in spite of rather clumsy melodic leaps, is musically acceptable. The Gloria, again in three parts but this time with the text in the top part only, like the French secular song, is more interesting. The second half of the piece changes from 6 to common time and attains a climax with triplets, syncopations, and an Amen that twice reaches top F. Burell, Cooke, Damett, Sturgeon, Chyrbury, and Exetre are all mentioned in documents from the reign of Henry V as clerks of the Chapel Royal. Excetre was there in the reigns of Henry IV and Richard II, while John Aleyn died in Edward III's time in 1373. Various events of Henry's reign are mentioned or hinted at in motets and Mass pieces of the period, such as Agincourt, Henry's marriage to Catherine of Valois, and the Peace of Troyes. At Henry's wedding there were no fewer than thirty-eight clerks and chaplains and sixteen singers.

IIIC: John Dunstable and his Circle