Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Medieval Music
Ars Nova

Late medieval music saw a backlash against the complexity of the motet, such as this statement made by Pope John XXII, issued from Avignon 1324-25, attacking current practices in musical composition:

There are certain disciples of the new school who, devoting all their attention to measuring time, apply themselves to the making of notes in a different fashion. They prefer to compose their own songs rather than to sing the old ones, and divide the church pieces into semibreves and minims; they chop up the chant with notes of short values, truncate the melodies with hockets, pollute the melodies with descants and go as far as to muffle the upper voice in the vulgar tongue. Thus they ignore the principles of the antiphonal and the gradual, ignore the tones, which they no longer distinguish and even mingle together; under this avalanche of notes the chaste ascensions and discreet closes of the plainsong, by which the tones themselves are distinguished become unrecognizable.

The Pope was condemning some of the new 14th-century practices, what theorist and composer Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361) coined as “Ars Nova” — the new art. Currently, this movement refers to France (with Italian innovations now considered its own phenomenon: the Trecento).

De Vitry also outlines 14th-century mensuration (the precursor to time signatures). The tempus is the grouping of beats, designated by a perfect circle or by an imperfect incomplete circle; the prolatio the division of beats designated by a dot inside the circle or its absence. So a circle with a dot = triple grouping, triple division, like 9/8 time signature. A circle without a dot means triple grouping, double division, like 3/4 time. An incomplete circle with a dot means double grouping, triple division, like 6/8 time. And an incomplete circle without a dot means double grouping, double division, like 2/4 or 4/4 time.

Most distinctive in the 14th century was the use of “isorhythm” as a technique of composition, appearing in masses, motets, and “fixed forms.” Isorhythms started in the tenor line but spread complexly to other parts. An isorhythmic piece uses repeated rhythmic patterns that often involve repeated melodic patterns too. The “talea” refers to the rhythm repeated; the “color” is the repeated pitch pattern. (Occasionally these may coincide, but then that’s simply an entire repeat section.)

The “formes fixes” (“fixed forms”) include the following:

  • Ballade — also called cantilena style with a basic musical structure of AAB and poetic structure of ababccdd.
  • Virelai — musically, AbbaA (the A serving as a refrain); if the score shows an initial 1, 5 with the first line of text, it’s a virelai.
  • Rondeau — musically, ABaAabAB; if the score shows an initial 1,4,7 with the first line of text, it’s a rondeau.

The Italian version of Ars Nova is called Trecento (short for Mille Trecento = 1300s), and it too has secular fixed forms:

  • madrigal — not to be confused with the 16th-century madrigal. The 14th-century version was composed for two or maybe three voices in AAB format (with B perhaps being a two-line ritornello often involving a metrical change from the A parts). The blind organist Francesco Landini (c. 1325-1397) and especially Jacopo da Bologna (fl. 1340-1360) — “Fenice fu,” “Non al suo amante” — are the main composers. The latter also wrote about mensuration, or rhythm.
  • ballata — closer to the virelai than the ballade, with AbbaA structure featuring the 1, 5 notation initially. These can be for 1, 2, or 3 voices. Landini wrote 140 ballata for two and three voices, including “Ecco la primavera.”

Another genre, not strictly one of the formes fixes:

  • caccia — a chase, often with a text concerned with hunting. Two upper voices form a canon; the lower voice provides independent accompaniment. Lorenzo di Firenze’s “A poste messe” is a good example.

Italians began using the interval of the third polyphonically, so that eventually this was heard as euphonic. The English had been ahead of the game on this score, and especially liked thirds — and their inversion: sixths (called writing in “discant”). They found these intervals consonant long before their continental counterparts, as evidenced by such secular songs as the famous “Sumer is icumen in” — the oldest known canon in Western music from around 1250 in which the canon is written above a two-part rondellus — and “Edi be thu, heven-queene.”

Later, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Ars Nova and Trecento composition became somewhat “mannerist” and is called “Ars Subtilior” (Subtler Art). (After any art movement is fully explored it eventually just seems gaudy. Mannerists in the visual arts became concerned with arabesques, decorative designs, wild colors and symbols, produced for the dying nobility going to extremes in dress and manner of life.)

In the music, interest in puzzles and pictograms led to eccentric and visually stimulating notation and even more complex rhythms. Baude Cordier’s “Tout par compas” is composed in circles. “Belle bonne, sage” is a rondeau presented in a heart-shaped score in the Chantilly manuscript.

This puts us on the verge of the Renaissance and Renaissance music now.