Contrafacta and Transcribed Motets

Very excited to see my article about transcribed motets and clausulae in the Florence Manuscript finally in print in Early Music History.  It explores three case studies in which French motets apparently preceded both their Latin counterparts and the sacred clausulae, previously have thought to be their models.  This challenges chronological assumptions about how the motet as a genre developed as well as undermining a strict division between sacred and secular spheres.

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New Publications

The current issue of Plainsong and Medieval Music features my new article on ordering of motets in the Florence Manuscript, an astonishingly beautiful thirteenth-century source (c. 1240s) which you can view online here. I also have a review in the same issue of the journal of a wonderful new book by Fred Büttner about the clausulae in the St Victor Manuscript, a slightly later thirteenth-century miscellany (c. 1270s) also freely available online via Gallica. Büttner lays to rest a long-standing dispute about the status of the clausulae in St Victor, which are unusually copied here with corresponding motet texts in the margins, convincingly demonstrating that these clausulae are in fact transcriptions of music conceived as motets.

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Getting Music Into and Out Of the Codex Buranus

Last week Henry Hope and I gave a joint presentation at the University of Oxford Medieval German Seminar, titled ‘Getting Music Into and Out of the Codex Buranus’. The Codex Buranus, or the Carmina Burana (i.e. the songs of the Codex Buranus), has been the subject of investigation for the seminar this term, and while the group is principally comprised of literary scholars, Dr Almut Suerbaum was kind enough to invite a number of musicologists along to help establish the texts not only as texts but as songs.

Now the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Carmina Burana is most often the overwhelming setting of some of its poems by twentieth-century composer Carl Orff, including the memorable chorus ‘O Fortuna’. Given the subject of this blog, you may not be surprised to learn that Orff wasn’t the focus of our presentation! Orff simply set to music a selection of texts from the thirteenth-century Codex Buranus (dated around 1230) which gets its name from being held at the monastery of Benediktbeuern in Southern Germany before it was moved to the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich. The manuscript contains texts in Latin and Middle High German, ranging from love songs to drinking songs, to satire, and some very bawdy songs.

The codex hasn’t received much attention from music scholars, however, mainly because of its problematic musical notation. The manuscript uses un-heighted or adiastematic neumes—in other words, it uses lots of perplexing little squiggles that aren’t placed on the lines of a stave and which seem to give no precise information about the pitch or rhythm of the melodies.

As Henry and I explored in more detail, scholarship has relied instead on music that survives for some of the Carmina Burana poems in later, more precisely notated sources, in order to reconstruct the music of the Codex Buranus. But what about songs for which no musical notation survives elsewhere? Can we get any information from the notation in the Codex Buranus itself?

One of the texts famously set by Orff, Ecce gratum (CB 143) offers a particularly nice example of the way in which scholars can interpret musical structure in the Codex Buranus without knowing any precise musical details of pitch and rhythm.

This is what the piece looks like in the manuscript (which can be found online as part of the Petrucci Music Library IMSLP here):

CB, fol. 59r:


CB, fol. 59v:


The song consists of four stanzas, three of which are in Latin, and a final stanza in German. Musical notation is provided (as you can see above) only for the first Latin stanza and the very end of the German one.

Here is a transcription of the first stanza’s Latin text showing syllable counts, stresses, and rhyme scheme:


Looking at the patterns of the neume shapes in this annotated facsimile below, some clear musical repetitions emerge:


The neumes for the first two lines of text, ‘Ecce gratum et optatum, ver reducit gaudia’, are identical to those for the second couplet: ‘purpuratum floret partum, sol serenat omnia’. We’ve labelled this music ‘A’.

But as you can see there’s new musical material, which we’ve labelled ‘B’, for ‘iam iam cedant tristia’.

This is followed by a short new phrase, C, which is set to both ‘estas redit’ and ‘nunc recedit’.

The final line ‘hyemis sevicia’ has new music—but it is not as straightforward to make out whether this is completely new material, in which case it should be labelled ‘D’, or if this phrase might be a variation of the ‘B’ music, a sort of ‘B1’.

Thus the musical structure and the poetic structure complement each other very nicely:


This mini analysis already shows impressively that, even if we can never know what these songs really sounded like, or to what pitches or rhythms they were sung, the Codex Buranus can still be a very important and useful source of musical evidence: it has a wealth of information to offer, particularly concerning music-text relationships. As this tantalisingly suggests, a proper in-depth study of music in this manuscript would transform current understandings of medieval vernacular song: this is something which Henry and I are both very excited about and hope to undertake in the near future!

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Review of The Flower of Paradise

My review of David J. Rothenberg’s new book The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music is now available here, on advance access from Early Music.

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