Much Ado about Variants

New article post: Anna Zayaruznaya, “Evidence of Reworkings in ars nova Motets,” Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis 38 (2014, published 2018): 155–75.


Conferences on wide-open themes often sound to me like a thing better in the imagining than in the doing (let’s have a conference on “the feline”! A session on the number 3?), but there’s no way this article would ever have come about if I hadn’t been invited to participate in a symposium on the theme of “Reworkings” (subtitle “Musical re-Elaboration and Cultural Context”) organized by Pedro Memelsdorff in November 2014 at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. Granted, “reworkings” is more specific than cats (if less cuddly), and I learned that an invitation like that is really a question in disguise. What can you say within your domain of expertise and interest about the topic of [conference theme]? I had never thought much about whether or to what extent the repertory I work on had been subject to reworkings. Which is not to say that there isn’t important work on added contratenors and triplum voices added to motets and songs. But there’s also a prevalent rhetoric about the “inessential” qualities of these added voices. As for motets surviving in various systems of notation, we tend to think of these not as reworked, but only renotated, leaving the “essential” elements of pitch, rhythm, and vertical sonority left untouched. That may or may not be right, but even so: motets are remarkably textually stable, mutatis mutandis.

And yet: thinking about what to pitch to Pedro I remembered noticing that in the fragmentary Cambrai source for Philippe de Vitry’s Cum statua/Hugo, edited by Irmgard Lerch, there are minims and minim rests instead of semibreves and semibreve rests:

hockets lined up

I sort-of ignored this the first time I saw it, probably because these are my favorite hockets in the repertory (I can’t be the only one with a Top Hockets* list, can I?) and the Ivrea version, the one edited by Schrade, was the canonical one I had come to admire. I also edited the motet from Ivrea in The Monstrous New Art. For reasons that are complicated but not particularly controversial, it’s likely that the original version is indeed the one in Ivrea. But in considering the questions posed by the theme “Reworkings,” I came back to the variant. Cum statua/Hugo is not a particularly widely transmitted motet. Until recently the only two sources for its music were the ones in Ivrea and Cambrai.**

Because of the differences in our two sources we can be sure that Cum statua/Hugo was reworked. Now let’s face it, these changes are not a big deal, but the epistemological skepticism they encourage sort-of is. Here’s the problem: what if the Cambrai version had been the only one to reach us? Given our assumptions about the textual stability of motets, we would not have wondered whether Cum statua/Hugo had been reworked, we would have assumed that it had always had those choppier hockets, and we would have made different assumptions about its date based on its notational usage.*** And of course this is a problem that any unicum presents: a manuscript rendition freezes a text at a particular moment and may evoke a stability that’s not really there. Ultimately this can make us doubt everything: not only the unicum, but even the stably transmitted piece can be a revised version, a branch of a stemma whose other branches have not survived, with the original version lost to us forever. Depending on what you mean by “original,” that’s undoubtedly true almost always. Backing away from the abyss, though, the more manageable questions these variants raise are: were other motets also reworked? I suggest in this article that a few show evidence of reworkings due to formal deviations from generic norms which can best be explained as the results of sections added or substituted in.

In addition to Cum statua/Hugo, the motets this article focuses on are O canenda/Rex, Impudenter/Virtutibus, Beatius/Cum humanum, and O philippe/O bone dux. A number of these seem to come from the pen of Philippe de Vitry, and it may be that he specifically was something of a reviser. I hope to address this whole issue in greater depth in a book on Vitry that I’ll be continuing work on in the coming year.

This article has some pretty figures in it. Here are two, both of them very small in the print version. For how much time these things take to make, they might as well go swimming around the internet. (If you are wondering what on earth these mean, you’ll have to read the article.)


Figure 1.png


Figure 3.png

I first presented this material in November 2014, and the article was written in 2015, benefitting from the help of Wulf Arlt, Margaret Bent, and Pedro Memelsdorff. It appeared in print in July 2018 in a volume with the year 2014 on it. I don’t exactly understand what’s going on there, but it’s fine: I’m sure many of us would be happy to be back in 2014 right now. Anyway, I’m delighted to finally see this in print. You can find it in volume 38 of your copy of the 2014 Basler Jahrbuch, or here. And, what the hell, let’s put together that session on the number 3.

*I hereby commit to doing a “Top Ten ars nova Hockets” post sometime in 2018
**What’s changed? Not my story to tell, but keep your eye on Eva Maschke’s work!
***I.e. because minim rests probably only came into use at some point after 1326. I’ll be addressing this factoid ad nauseum forthcoming work.

2 thoughts on “Much Ado about Variants

  1. Pingback: A medieval music blog recommendation – Elizabeth Eva Leach

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