Alice V. Clark

title.none: Plumley, The Grammar of 14th century Melody (Clark)

identifier.other: baj9928.9812.006 98.12.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Alice V. Clark, Pennsylvania State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Plumley, Yolanda. The Grammar of 14th Century Melody: Tonal Organization and Compositional Process in the Chansons of Guillaume De MacHaut and the Ars Subtilior. New York: Garland Publishers, 1996. Pp. xxvi, 335. $78.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-32065-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.12.06

Plumley, Yolanda. The Grammar of 14th Century Melody: Tonal Organization and Compositional Process in the Chansons of Guillaume De MacHaut and the Ars Subtilior. New York: Garland Publishers, 1996. Pp. xxvi, 335. $78.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-32065-5.

Reviewed by:

Alice V. Clark
Pennsylvania State University

Theories of pitch relationships in fourteenth-century music-- that is, the workings of melody, and the vertical sonorities created by the combination of melodies--are an area of controversy in musicological circles. Part of the problem is the result of a well-articulated theory of the tonality of the "common practice period" (c. 1700-1900, the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, et al.) all too easy to project backwards to a related but distinct musical language operating centuries earlier, but the theorists of the time don't help us much either, focusing as they do on rhythm and its notation, on two- voice progressions of note-against-note counterpoint somewhat removed from practical composition, and on the modal classification of chant melodies. Scholars have used a variety of methods, mostly based on analytic observation and individually developed, to try to understand the extant music, and it is inevitable that conflicts occur. Yolanda Plumley makes her own contribution with this revision of a 1991 thesis. She attempts, as she puts it, to go beyond analyses that focus on contrapunctus (two-voice progressions that concentrate on cadential motion) and close readings of individual works to seek "a unified 'tonal' or 'modal' system" (xv) in the secular songs of Guillaume de Machaut and later fourteenth-century composers.

A warning is in order here: this is a book for the specialist, not for casual readers who have enjoyed performances of Machaut songs and wish to know more about them. Her subject is purely musical and very technical--even text-music relations have no place here, beyond the role of text structure in the creation of musical structure. Moreover, not only does she discuss a large number of works, but her study demands knowledge of a large and complicated body of secondary literature. The prose style of her analyses is necessarily dense, and the profusion of tables and lists also require time and care in decoding. I do not mean any of this as criticism, but rather as a caveat lector.

Plumley takes as starting point an analytic approach initially developed by Harold Powers to explain certain aspects of sixteenth-century music: tonal type. (I should confess that, while I never experienced his infamous mode seminar, Powers was one of my teachers.) Tonal types are based on three criteria: final pitch, signature system, and cleffing of parts (that is, relative range). [1] These are easily observed, and, according to Powers, relatively consistent markers, and the fact that they appear to govern the classification of several music prints during the later sixteenth century suggests that they have some contemporary validity as well. In her book, Plumley relies heavily on Peter Lefferts's attempt to apply the idea of tonal type to fourteenth-century song. [2] Unfortunately, Lefferts's theory is not universally accepted, and the reader who disagrees with him may have problems with much of Plumley's book as a result. Several years ago, likewise inspired by Powers's work with sixteenth-century music (and at that time unaware both of Lefferts's and of Plumley's work), I toyed briefly with applying the notion of "tonal types" to fourteenth-century music, focusing on the smaller repertory of motets; my experience suggested that the patterns of cleffing and signature use too inconsistent to be useful as a theoretical system, so I am naturally skeptical of such an approach. (Admittedly, the fact that motets in the fourteenth century are often based on fragments on chant, themselves based on the system of church modes, complicates the tonal workings of that genre.) In their favor, Lefferts, and Plumley after him, consider a much larger repertory than I did, the polyphonic songs by Machaut and the generations following him, but even Lefferts admits that not one of his three criteria (cantus final, register, and signature-system, essentially the same ones Powers used) is a truly consistent marker.

Plumley's first three chapters are a general study of "Tonal Organization in the Ars Nova Chanson." (Ars nova is a general term for the music of fourteenth-century France, taking its name from theoretical statements early in the century distinguishing a "new style" based largely on a hierarchical rhythmic notational system.) Chapter one gives the background to and summarizes Lefferts's work, taking it as point of departure for the rest of her study. Chapter two looks at the tonal types she observes, considering not only final cadence, but also internal cadential goals (especially at the major structural points of the fixed forms). Her observation (49) that, while most songs use a secondary goal one step above the final, chansons with F or G finals favor the fifth above more often, is one of many useful insights, though, as is often the case with studies of this type, it is sometimes difficult to find such conclusions amid the tables and lists, and no examples are given (not even song titles); I would have welcomed a close reading or two to illustrate her points and suggest implications. Chapter three turns from polyphonic songs to the monophonic (one-line) virelais of Machaut. She focuses on the opposition between open and closed cadences, the use of parallel or similar melodic material in different sections, and the division of the octave into fifth and fourth as a way of structuring melodies: in many songs, for instance, the B section is marked by a move into the upper part of the range. Toward the end of the chapter, she points out a case where Machaut seems to try to imply a different tonality than that of the final--unfortunately, she does not give an example. It is true that such deviation implies a standard, but I am not convinced that standard is as unified or as strong a determinant as she suggests.

The second section of the book, "Line, Contrapunctus and Compositional Process in Machaut's Polyphonic Chansons," focuses more specifically on Machaut's songs and on issues of compositional process and tonal coherence. Plumley's focus is less on contrapunctus than on line, specifically the cantus line. Her basic theory, even for works where a good deal of simultaneous working-out must have occurred (visible in, for example, motivic connections between voices), is that "a tonal model defined by the tonal type and carried essentially by the cantus may well have provided a starting point for composition." (148) The final chapter in this section focuses on a single tonal type; the "tonal model" for ballades in this tonal type she describes mostly in terms of the definition of the final and its secondary goals, focusing especially on a descending pentachord to the final. She also considers the use of different types of sonorities to create a hierarchy of cadential types, with the octave as the strongest type of closure and the fifth used more for secondary goals. Such a hierarchy has been described by Sarah Fuller as well,[3] but Plumley suggests a level of tonal direction that Fuller does not see. Plumley gives extensive examples to accompany this discussion, but these examples are mostly reductive analyses--indeed, given their propensity to focus on descending lines to the final, I would call them pseudo-Schenkerian--so the reader must have an edition of Machaut's songs ready to hand. Her concluding summary of the "standard pattern" in the natural-C tonal type seems to me to be true for many songs, regardless of final: motion that establishes the final followed by motion away during the A section, and a B section that begins with a move to the upper range of the song, followed by a return to the original range and the final to close.

The third and final part of the book looks at the songs of the generations following Machaut, mostly transmitted in the Chantilly Codex (Musee Conde, MS 564). These chansons are in a more complicated rhythmic and notational style to which Ursula Gunther gave the name ars subtilior.[4] After a more general consideration of "Tonal Structure and Formal Archetypes in the Grande Ballade," which she sees as largely similar to those present in Machaut, though "less systematic and predicatable" (256), Plumley gives three case studies. Here she considers not only tonal organization, but also "foreground" issues such as rhythm and motive. Her general conclusion that these songs operate similarly to Machaut's, despite the much more complex foreground, is consistent with the view several other scholars have that the so-called difficulties of the "ars subtilior" are more surface decoration, perhaps even singerly ornamentation, than intellectual artifice.[5]

The book is very well produced, in text, table and examples--no small praise, especially since the musical examples range from single lines to comparisons of pseudo-Schenkerian reductions. Notes, however, are at the end of each chapter, which I find cumbersome to use. Another awkwardness, particularly unfriendly in a book that relies so on the tabular presentation of data (there are 41 tables listed in the contents), is the renumbering of tables in each chapter, with no chapter prefix (in other words, each chapter begins with a Table 1). An index of works cited in the text makes it easy to find information on a specific song, but that index uses only song titles, while in the text Plumley often refers to a song only by its number in the standard editions; there is some cross-referencing, but more would be helpful, and I will probably add more by hand.

In general, this is a deep and careful study of an important topic, and, even if the reader may not always agree with Plumley's conclusions in every particular, there is much to learn from engaging with them. As we continue to try to understand the musical language of the fourteenth century, Plumley's voice is a welcome one in the conversation.


[1] See Harold S. Powers, "Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony," Journal of the American Musicological Society 34 / 3 (1981): 428-70.

[2] Peter M. Lefferts, "Signature-Systems and Tonal Types in the Fourteenth-Century French Chanson," Plainsong and Medieval Music 4/2 (1995): 117-47.

[3] Sarah Fuller, "Line, Contrapunctus and Structure in a Machaut Song," Music Analysis 6 (1987): 37-58. The title of this section of Plumley's book obviously alludes to this article.

[4] See for example Ursula Gunther, "Das Ende der Ars nova," Musikforschung 16 (1963): 105-21.

[5] For example, Elizabeth Randell (now Elizabeth Randell Upton), "Son maintieng gracieux de la Table Ronde: Chivalric Identity in the Late Fourteenth-Century Chanson," paper read at the 1994 Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, and Anne Stone, in an essay forthcoming in Borderline Areas in 14th and 15th Century Music / Grenzbereiche in der Musik des 14. und 15. Jahrhunderts, ed. Karl Kugle and Lorenz Welker, Musicological Studies and Documents (Neuhausen/Stuttgart: Hanssler Verlag).