To Sing Upon the Book: Oral and Written Counterpoint in Early Modern Europe

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Ronald Broude


During the fifteenth century, many musici thought of counterpoint as an improvisational practice in which certain procedures were employed to produce a musical texture in which interest lay in the interplay of two or more melodic lines. The improvisational practice was called singing upon the book (cantare super librum): it required one singer to realize a pre-existing melody (called a cantus firmus) inscribed in a text while one or more other singers (called concentors), reading from that same text, devised, ex tempore, a countermelody or melodies that obeyed the rules of counterpoint with respect to the cantus firmus. Similar procedures, applied in writing, produced res facta, contrapuntal texture in textual form. Counterpoint and res facta were alternative means of providing music for occasions both sacred and secular. During the sixteenth century, several factors combined to alter the relationship between improvised and written counterpoint, and by the end of the century the importance of the former was greatly diminished. The growth of music printing provided an abundance of music for a growing community of amateurs who could read music but were not interested singing upon the book. The composers responsible for this new music embraced emerging ideas that stressed the advantages of written music, which enjoyed permanence that improvised counterpoint lacked, which was usually more observant of the rules than improvised counterpoint could be, and which enhanced the reputations of the composers who created it. As a result of these developments, emphasis shifted from improvised to written counterpoint, from the procedures that produced a contrapuntal texture to the texture itself, and singing upon the book came to be seen by many not as an end in itself but as a way to sharpen composers’ skills. Marginalized by print, improvised counterpoint survived in a much reduced community, largely in Catholic France and Iberia, and eventually, for want of a musical community large enough to sustain it, ceased to be a living musical tradition.


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