At first sight sporadic instrumental music,
especially for keyboard, has been transmitted from the period 1470-1520, except for some
manuscript collections like the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, ca 1450-1470, and the Glogauer
Liederbuch, ca 1480.
But on closer inspection it will appear that a
considerable part of the vocal secular and religieus repertory has been transmitted
without text and making only instrumental performance possible. The religious music
without text consists especially of organ music, for instance the Buxheimer Orgelbuch, and
after 1500 printed lute tabulatures too (see under Notation of music
for the different notation systems). Non-texted vocal secular music is to be found
especially in Italian manuscript sources in staff notation. A limited number of religious
compositions are found in the same sources as the secular pieces likewise without text. An
example is the Credo from Isaac's mass O praeclara, which is found as an instrumental
piece without text, with the title La mi la sol. Religious music in other sources
is never found without text, though every singer (as his modern colleague) knows the texts
of the mass parts by heart.
Vocal secular music in this period is found with
French, Middle High German and Middle Dutch texts and some pieces in Italian. These texts
were often translated from each other and provided with Latin religious texts, but they
were never translated in Italian or English.
The conclusion is that at least a part of the
vocal music was performed on instruments, and so at least in the region from which the
textless manuscripts and prints originate: from Italy, Spain and Switzerland.
I included the pieces with underlined titles
beneath in the page Renaissance sheet music of this site.
For example: Antoine Busnois's In mijnen zin
has been transmitted without text only; it may be supplemented from a later arrangement of
the same melody by Alexander Agricola. Josquin des Prez made two
arrangements of the same melody, with a French text, which is not a translation. The
arrangement in four voices has a French text in two sources, a High German translation of
the Middle Dutch text in four sources and no text at all in seven. Very popular also was
Hayne van Gizeghem's De tous bien plaine, 21 sources, of which only 5 sources with
text. Some thirty arrangements of these pieces have been made by numerous composers, known
by name or anonymous. Some of them may have been performed with voices, but most of them
are evidently for instruments only.
Many pieces contain a text with one voice only,
mostly the upper voice and less often the tenor or cantus firmus; the other parts must
have been played by instruments.
For which instruments would the secular vocal
music without text have been meant?
Until ca 1490 most secular music was in three
voices, afterwards in four. The religious music was in four voices considerably earlier. A
viol consort has been mentioned for the first time only in 1495.
The British musicologist Jon Banks (see
further the page Acknowledgments) argues that these
pieces have been meant for a lute consort. The lute was not played as a chord instrument,
but the strings were stroken one by one with a plectrum to play a melody. The structure of
the pieces and the tonal compass would practically exclude all other instruments. But
archival and iconographic sources contain much evidence that the lutes were played in
duo's, supplemented with another soft (bassa) instrument: a bowed string instrument,
recorder or harp. I am sure that he underrates the compass of other instruments,
especially the Ganassi type recorder with cylindrical bore, which could play two octaves
and a fifth (see A.Brown in Tibia 2005/4). The harp was very popular in Italy also. The
Glogauer Liederbuch has been associated with the alta cappella of shawms and brass wind
instruments, but some of the pieces it contains (for instance Die Katzenpfote)
agree in structure and compass with the other pieces analysed by him.
Banks too easily concludes that
non-texted pieces transmitted with a title have only been meant for instruments only. This
especially concerns songs with a title in Middle Dutch by Jacob Obrecht, but pieces of
other composers with Dutch titles disproportionally miss their text. But most manuscripts
do not have their origin in the Netherlands. The text transmission of a less general
language is vulnerable, and Middle Dutch was not spoken at a court after the dissolution
of the Dutch speaking court at The Hague in 1433. It was spoken between the river IJssel
and the line Duinkerke-Roermond. Most of Brabant, including Brussels, spoke Dutch, but the
Burgundian court and administration was francophone. Hainault spoke French now as then.
Ockeghem, Ghiselin, Johannes Martini, Josquin, De Orto and Lassus came from the
Francophone part of the Netherlands. Busnois, Pipelare, Alexander Agricola, Barbireau,
Gizeghem, Obrecht, De la Rue and possibly Isaac and Willaert from the Dutch speaking area.
There is a painting by Pieter Coecke van
Aelst (1502-1550) in the Museo Correr at Venice. Its subject is the Prodigal Son. The
painting shows three ladies, two with a lute played as a chorrd instrument, one with a
traverso and the prodigal son himself has a part book in front of him with superius part
of the music and text of Obrecht's Wat willen wij metten budel spelen, ons gelt is uut (=
How should we play with our poach, our money has gone). One text line more is visible but
illegible. The rest of the text is lost, but the painting proves that there has been more
text and that the music is not only instrumental.
The Burgundian court of Charles the Bold had three
"joueurs de bas instrumens" at its disposal in 1469 and four in 1474. These may
have been recorders, fiddles or lutes. From ca 1490 on the secular music achieves a fourth
voice. About the same time the viol consort appears. Printed lute tabulatures of polyphone
music for the lute as a chord instrument date from about 1505.
Banks distinguishes the following genres in the
instrumental versions or arrangements of originally vocal music.
1.Chansons and rondeaus meant to be vocal but
performed instrumental from the beginning. They are mostly in three voices between 1450
2.Compositions that copy one of the voices of an
existing piece, mostly the essential melody or tenor, sometimes the upper voice or
superius, and construct a new composition on the existing voice. The position of the
copied voice may change and the melody itself may be put an octave or more higher or
lower. The rhythm of the melody is left unchanged, though it may be elongated to a cantus
firmus. Sometimes the starting point is an existing (popular) song like Tandernaken upten
Rhine and O Venus bant. The basse danse La Spagna is also counted among this group.
These arrangements based upon one unchanged voice are generally in three voices until ca
Banks calls these pieces resfacta
compositions, in my opinion erroneously. The term originates from the music theoretician
and composer Johannes Tinctoris, ca 1435-1511, in his alphabetical Diffinitorium musica,
Naples 1474. "Resfacta idem est quod cantus compositus". "Res facta is
synonymous with Cantus compositus". "Cantus compositus est ille qui per
relationem notarum unius partis ad alteram multipliciter est editus qui resfacta
vulgariter appellatur". "Cantus compositus is the melody which by transportation
of the notes of one part to another is generated manifold, usually called res facta".
In my opinion cantus compositus means polyphone music against cantus planus, one-voiced
music, and res facta means composed material, against traditional or existing material,
also one-voiced Gregorian plainchant or popular music. Tinctoris considers the terms to be
identical. It seems better to use the older term "Cantus prius compositus",
"formerly composed melody".
3.Ricercare-like pieces, sometimes with non-vocal
titles like La Martinella, Ile fantasies de Josquin, Die Katzenpfote. These
pieces have not been derived from a chanson or rondeau with its fixed form, but they
sometimes do originate from a motet or mass part. The original melody is devided into
pieces and varied. Most pieces are in three voice, but a fourth voice is sometimes added
or optional. The voices of ricercare-like pieces do not imitate each other except in the
beginning of a piece. The measure signature changes more often than in vocal pieces. Some
pieces are very long, like Agricola's Pater meus agricola est and Caecus non
judicat de coloribus.
4.Free arrangements of chansons or other
instrumental pieces. The most well known are Ockeghem's Fors seulement and
Gizeghems De tous biens plaine. More than 30 arrangements of both of them are
known, some based upon an unchanged part, others are free adaptations. These are mostly in
four or five voices. The original melody in these free arrangements is dealt with just as
freely as in the ricercare-like pieces. Sometimes they contain a cantus firmus part or
parts of a cantus firmus. The proportions of the notes of the cantus firmus may be
equalised, causing the loss of the original rhythm.
It is remarkable that the Buxheimer contains
hardly any transcriptions from this period, but from the generation before (Dufaye and
Binchois). Only a few works are the same as the instrumental arrangements we are
considering now. Later keyboard transcriptions do contain some pieces from 1450-1520, both
the original compositions and the different types of arrangement. I do not have an overall
image of them and Banks does not compare the keyboard music with the other instrumental
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