Codex Faenza: Instrumental Music of the Early 15th Century (Michael Posch/ Michael Posch/ Unicorn Ensemble) (Naxos: 8.553618)
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The Codex Faenza: Instrumental Music of the Early XVthCentury
From the Middle Ages the music of thebeginning of the fifteenth century that survives is almost exclusively vocal,with liturgical song from monastic sources and courtly songs, motets and madrigalsfrom aristocratic circles. The rare examples of medieval instrumental music,such as the Robertsbridge Codex, and the manuscripts in Paris(Bibl.nat.,f.fr.844c) and in London (BL 29987) confirm this. The monophonicsongs of the troubadours, trouv?¿res and Minnesingers, with their melodicbalance and beauty, and the polyphonic compositions in their richness of soundare the model on which medieval music is formed. On the other hand contemporarymusic theory, that provided the basis of musical notation, continued aspeculative tradition marginal to practical musical performance.
A wealth of visual representations anddocumentary evidence bears witness to the great share of instrumental music inthe musical life of the High and Later Middle Ages. It almost seems as if itpredominated over vocal music. In many troubadour and trouv?¿re poemsthere are examples of how the singer's audience took immediate pleasure indance, an estampie. In nearly all representations of church and secularfestivities there is found a small group of instrumentalists, generally withlute, harp, fiddle, flute, organ, shawm and percussion. In spite of this it isvery difficult to say definitely how these instruments were played and used,since the representations of musician angels and humans make use rather of thesymbolism of instruments than showing real performance and there is nodocumentation of practical instrumental performance methods. Certainly vocalcompositions were accompanied by instruments, as witnessed by wordless unvocalcontratenor parts, or were even purely instrumental. It is certain too thatinstrumental music in its various forms was dependent on forms of vocal music.
Nevertheless music by instrumentalists remains always a sound of the moment,dictated by conditions, namely the instruments available, technicalpossibilities of performance and, not least, the inventiveness of theperformers. Among other things this use of improvisation led to the use ofinstrumental alternation in organ Masses in which singers alternate with theorgan in the Ordinary or the Mass. In these organ improvisations thenotes of a chant held in long notes, provide a basis, the so-called tenor orholding part, while the discantus or superius, the upper parts,move freely in quicker note-values. This use of quicker notes in improvisationis known as diminution.
The Codex Faenza stands out in particularin the period around 1400 for its exclusively instrumental compositions. It ispreserved in the Biblioteca Communale of Faenza, classified as BC 117. Themanuscript was copied between 1400 and 1420 and is of great importance in thehistory of music. An anonymous composer provides evidence here of the practiceof diminution and of vocal pieces in tablature, that is he has adaptedcompositions for his instrument. Apart from the organ the instrumentation isnot fixed either in writing or graphically. He makes use of the contemporaryItalian six-line notation system in the style of the fourteenth century, withtwo staves, one under the other, joined by bar-lines in a score. The tenor isalways below, with the discantus on the upper system. In vocalmusic it is usual to have the different parts of a piece either written out oneafter another on a page or in separate part-books. These would first be heardtogether in performance. The notation in the score of the Codex Faenza may bethe attempt of an instrumentalist to express visibly what he has heard sung.
That the manuscript is also known as theCodex Bonadies comes from the fact that, in addition to the music, it containsalso the theoretical work of Johannes Bonadies, added first in the years1473-74. The Codex consists of 79 folio sheets and includes 52 versions ofItalian and French secular vocal works in diminution and tablature from the fourteenthcentury as well as liturgical cantus firmus pieces. Among the composersincluded are Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-I377), Jacopo da Bologna(1340-c.1360), Francesco Landini (c.1325-1397) and an anonymous composer of thefourteenth century. This mixture of cultural influences is not surprising,since Italian court culture at the beginning of the fifteenth century wasstrongly directed towards France, as is reflected notably in the history ofmusic. The small group of composers working in Upper Italy extended thedeclining art of the fourteenth century by means of fashionable and ambitiousChansons in the style of the French ars subtilior.
Unfortunately not all the vocal models ofthe compositions of the Codex Faenza are known. Some are lost, and of theseonly the beginning of the text is preserved. Other pieces seem to have no vocalcounterpart but to be based on dances, as, for example, Bel fiore dan?ºa.
Two of the pieces here included have no title.
The systematic method of this manuscriptbears witness to a unified conception. This is not a chance collection ofrandom repertoire. The manuscript is in two parts. Each of these begins andcloses with a Mass movement. The first includes only pieces of French origin, balladesand virelais. It begins with a Kyrie and ends with a BenedicamusDomino. The second is similarly devised, with the difference that theinstrumental versions are based on Italian originals, madrigals and ballate andinclude, beside an opening Kyrie, a Gloria, the whole to becompleted by Ave maris stella. The sources of the tenor of the Massmovements come from the Mass Cunctipotens genitor Deus and are theearliest surviving sources for organ Masses. The changed notation suggest theconclusion that the compiler of the manuscript was a cantor, thus following thecustom of the time in varying the existing music and allotting it toinstruments. Since diminutions and improvisations are a matter of the moment,calling for spontaneity, it seems likely that the Codex Faenza is a kind of writtenexample of this art.
For the most part the new versions stickstrictly to the original. The tenor of the opening work is played exactly andnot ornamented, while the discantus is freely varied, with the notes ofthe original discantus part always included in the ornamentation. Insome places, however, can be seen a much freer treatment, adjusting thecharacter of the music to the instruments. An example of this is found in Nonavr?á, which is partly different from its source, developing rhythmicpatterns in repeated passages that are suited to performance on plucked stringinstruments. Through this kind of arrangement a new work is created for thelistener. To emphasize the connection clearly, we have included the relevantvocal sources, where available, for the instrumental compositions. Aquil'altera is given deliberately without the 'modern' accidentals of thirtyyears later, as an indication in the instrumental version of the change ofcontemporary style. These unwritten indications are known as musica ficta. Whethernotes should be changed or not was left to the musician as an act ofcomposition. He could thus give a piece another direction and a differentcharacter. As an interpreter he might add ornaments on the spur of the moment,as is clear from a letter of Machaut to Peronne.
After the Codex Faenza, some thirty yearslater, the organist Conrad Paumann provided a standard work on improvisation inhis pedagogical book on organ-playing, Fundamentum