Ars Nova

In the 1980s Olaf Raitzig briefly was a member of the Berlin study group on medieval music. The following excerpts from his lectures reflect vividly his ideas on the ars nova and the difficulties involved in analyzing the motets.

Statements on ars nova

Since Wolf and Ludwig, composers of the trecento are admired and loved, but above all they are edited and avidly performed. There are numerous beautiful recordings. On the other hand it has become customary to juxtapose the “naturalness” and “flowing melos” of the Italians with the “severity” and “erudition” of the French – with a reprehensive undertone, of course. Indeed one even hears terms of abuse such as “artificial”, “mannered” and “rigidly formulaic”. Many Italian composers and theoreticians of the 14th century held different views, and Petrarch was an admirer of Philippe de Vitry. I said to myself: The Italians have arrived, the French need our attention.

Of the polyphonic worlds, the ars antiqua has turned out to be the least problematic regarding performance practice. Melody and rhythm tend to be laid-out quite clearly, the texts are mostly syllabic, and particularly the early motets are extremely pleasant to listen to. Far more problematic is the realization of an ars nova motet. Here performers cannot rely on the experience gathered in current musical practice. They are confronted with extended melismas, complex harmonic progressions and, above all, with perfectly novel rhythmic problems. This apparently is the reason why the ars nova motets are the problem child of the pertinent current ensembles, as to my great dismay I had to learn in the course of time.

Among the approximately one hundred surviving ars nova motets (I include here the works contained in the Chantilly and Modena manuscripts) there is a small number of pieces that are of overwhelming beauty. I shall name them here in the hope that there may be one or two members of our circle who will turn their attention to them.

The order in which they will be mentioned follows that of their transmission in the Codex Ivrea, in the Machaut manuscripts, and in the Codex Chantilly.

Apta caro – Flos virginum
Ida capillorum – Portio nature
Post missarum – Post misse
Martyrum gemma – Diligenter
Almifonis melos – Rosa
Apollinis – Zodiacum
Zolomina – Nazarea
Tant a soutille – Bien pert
Mon chant – Qui doloreus
Qui es promesses – Ha, Fortune
Li enseignament – De tous les biens
Trop ay dure destinee – Par sauvage
De bon espoir – Puisque la douce
Pictagore – O terra sancta
Multipliciter amando – Favore 

I personally was attracted by the ars nova motets at a very early time, when I knew them only in the interpretation of others and had no idea yet of their particular structure. I was therefore all the more surprised – once I began to explore this field more thoroughly – at the rather reserved way in which they were treated in professional journals. Today I begin to understand what may have been the cause of this: The musical essence of the ars nova motet cannot be gleaned from its notation, these motets come to life only in performance. It is rather touching to read how utterly surprised great scholars such as Ludwig and Besseler were by the unexpected beauty of this music when they first heard performances of those motets which in their written form they knew better than anyone.

Statements on Scholarly Analysis

  • The starting point for the realization of a motet is a reliable musical text. But right away the scholar is confronted with difficult and often unsolvable problems. Even the sources themselves contain mistakes. They are written more or less carefully and were subjected to all kinds of external destruction. If fortunately a piece has been transmitted in more than one source, a comparison may well yield more puzzles than it can solve. Is a specific variant to be interpreted as a deliberate alteration or as an error? Often a comparison of isorhythmic correspondences is helpful, but the degree of strict isorhythm tends to be lower the earlier a piece was written.
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