‘Looking Back’ in 2010

In August last year my long-gestated article on a curious case of notational complexity from the last quarter of the fifteenth century was published in Music & Letters. Almost a decade ago, Rex Eakins brought to my attention a fascinating piece of musical notation in a early choirbook from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel (the manuscript is now in the Apostolic Library at the Vatican). At that time I was a PhD student writing a dissertation on the style of European polyphonic song c.1400, referred to today as the ars subtilior. (The dissertation was completed two years later.) I was surprised to see some notational signs found in this earlier style still being used in the Vatican manuscript copied in the 1470s. We both worked on this little notational puzzle for  several weeks, coming up with various interpretations. Rex’s interpretation was published in:

An Editorial Transnotation of the Manuscript Capella Sistina 51, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Città del Vaticano: Liber Missarum, Collected Works XVII/3, ed. R. Eakins (Ottawa, 2001).

I still had unanswered questions about the use and purpose of those ‘old-fashioned’ notational signs in the Vatican manuscript and their relation to earlier uses. Continuing my investigation on-and-off for several more years until there were sufficient findings, I gave a paper on this topic at the National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia in Brisbane in late 2007. An extended version followed, which was submitted to the editors of Music & Letters in 2008. After a favourable review by encouraging readers, who also provided some much appreciated advice on strengthening the piece, a final version was accepted for publication late 2009. Publishing the article proved to be much work for all concerned due to the technical requirements of typesetting musical examples and handling many unique symbols scattered throughout the text.  Thankfully, the kind editors and people at OUP were more than up to the task!


A number of unusual signs appear in the notation of west European polyphonic music in manuscripts from the first seventy-five years of the fifteenth century. Though they resemble mensuration signs, these signs behave as signatures, and are used to indicate proportions and other tempo relationships in music. Beginning with an examination of ‘double signatures’ in the Missa L’Ardant desir from Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Cappella Sistina 51, this study identifies earlier examples of rare and unusual signs in fifteenth-century sources. While the superficial resemblance of these signs across sources outwardly suggests a coherent and continuous history of notational meaning, close empirical observation of notational practice instead presents a picture of semantic discontinuity. Many unusual signs are associated with proportional effects in music. It is clear that similar notational devices and proportional effects symbolize radically different ideas in the texts of vocal compositions. This suggests that over time and place these unusual signs differ in their symbolic and therefore cultural associations. This state of epistemic discontinuity requires scholars to reassess any argument proposing the continuation of flamboyant musical styles first observed in the turn of fifteenth-century ars subtilior into the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The full reference for this article is Jason Stoessel, ‘Looking Back over the Missa L’Ardant desir: Double Signatures and Unusual Signs in Sources of Fifteenth-Century Music’, Music and Letters 91 (2010): 311-342.

The publishers, Oxford University Press, have stated that any users of my own personal web sites will get free access to the finally published and authoritative version of the article that is available from their site whether or not the users are a subscriber to the journal. On this basis I am able to provide a link to the PDF of this article for your personal use.

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