The Old and New in Early Fifteenth Century Padua

Last week (7-9 April 2015) I had the opportunity to give a talk entitled

Climbing Mount Ventoux: The Contest/Context of Scholasticism and Humanism in early Fifteenth-Century Paduan Music Theory and Practice

It was delivered at this year’s conference of the Sydney Intellectual History Network, which was entitled “Rethinking Intellectual History”, at the University of Sydney. As part of a session of papers discussing the concept of the Ancient and Modern in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century music theory, I spoke about the contrasting approaches of two authors writing in early fifteenth-century Padua: the composer Johannes Cicionia; and the university professor Prosdocimo de’ Beldomandi.

The stance on the ancients in Ciconia’s revolutionary Nova musica is well known, especially since its discussion by Stefano Mengozzi in his book The Renaissance Reform of Medieval Music Theory . I took the opportunity to examine further how Cicionia’s approach to music theory, which looked back to the learning of the “ancients” to inspire a new understanding, paralleled developments in humanist culture at Padua, especially the innovations of Pier Paolo Vergerio. Vergerio’s revival of ancient rhetorical models in his funerary orations and his panegyrics for St Jerome is well known, especially from the excellent scholarship of John McManamon. To reinvent public oratory, Vergerio looked to writings on rhetoric and oratory for Ancient Greece and Rome, and the speeches of figures like Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Ciconia, on the other hand, found few examples of writings about music from Greek and Roman Antiquity: instead he turned to readily available sources like Boethius (through whose writings much Greco-Roman music theory was transmitted), Remigius of Auxerre, Saint Augustine and the grammarians of late Antiquity. In doing so, Ciconia set out for the first time a comprehensive model for music as rhetoric.

While earlier writers had already associated some of the fundamentals of music with grammar, and thereby dissociated it from its traditional place among the mathematical arts known as the quadrivium, none had approached the topic of music as rhetoric as comprehensively as Ciconia. Ciconia does this in two ways. First he rejects the music pedagogical traditions that had been established by Guido of Arezzo in the 11th century of using six syllables — ut, re, mi, fa, sol and la — to sight sing music. One of the most confusing features of Guido’s sight singing system, known today as solmisation, was that that both the musical sounds and syllables were called voces. Voces (or the singular vox), which means ‘voices’ (‘voice’), was a term that fifth and sixth century grammarians had used to describe the simplest vocal sounds, which, when they can be understood to represent particular elements of speech or phonemes, we call syllables. Ciconia thereby emphasised, in keeping with the Pre-Guidonian ancients, a model in which musical sounds, rather than solmisation “syllables”, were central to a conception of music. In emphasising the primacy of tone over spoken syllable, Ciconia advocates using the monochord—a simple musical instrument consisting of a single string over two musical bridges that could be moved to divide the length of the string according to the correctly proportioned intervals of the musical scale—as an aid to sight singing.

Ciconia then goes further, by proposing that music consists of 12 accidents that can be declined just like the parts of speech. In other words, Ciconia proposed the most comprehensive grammar of music ever undertaken, ostensibly for the purpose of developing musicians’ knowledge of music’s grammar (and rhetoric) akin to the orators’ knowledge of literary grammar and rhetoric.

The reason for Ciconia’s new approach to music is becomes clear when it is compared to spoken rhetoric or oratory. Rhetoric’s purpose was to persuade the listener not just through reason, but through emotion. The ultimate goal of a good orator was to move the passions of his audience to a state that was sympathetic with the subject of a speech or the speaker. Choosing the right words, the right phrases, and especially effective figures of speech which moved listeners, was an essential strategy for the orator. In the same way, the composer-singer’s choice of the right musical mode, the right range, and the right manner of singing could profoundly move a listener in music. Put simply for the purposes of this post, Ciconia proposed that the singer knowledgeable in what he considered to be music’s grammar and rhetoric could move listeners emotionally and indeed spiritually.

Ciconia’s younger contemporary, Prosdocimo de’ Beldomandi, continued to approach music in the traditional medieval sense. For him, music was one of the quadrival or mathematical arts, placed comfortably among arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. Ciconia didn’t absolutely reject this view, since he repeated emphasises music’s proportions. Just as speech needed to balanced and skilfully combined in rhetoric, music was most pleasing when its tones and durations were perfectly proportioned to one another. Yet, a close reading of Prosdocimo’s second rule of counterpoint reveals that this author was not completely insensible to the idea of music behaving more as a rhetorical art than a mathematical one.

The second rule is that counterpoint ought never to be begun or to be finished except in perfect combinations, namely on a unison, perfect fifth, perfect octave or their equivalents: the reason for this is because, if the listener has to be charmed by harmonies, it is fitting that he at first be moved by harmonies sweeter and more amiable to nature, which are the perfect consonances named above; so these must be placed first. Finally the same listener also ought to be released with sweetness and harmony pleasing to nature, lest the same listener’s soul, stirred by harsh consonance from the preceding sweet consonance, is kept from that end which harmony tends, namely from joy and pleasure . (trans. Stoessel)

Prosdocimo’s language is loaded with words that denote sense and emotion, especially pleasure. Perfect consonances are sweeter and more pleasing, so they must begin and end counterpoint. To not end with a perfect consonance after harsher imperfect consonance thwarts the listener’s pleasure and joy, indeed spiritual needs. Terms (shown in the quote in bold text) associated with emotive responses or processes, all used with reference to the listener, make it absolutely clear that Prosdocimus’s statement is an aesthetic one, appealing to sense and emotion rather than to reason.

My emphasis upon a rhetorical model of music, and aesthetic responses to it, harks back to the title of my paper which referred to Francesco Petrarch’s well known account of his ascent to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Often seen as the junction between the middle ages and Renaissance, Petrarch separates his own experiences from well known figures of the past by recognising the mutability of the human self over time and space, and the relativity of truth contingent up that temporal and locative situations. In doing so, Petrarch, more than any other author before him, rehabilitates human subjectivity to the realm of literature. Consequently, with truth contingent upon the position of the human subject and those around him or her, the power of modes of persuasion found in rhetoric and oratory assume a new importance. In the same way, music’s emotional power takes centre stage in Ciconia’s Nova musica and even Prosdocimo’s second rule of counterpoint: music’s ability to move listeners to joy and pleasure doesn’t no rely on just its well proportioned sounds, but upon the ability of singers (and indeed composers) to modulate and vary those relationships. Ciconia’s model of music is founded upon a grammatical model of human speech outlined by the ancients, but in shaping those ideas according to the ideas of early humanism, the composer and theorist arrives an a new and decisively modern concept of music that would persist in various guises and reformulations for another four centuries.

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