Early Notation

Early Notation Manifesto scholar

The Early Notation Program at Amherst Early Music is an important and vibrant part of our workshops. Here's what it's all about: Early Notation: Why bother? Modern notation has a number of conveniences. With some exceptions, only two clefs are used. Bar lines and measure numbers make it easy to analyze a score by eye, to see and attend to vertical relationships, and to “find one’s place.” Rhythmically, modern notation is simpler in the sense that each note value is absolute with relation to the others. It is specific about sharps and flats. And its biggest convenience, of course, is that it’s the notation we know! But this notation was developed for the demands of later music. Convenience is gained, but features of great importance to Medieval and Renaissance composers are obscured or removed from view altogether. In fact, modern notation does subtle violence to aspects of earlier music that were most important to its composers. Modern notation is no more an improvement over the notation of the Middle Ages and Renaissance than Picasso was an improvement over Leonardo, or Schubert over Josquin. It is important to remember that notation and music composition have always moved hand in hand. Notation was developed (and is still being developed) by composers to suit their needs, evolving over the centuries in response to their changing musical styles and ways of thinking. When you look directly at a motet of Josquin you are not only looking at notes and rhythms, you are looking at a coherent musical picture of Renaissance musical thought. Some disadvantages of modern notation as a medium for rendering Medieval and Renaissance music include: 1. It forces all the voices of a composition into a procrustean bed of measures. Measures are small arithmetic divisions of the music, not musical ones. The long, elegant line shapes and flexible rhythmic groupings of Renaissance polyphony are hidden from view. 2. Modern notation is totally biased toward the expression of duple meter; there is no direct way to render a note that is worth three of the next smaller note. Notes that are triple in value must be achieved by means of dots of addition or (over bar lines) with ties. These devices, too, work to obscure the melodic line. 3. The musician is always at the mercy of editors, who vary greatly in their understanding of earlier performance practices and even in their accuracy. Features to be dealt with by those who would play or sing from early notation (its so-called difficulties) include: 1. Slightly different note and rest shapes, and use of longer note values. These are trivial differences. The eye quickly adjusts. And the longer note values make the music look less busy. 2. Many different clefs are used, not just two. This takes some work. But in the process of doing that work one frees oneself from the “typewriting” model of reading (i.e. a given note has a specific fingering associated with it; no thought required). In the process of learning to read from all clefs the instrumentalist in particular finds that (s)he acquires a much more musical (and useful) awareness of intervallic patterns. 3. Ligatures! Yes, the custom of writing two to eleven notes as a single shape takes learning. But ligatures are fascinating to look at, and occasionally they convey useful musical information. 4. Triple mensuration This, too, must be learned, and at first its benefits are not obvious. Stylistic cues—familiarity with the period and/or the composer—help here. The ability to interpret triple meter and the learning of style—for example, the rhythmic suppleness of the late 14th century and earlier 15th century, or the exquisitely rendered melodic motion of Dufay—go hand in hand: the one assists the other. The notation of each period developed from, and is exquisitely suited to, the task of expressing the music of that period. Looking at the original sources, you can see a composer struggling to render a complex rhythm for which no definite notation had yet been developed. You can see where scribes have made mistakes and how they have corrected them. You learn what types of errors scribes typically make, so when you find an obvious error you can make an educated guess about how to fix it. You can see tussles between the text scribe and the musical-notation scribe. You can revel in stunning illuminated letters. You can spot the graffiti left by users of the manuscripts. You can delight and find intellectual satisfaction in the deciphering of puzzles of rhythm and the application of accidentals/ficta to the music.

A Notation Manifesto in progress, developed by Valerie Horst and Patricia Petersen, 2012