Composition and notation

Dear all:

Musical notation and composition are inevitable intertwined. Music composers were limited by the musical notation used at that time. All of us, are aware of importance of memory and oral tradition, but as New Grove Dictionary of Music (Ian Bent et al.) asserts: "A written notation provides the means to sketch and draft musical ideas during the composing process". Musical notation was a pivotal need when the complex polyphony took place; but, which comes first, the chicken or the egg? I would like to ask you if you know any thesis or paper related to musical notation and composition or where I could find something like that. 

Thank you so much (as always)


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  • This discussions are always enriching. Thank you so much. 


  • Merci, Guillaume, pour l'annonce de votre publication. Nous avons échangé à Bâle en 2003.

    Sur ce liens vous trouvez quelques publications sur le même sujet.

    Polyphonies médiévales et tradition orale (Christian Meyer)
    Christian Meyer, « Polyphonies médiévales et tradition orale », Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie [En l
  • Bonjour,

    Sur ces questions de mémoire et de composition, vous pouvez éventuellement consulter mon livre  : Chanter en polyphonie à Notre-Dame de Paris aux 12e et 13e siècles, Brepols, Studia Artistarum (14), 2007.

    Bien cordialement,

    Guillaume Gross

  • Actually I was, too, speaking about the medium of philologists, because the level of considering the sources is sometimes very low, and musicians still tend to follow their habits of using a partition during the performance.

    Concerning Leo Treitler, it is a classic, but he ignored completely the essays by James Grier which are relevant for topics like Aquitanian cantors, troubadours etc.

    During the work with the musicians within the ensemble, we found out that the dichotomy between improvisation and composition is somehow misleading. If you ask a singer to "improvise" a florid organum, it is first of all a very good exercise to memorise the cantus. It is a kind of composition which does not necessarily need the interaction with scripture. But if you are well skilled in ars organi, you can do much nicer things. For us today it is more or less impossible to reach the level of Master Léonin. One of the reasons is a fixation to questions of rhythm. Here we can learn from living traditions like in Morocco or Turkey, where the distinction between using rhythm and being free from it has a certain role for musicians—similar to Boulez' temps lisse/strié.

    I guess that terms like composition or improvisation had a certain role to make musicians today understand, what "musical thought" might have been for certain cantors who became gradually involved with notation.

  • Thanks Oliver, regarding to Carruthers book, I was referring to The Book of Memory. As regard With Voice and Pen, I did not know it; I have just taken it in the library. The index looks pretty well. I will read it.

    Thanks a lot.

  • Dear Manuel

    Leo Treitler's collection concerning the transmission debate is the other one. There you will find plenty of essays like the one you mentioned, but in a reprinted and revised edition:

    Treitler, Leo. With Voice and Pen : Coming to know Medieval Song and How it was made. Oxford, New York: Oxford UP, 2003.
    Here the list of essays of this collection:

    1. Medieval Improvisation
    2. Written Music and Oral Music
    3. The Vatican Organum Treatise and the Organum of Notre Dame of Paris
    4. 'Peripheral' and 'Central'
    5. On the Structure of the Alleluia Melisma: A Western Tendency in Western Chant
    6. Homer and Gregory: The Transmission of Epic Poetry and Plainchant
    7. 'Centonate' Chant: Übles Flickwerk or e pluribus unus?
    8. Lingering Questions about 'Oral Literature'
    9. The Politics of Reception: Tailoring the Present as Fulfillment of a Desired Past
    10. Oral, Written, and Literate Process in the Music of the Middle Ages
    11. Observations on the Transmission of Some Aquitanian Tropes
    12. History and the Ontology of the Musical Work
    13. The Early History of Music Writing in the West
    14. Reading and Singing: On the Genesis of Occidental Music-Writing
    15. Speaking of Jesus
    16. Medieval Music and Language
    17. The Marriage of Poetry and Music in Medieval Song

    Mary Carruthers published two important books dedicated to the medieval art of memory:

    Carruthers, Mary. The Craft of Thought : Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

    Carruthers, Mary Jean. The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi: Cambridge UP, 2008.
  • Thank you Olivier and Alban. I know the Busse Berger's book and the Carruthers' one. About Treitler I had already read the book of Music and Historical Imagination. I have certainly found it interesting but I have not seen a study of musical composition. Do you mean another one? (Maybe this paper:

    We should not forget the M. Bent's book: Counterpoint, Composition and Musica Ficta. (Besides is a great study to understand profoundly musica ficta)

    Thank you for the links, I will read them for sure. But, I do not see any single paper or book related to musical composition and notation in your post. 

    Thank you again.

  • About oral and written chant transmission and the effect that there was composition and polyphony, there was a "correspondence"  over decades between Peter Jeffery, Helmut Huck, Leo Treitler, Kenneth Levy, James Grier, Susan Boynton etc. It would be a very long bibliography to have a complete list, but I mentioned also authors here in a row which ignored each other (therefore I used quotation marks).

    Anna Maria Busse Berger was the first, who really used the great offer for medievalists to reflect about the medium of their sources which was originally made by Frances Yates. Yates' book was not very specific for the medieval art of memory, Mary Carruthers bridged the gap.

    Busser Berger's book is explicitely a first approach towards a "musical art of memory" which is based on Carruthers' books, and it is about Notre-Dame polyphony and Aquitanian tonaries, and the early research of German philologists in the generation of Friedrich Ludwig.

    I just would like to assure that we have plenty discussions here about the issue. A very interesting offer came recently by ethnomusicologists, though only a few of them have a profound knowledge of medieval music. The ICTM (International Council of Traditional Music) founded 2010 a study group for "Multipart Music":

    According to Ignazio Macchiarella's definition all kinds of heterophony, even spontaneous simultaneity of different songs during a procession (my suggestion at Budapest last year), because it is in a certain way ritually organised, the technique of bourdon singing or "Ison" (Orthodox singers use this term), the technique of note against note has the complex discussion about the role of parallel intervals like gymel. When I recorded monks in Bačkovo singing parallel thirds, we discovered that their intonation was so precise, that the thirds were not parallel at all!

    If you define polyphony as multipart, it is definitely before notation and completely independent from written transmission. With Mary Carruthers you will discover that written transmission could be regarded as an accident withhin oral tradition which has consequences. In his monography about Léonin Rudolph Flotzinger made the hypothesis that the Magnus liber organi was codified by his students posthumously as a kind of monument for his "art of organum". Recently there was an excellent essay about the earliest organum sources by Giovanni Varelli.

  • Bonjour,

    Je vous conseille la lecture des ouvrages et articles d'Olivier Cullin ainsi que Medieval Music and the Art of Memory de Anna Maria Busse Berger.

    Mais s'arrêter à la relation musique/écrit n'est sans doute pas suffisant pour tenter de comprendre ce domaine qui est tentaculaire.

    Comme vous le signalez, la mémoire est capitale. Un livre exceptionnel développe ce sujet : The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture de Mary Carruthers. Il n'est pas le seul, mais celui-ci m'a profondément marqué.

    Le sujet de l'écriture est également fondamental avec comme question primordiale et non moins épineuse : quel est son but ? Vous trouverez de nombreux livres sur l'histoire de l'écriture qui peuvent vous donner des pistes de réflexions. Et sur l'utilisation de l'écriture, je vous recommande les excellents ouvrages de Jack Goody.

    Pour terminer, De magistro de Saint-Augustin est très intéressant au niveau de l'importance de la notion de signe.

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