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  • Polyphony in Medieval Paris: The Art of Composing with Plainchant by Catherine A. Bradley
  • Thomas B. Payne
Polyphony in Medieval Paris: The Art of Composing with Plainchant. By Catherine A. Bradley. Pp. xvii + 281. Music in Context. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York, 2018. £75. ISBN 978-1-108-41858-4.)

In this fascinating and superbly realized book, Catherine A. Bradley offers a host of detailed analyses and trenchant deliberations that forcibly challenge a number of especially deep-rooted narratives undergirding the music of the Notre Dame School. Focusing principally on the polyphonic recasting of liturgical plain-chant by the (largely) anonymous composers and poets associated with this repertory, the author moves fluidly across genres and languages. She interrogates discant passages within liturgical organa, independently preserved clausulae with different dimensions and objectives, motets with French and Latin texts from earlier and later in the thirteenth century, and those fascinating travelling snippets of music and poetry known as refrains that materialize in all these genres.

By questioning several overly tidy assumptions about the developmental course of the polyphony produced during this musical 'paradigm shift' (p. 1), Bradley successfully uproots some far too comfortably ensconced premisses. These include such positions as: (a) clausulae always antedate concordant motets, (b) Latin motets precede French ones, (c) refrains can originate in clausulae or Latin motets, and (d) plainchant in liturgical polyphony was not as prone to manipulation as it was later in secularized motets. Readers who know Bradley's former publications will recognize that this book reaffirms many of her earlier challenges to this developmental status quo. Yet only the sixth chapter substantially reproduces her earlier scholarship; the others amplify her prior endeavours, either investigating different works or probing new material.

Above all, what distinguishes this book and persuades one to many of Bradley's arguments is her meticulous analyses of the musical fabric of these works and her reasoned explanations that arise therefrom. As the author explains in the introduction, she privileges musical matters over textual ones, and focuses nearly exclusively on two-voice pieces, where questions of audibility are not as severe as with works bearing multiple texts. There is also no 'totalizing analytical methodology' (p. 8) at play, since medieval witnesses are rather mum on details ofcompositional process. Instead, on a case-by-case basis, the author does exactly the kind of painstaking investigative work that is essential in order to convince readers to jettison deep-seated beliefs. The results are discussions that often probe intensely into apparent minutiae, but which thereby deliver large rewards.

Among the threads that unite the various chapters is Bradley's conception of an environment of collaboration, competition, and play in the creation of this music. She imagines its makers within an elite, well-educated, primarily clerical environment that knew thoroughly the repertory with which they engaged. Its composers demonstrate intimate familiarity with the larger bodies of chant, polyphony, and refrains; they conceived their efforts in writing, rather than primarily oral means; and they enjoyed and exploited the opportunity 'to participate in and perpetuate thirteenth-century cultures of creativity and play' (p. 257).

The first chapter queries modern expectations of the treatment of the plainchant tenors that underlie so much Parisian polyphony. The focus here is on the gradual Propter veritatem, a Mass chant associated with the Assumption and Nativity of the Virgin and feasts of virgin saints. Several passages within this melody in Parisian organa, clausulae, and motets disagree exceptionally from its appearance in liturgical sources. The melisma on veritatem is especially spectacular in its divergence. Through wide-ranging analysis, Bradley determines that, even though Parisian composers knew the 'orthodox' version of the chant, these transformed segments were probably incorporated into this Marian gradual due to their capacity for producing pleasing musical results. Hence, musicians were eager to exploit musical inventiveness in their treatment of chant in earlier organa as well as in later motets, and were undeterred by its liturgical authority. [End Page 713]

This argument is compelling, certainly, and presages the manipulation of tenors explored later on in this book. Nevertheless, I wonder why such extraordinary manipulation arises in this chant alone if aesthetics were the primary rationale. One might reasonably...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1477-4631
Print ISSN
0027-4224
Pages
pp. 713-715
Launched on MUSE
2020-05-14
Open Access
No
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