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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds During the last two weeks, we identified some important aspects of musical notation as it evolved during mediaeval times. We looked both into the Franconian and the Ars Nova periods. You gained insights into the process of reading and transcribing compositions that were written in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Skip to 0 minutes and 37 seconds As we now turn to the 15th century, musical notation continues to use the rules of the Ars Nova. New needs arising from new practises and musical composition lead just to a few adaptions. Since the Ars Nova a note that is coloured red changes the regularity of a rhythm. In this sense, red notes are still in use, their function being even enhanced in many manuscripts. Red notes may cause the measure to change. During the 15th century, we observe a trend to use shorter and shorter note values. Thus, in some cases, the red notes indicate note values that are shortened by a third or even by half of their original value.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds The music you’re hearing is the ballad Dueil angoisseux by Gilles Binchois. It is written in the tempus perfectum with prolatio minor. A tempus perfectum indicates that the brevis is subdivided in three parts, whereas the prolatio minor tells us that the semibrevis is divided in two parts. At the beginning of the piece, we see a closed circle crossed by a line. 30 years later, this sign will have become a mensuration sign, indicating that the tempo is fast. This manuscript, however, was compiled around 1440. And here, the sign is used to give advance warning to the reader that something unusual is going to happen. Actually, the notes coloured red that you see at the very beginning of the upper voice, are unusual.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 seconds They change the three brevis into imperfect ones, thus, shifting the rhythmic structure in relation to the lower voices. At the end of the line, we detect coloured minimae. Here, the red colour shortens the note values. With this marker, the minimae become semiminimae. That means that they are half as long as a minima. In the first half of the 15th century, an important change was introduced to mensural notation. The white notation, more aptly called void notation, replaced the so-called black, or full mensural notation. You see an example of this changed notation in this manuscript that dates from the early 15th century.

Skip to 3 minutes and 49 seconds During this time, scribes wrote no longer on parchment, but on paper. Paper differs in its absorptive capacities from parchment. Thus, large dots of ink might pose a problem or even damage the material. Using the void notation, a scribe needs less ink. A change in material thus, assisted the change of musical notation. The void notation looks, in fact, quite similar to the musical notation we use nowadays. It also uses the void minim and the black crotchet to indicate smaller note values. Here, you may compare the main notation signs of both notations, the black notation above the void one.

Skip to 4 minutes and 47 seconds The void notation combines void notes with black notes. Thus, the note’s values are easier distinguishable than those of its precursor. The minim and the semiminim defer by being filled or void. However, the scribe might want to forego a full note and stay with a void variety. Thus, you will find in some cases a semiminima marked by a little flag.

Skip to 5 minutes and 23 seconds It seems that void notation is a step further towards the distinct identification of each note value. To this end, modern notation uses binary means. The signs we use to notate music today, thus evolved partly in a process in which their values may be distinguished by simple and efficient means. In this comparison, you see how the modern notation is derived from the Renaissance void notation.

What remains? What is left behind?

Last week, you learned how to read and decode mensural notation from the Ars Nova period. Now we are going to delve deeply in a further evolution in notation history that was developed during the first half of the 15th century. The upcoming of the void notation shows how black mensural notation changed towards our modern way of noting music.

In this video you will listen to some excerpts from the ballade Dueil Angoisseux performed by the Ensemble Gilles Binchois under the direction of Dominique Vellard. It is taken from the manuscript Madrid, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio, V.III.24, [Escorial A], fol. 36v–38r. At the end you will listen also to the upper voice of the chanson Soyés Loyal à vo Povoir from the manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Misc. 213, fol. 67v performed on the recorder by Corina Marti.

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This video is from the free online course:

From Ink to Sound: Decoding Musical Manuscripts

University of Basel