The Singers’ Voices

  • Elizabeth Randell Upton
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


As an historical object, the Oxford manuscript Canonici Misc. 213 [Ox213]provides musicologists with rare evidence. Codicological study has shown that Ox213 was copied by a single scribe over a long period of time. Because we can know the actions that resulted in this manuscript were the work of a single mind, we are justified in interpreting that scribe’s choices as meaningful acts.1 What we see on the page is the evidence of what one late medieval man thought important enough to record about the music of his own time.


Musical Work Partial Texting Vocal Performance Single Voice Pitch Level 
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  1. 1.
    See Graeme M. Boone, “Dufay’s Early Chansons: Chronology and Style in the Manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, Canonici Misc. 213,” PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1988;Google Scholar
  2. and Hans Schoop, Entstehung und Verwendung der Handschrift Oxford Bodleian Library, Canonici misc. 213 (Bern: P. Haupt, 1971). For a concise discussion of the assembly of this manuscript, see David Fallows’s introduction to the facsimile: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Canon. Misc. 213, Late medieval and early Renaissance music in facsimile; vol. 1, ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995 ).Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    The organum repertory is transmitted by the earliest manuscript sources identified with the Saint-Martial monastery in Limoges, and the three central manuscripts preserving the “Notre Dame” organum repertory: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Plut.29.1 [F]; Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf.628 Helmst. (Heinemann catalogue 677; fig. 30) [W1]; and Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August Bibliothek, Guelf.1099 Helmst. (Heinemann catalogue 1206; fig. 31) [W2]. For bibliography, see David Hiley, “Sources, MS, §IV: Organum and Discant,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001. For bibliography on what is now called “Aquitanian polyphony,” see Alejandro Enrique Planchart and Sarah Fuller, “St Martial,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    The chief motet manuscripts are Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France .13521 (“La Clayette”) [Cl], Montpellier, Bibliothèque Inter-Universitaire, Section Médecine, H196 [Mo], and Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Lit.115 (formerly Ed.IV.6) [Ba]. For bibliography, see Ernest H. Sanders and Peter M. Lefferts, “Sources, MS, §V: Early Motet,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001. On the organization and mise-en-page of thirteenth-century manuscripts, seeGoogle Scholar
  5. Sylvia Huot, From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), especially 46–80.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    On the layout and copying of the Machaut manuscripts, see Lawrence M. Earp, “Scribal Practice, Manuscript Production and the Transmission of Music in Late Medieval France: The Manuscripts of Guillaume de Machaut,” PhD dissertation, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, 1983;Google Scholar
  7. Earp, “Machaut’s Role in the Production of Manuscripts of His Works,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 42 (1989), 461–503; and Earp, Guillaume de Machaut.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 5.
    Note that in this context the labels “Tenor” and “Contratenor” refer to these voices’ structural role in polyphonic composition; they are not yet functioning as labels for particular vocal ranges. On the transition in use of the word “tenor,” from designating a voice part to designating a voice type, see John Potter, Tenor: History of a Voice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), especially Chapter 1, “The Prehistory of the Voice.” Several exceptions to this general practice may be found in the Ox213 manuscript. On folio 87v, all three voice parts, Cantus, Tenor, and Contratenor, of Grenon’s, La plus jolie et la plus belle are labeled in the left margin, at right angles to the lines of text and music. The words to the song are underlaid in all three voices, and each part features a large decorated initial “L” to begin the line. Similarly, on folio 97v the scribe underlaid text to all three voices of Francus de Insula’s L’aultre jour juer m ’aloye (#228), with the initial “L” drawn larger at the start of each part. The scribe then labeled the voices “Cantus,” “Tenor,” and “Contratenor” in the margin to the left of the initials, written perpendicularly. The same situation is found on folio 98v for Rosso’s two-voiced work, El nom mi val pensar (#232): the initial “E” is drawn larger at the start of each part and the voices are labeled “Cantus” and “Tenor” in the left margin. A fourth identical example is found on folio 100v, for Antonio Zacara’s two-voiced Nuda non era preso altro vestito (#237). In one other instance the Tenor and Contratenor (written “9 tenor”) parts are labeled vertically in the margin of folio 49, while the Cantus part remains unlabeled; all three voices bear the text of the song, Malbecque’s Ouvrés vostre huys a cest foys (#97), with the initial “O” decorated at the start of all three voices.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Heinrich Besseler did not perceive the significance of the scribe’s copying these words twice, perhaps because they have no intelligible meaning in the context of a modern score. Besseler saw the words entered in the tenor staff, and dutifully included them in his edition, measures 7–8. For the refrain, Besseler made it clear that the words “Charle gentil” were to be sung: he separated the syllables of each word with hyphens, the standard way of signaling to singers that these words were lyrics to be sung. But Besseler included the Tenor’s words in measures 7–8 without hyphens. Either Besseler didn’t realize that these words could be sung (they fit perfectly with the notes immediately above them), or he was unwilling to commit himself to seeing them as lyrics. Lawrence Earp argues that the tenor’s words are a joke, “waking up” the Cantus singer who then takes over the lyrics; in his view, the singer of the tenor part should sing only words entered by the scribe. See Earp, “Texting in 15th-Century French Chansons: A Look Ahead from the 14th Century,” Early Music, vol. 19, no. 2 (1991), 207.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Charles Seeger, “Prescriptive and Descriptive Music-Writing,” Musical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2 (1958), 184–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 15.
    Issues concerning the meaning and nature of musical scores have been discussed as well by scholars concerned with larger issues of performance practice and early music. See John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), especially “Negotiating between Work, Composer and Performer: Rewriting the Story of Notational Progress,” 96–122 andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music: A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Anne Stone cites Seeger’s formulation and cites earlier discussion of the concept in relation to Trecento and Quattrocento music by Nino Pirotta and James Haar in “Glimpses of the Unwritten Tradition in Some ‘Ars Subtilior’ Works,” Musica Disciplina, vol. 50 (1996), 59–93, especially 62–64. On issues involved in making modern editions of early music see Margaret Bent, “Editing Early Music: The Dilemma of Translation,” Early Music vol. 22, no. 3 (August, 1994), 373–374 and 376–392.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 19.
    This statement should not surprise anyone familiar with later solo vocal music, in particular operatic roles written with specific singers in mind. On the ways in which Handel considered vocal range in tailoring music for particular singers, see C. Steven LaRue, Handel and His Singers: the Creation of the Royal Academy Operas, 1720–1728 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 ). On Mozart’s tailoring of music for specific singers, seeGoogle Scholar
  14. Patricia Lewy Gidwitz, “Mozart’s Fiordiligi: Adriana Ferrarese del Bene,” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 8, no. 3 (November, 1996), 199–214. Gidwitz writes: Operatic roles often turned on a singer’s characteristic features: the outer limits of the vocal range, the weight of the voice, the tessitura and the specific subset of favourite figurations gleaned from the contemporary repertory of vocal gestures. Mozart proved a particularly effective tailor. His boast to his father—‘I like an aria to fit the singer like a well-made garment’—was both a conditio sine qua non of his operatic writing and standard practice. Gidwitz’s footnote to the last sentence of this passage reads: The metaphor was at least a century old. For example, Sacrati in describing his composition for Michele Grasseschi in the role of Bellerofonte: ‘I made the part to his measure’ (‘Holli fato la parte a suo dosso’);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. see Ellen Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley, 1991), 221 nl. See also Butt, “Notation as a ‘Fitted Suit’,”Playing with History, 107–109.Google Scholar
  16. 20.
    For a discussion of the physics behind singing, see Ingo R. Titze, “The Human Instrument,” Scientific American, vol. 298, no. 1 (January 2008), 94–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 21.
    Dong Woo Han, Yon Hee Shim, Cheung Soo Shin, Youn-Woo Lee, Jong Seok Lee, and So Woon Ahn, “Estimation of the Length of the Nares-Vocal Cord,” Anesthesia and Analgesia, vol. 100, no. 5 (2005), 1533–1535. For male and female vocal fold averages, see Su Mao-Chang, Te-Huei Yeh, Ching-Ting Tan, Chia-Der Lin, Oan-Che Linne, ShiannYann Lee, “Measurement of Adult Vocal Fold Length,” The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, vol. 116 (June 2002), 447–449.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. 22.
    Richard H. Steckel, “New Light on the ‘Dark Ages’: The Remarkably Tall Stature of Northern European Men during the Medieval Era,” Social Science History, vol. 28, no. 2, special issue: Recent Research in Anthropometric History (Summer, 2004), 211–229. Steckel examined skeletons, but the body sizes of people from the past can also be determined from surviving clothing, or the even more durable armor. A 2009 exhibit at the Tower of London of armor made for (and worn by) Henry VIII at different points of his life, titled “Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill,” showed the 6’1 monarch growing in girth as he grew older. /heritage-monarchy-henry-viii.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 24.
    The literature on “bel canto” singing and pedagogy is enormous. For a survey of historical singing and pedagogy, see James Stark, Bel Canto: A History of Vocal Pedagogy (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1999), as well as the review of this book byGoogle Scholar
  20. John Potter in Music & Letters, vol. 82, no. 3 (August, 2001), 445–448.Google Scholar
  21. 25.
    The modern pitch standard of A=440 cycles per second dates back to 1925 in America; it was adopted as the international standard only in 1955. The problem of inconsistent pitch standards had first been addressed by a commission of the French government in 1858. The French commission recommended setting A=435, and most European countries (Great Britain was the notable holdout) adopted that pitch in the nineteenth century, but even then, local standards varied from place to place. The surprisingly tumultuous history of changing pitch standards is narrated by George Martin in Chapter 8 “Tuning A—The Problem of Pitch” of his book The Opera Companion (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1961, reprinted New York: Amadeus Press, 2008 ), 87–94. For an exhaustive survey of pitch standards, see Bruce Haynes, A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A” ( Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002 ).Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    See Bruce Haynes and Peter Cooke, “Pitch.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    Important collections include the thirteenth-century estampies of the Manuscrit du Roi (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr.844), and the fourteenth-century dances recorded in London, British Library, Add.29987. The surviving melodies identified as dance tunes are collected, transcribed, and discussed in Timothy J. McGee, Medieval Instrumental Dances (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    David Fallows, with Owen Jander, “Tenor. 3. The Voice Up To C1600,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001. I want to make it clear that in the discussion that follows, I am not disagreeing with Fallows but rather with what he is reporting. I am grateful that he summarized consensus views so succinctly. Fallows has updated his discussion of medieval pitch standards; see his article “Zacara’s Voice Ranges,” Antonio Zacara da Teramo e il suo tempo, edited by Francesco Zimei ( Lucca: Instituto Abruzzese di Storia Musicale—Libreria Musicale Italiana Editrice, 2004 ), 55–65.Google Scholar
  25. 29.
    The tuning fork would not be invented until 1711. See L. S. Lloyd and Murray Campbell, “Tuning-fork,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.Google Scholar
  26. 34.
    David Fallows, “Zacharie, Nicolaus,” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, 2001.Google Scholar
  27. 35.
    On motets written for ensembles featuring 2 equal voices as the highest parts transmitted by 12 different manuscripts, including Ox213, see Robert Nosow, “The Equal-Discantus Motet Style after Ciconia,” Musica Disciplina, vol. 45 (1991), 221–275. Nosow’s discussion focuses on abstract compositional details rather than personnel.Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Randell Upton 2013

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