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Mathematical Medieval Music: "Popular" (?) Music from 14th Century Italy: Part 1

After having spent time on music from late medieval France, I think it fair I give attention to the other contemporary musical movements happening in Europe. Over a series of three blogs, I hope to give some analytical attention to music from Italian composers and sources from the Trecento (literally meaning “14th century,” but referring to the Italian parallel to the French Ars Nova movement) and the Ars Subtilior (“subtle art,” which was an esoteric music trend in both France and Italy during this time).

This week, I would like to focus on Johannes Ciconia, perhaps one of the most prominent composers of the transitional period between music of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. In particular I would like to discuss the musical content of his canonic motet, Le ray au soleyl. For my realization of the riddle canon click here. My score-video is linked above or here.

Ciconia: A Brief and Elusive Biography

Johannes Ciconia (c. 1370 – 1412) was born in Liège sometime around 1370. Most of his biography is uncertain and much is still being discovered with current archival research by musicologists such as Jason Stoessel, John Nádas, Agostino Ziino, and Bonnie Blackburn, along with many others. Ciconia was likely a Franco-Flemish composer by training, but was most compositionally fruitful during his adulthood in Italy. A compared to his contemporaries, more music by him survives, all of which demonstrates a remarkable stylistic variety and virtuosity. His relatively ample output which as survived the ages along with his comprehensive understanding of composition at the end of the 14th century has solidified his position as one of the most prominent composers along with Guillaume DuFay and Antione Binchois during the transition from late medieval Trecento and Ars Nova styles into what musicologists identify as early Italian Renaissance polyphony.

Archival research has revealed what appears to be three prominent men during the 14th century with the name Johannes Ciconia. For a more detailed outline of this research, I recommend referring to the article “Ciconia, Johannes" in Grove Music Online Encyclopedia. To summarize, it seems likely that the eldest of the three men was the composer-in-question’s father, born in 1335. This eldest Ciconia was in employ with the Avignon Papal court in 1350, with Cardinal Albornoz (1310 – 1367) between 1358 and 1367, and with the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Liege in 1372 until his death.

During Ciconia the Elder’s time in Flanders at Liege, his son, the youngest of the named Ciconias, was likely born around 1373. The first mention of what is likely the composer Ciconia is a document in Liege in 1385, which refers to a choirboy called Johannes Ciconia. Later, there are archival records of a young Ciconia employed by Pope Boniface IX (c.1350 – 1404). He next served roman Cardinal D’Alençon in the 1390s as the cleric of the choir or clericus capella, a prominent post typically reserved for promising young musicians. The next mention of Ciconia is in the employ of the Pavia court of Giangaleazzo Visconti (1351-1402) in the late 1390s. By 1398, Ciconia was established in Padua, where the archpriest of Padua Cathedral and noted legal scholar, Francesco Zabarella, appointed Ciconia to be cathedral chaplain in July 1401 and cantor in 1403. He apparently held these posts until his death in 1412. It has been widely asserted and confirmed that Ciconia’s securely datable and largest collection of works are from his years in Padua.

Most of Ciconia’s music, particularly from his Paduan and Pvian periods, survives in the singular fragmentary Lucca manuscript (see Nádas and Ziino), probably transcribed in Padua during Cicona’s latter life. New leaves belonging to the Mancini and Lucca Codex strengthen the attribution of unascribed pieces, Ciconia’s authorship of these pieces having previously been treated as dubious (see Bent and Hallmark, eds., PMFC, xxiv, 1985). Among these newly confirmed pieces are his Ave vergene, Chi vole amar, Gli atti col dançar, Le ray au soleyl and Poy che morir.

He wrote 11 Mass sections (mostly Glorias and Credos), 11 sacred motets, and 20 French and Italian secular pieces, including French virelais, Italian ballata, and Italian-styled madrigals. Of his 11 motets, four are in the French isorhythmic style. The stylistic influences of Philippe de Vitry (1291 – 1361), Guillaume Machaut (1300 - 1370), and composers of the Ars Subtilior, particularly Philippus de Caserta (ff. mid to late 14th century), are clear throughout.

Ciconia’s oeuvre consequently combined elements of French Ars Nova, Italian Trecento, and Ars Subtilior, establishing him as one of the earliest examples of compositional synthesis of national styles in Western music history. His synthesis would strongly influence other early 15th century composers, inspiring similar stylistic fusions in the proceeding music of Guillaume Dufay and Antione Busnois.

Along with his work as a composer, director, and performer, Ciconia wrote two or three theoretical treatises. The most assuredly attributed to Ciconia are his Nova Musica and De Proportionibus.

Ciconia the Humanist

Ciconia probably allied himself with contemporary scholars of prominence at the courts where he was employed. Particular among these were Francesco Zabarella, noted legal scholar, and Pier Paolo Vergerio (1370 – 1444) of the Court of Padua, the first important theorist of humanist education, who outlined the elements of a liberal education (Atlas, 25). Ciconia’s prolific career in Italy and his close alliance with prominent academics at powerful political courts of the age assuredly had a profound aesthetic and intellectual impact on him, particularly in regards to Humanism. It seems likely that Ciconia would have been familiar with the intellectual and cultural movement by sheer virtue of its popularity if not through his associations with noted academics.

His associations with humanism have been widely hypothesized by musicologists Allan Atlas, Richard Hoppin, Willem Elders, and Jason Stoessel. Such connections with humanism and rhetoric, might have well encouraged Ciconia’s eclectic stylistic synthesis of Franco-Flemish intellectualism and Italianate melodicism. His music shows a concern for text expression, a bias for free composition without prescribed cantus firmus structures, and prevalence of clear pervasive imitation, harmonic sweetness, melodicism, and equality of all voices (or at least the upper two).

These elements would come to be the central aesthetic of music during the middle and late Renaissance, which would lead to the expressively emotive late Renaissance madrigals and operatic innovations of composers like Monteverdi during the early Baroque.

The Source: The Lucca/Mancini Codex

The Lucca (or Mancini) Codex was originally discovered in part in Perugia in 1935 by Giovanni Cecchini and in Lucca in 1938 by Augusto Mancini (the majority of the source is from Lucca). Later in 1988 John Nádas and Agostino Ziino added to this collection when they uncovered another portion of the codex at the Lucca State Archives. This source is highly significant in the history of late 14th and early 15th century music as it contains one of the largest collections of unique works from northern Italian and Florentine composers of the Ars Nova and Trecento. Of the 83 works within he surviving codex, 52 are unique to this source. One can imagine the artistic triumph this volume represented in its complete form when one considers that the surviving codex is less than half of the original volume. A handful of the prominent composers within this tome include, Bartolino da Padova, Francesco Landini, Antonello “Marot” da Caserta, Gilles Binchois, and Johannes Ciconia. (see Nádas and Ziino). One piece of note found uniquely in this source is Ciconia's prolation canon, Le ray au soleyl.

The Prolated Canon: Le ray au soleyl

The canon Le ray au solely is a striking work, unique in style and form within Ciconia’s oeuvre. Its text, harmony, and process oriented form all suggest a minimalist style nearly 600 years before the minimalist process music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Based on the piece’s apparent references to Giangaleazzo Visconti’s heraldry, it’s composition has been approximated to the 1390s. Ciconia’s homage to the Visconti court is indicated by the words “solely” (the sun), “tortorelle” (the turtledove), and “a bon droit” (faithfully), all of which reference elements of Visconti's crest: a dove holding a ribbon bearing the text “A bon droyt”. Otherwise, the text is a rather banal pastoral image of a turtledove waking a lover in the rays of the sun. Such a mundane text indicates that Ciconia’s concern in this piece was probably not the elegant setting of an interesting text. Rather, the intrigue, wit, and rhetoric of this piece is in its canonic and rhythmic conception.

In the Lucca Manuscript – this piece’s only source – only one melody is notated. However, Ciconia gives a Latin inscription at the end of the melody, indicating three voices should be derived from this single line by rhythmically manipulating and superimposing it with itself. Below, the melody from Lucca folio LXXXIII is excerpted; below this, the riddle text has been separately extracted to better see it.

The Latin text of the riddle reads “Canon: Dum tria percurris quatuor va[let]. Tertius unum subque diapa[son] sed facit alba moras.” Musicologists have filled in a few of the missing letters that seem to have been cut off by the book's binding. Consequently, this translates as:

While three traversed four counts,

the third, one - an octave below

but it makes white delays.

While such a composition is immensely clever to compose under any system of counterpoint, the rarified and intellectual nature of this musical process has continuously obscured its realization. There is still debate as to how one should properly interpret the riddle and construct the canon. Various, seemingly correct solutions have yielded completely different pieces. At least three are commonly accepted in critical editions of the Mancini/Lucca Codex. While each differs slightly in its solution, all agree that this piece is a “prolation” canon.

A canon is a method of musical composition, in which a melody is accompanied by mimics of itself, typically begun at staggered times from the original. This is similar to the commonly used term “round.” “Le ray au solely” is specifically a prolation canon (also known as a mensuration canon or proportional canon), which is a sub-genre of canon, in which the main melody is accompanied by mimics of itself begun simultaneously but performed at different rates. For example, the main melody’s accompanying mimics would be sung at double and half the temporal rate as the original, but all beginning at the same time rather than at staggered moments. The durational proportions between the three voices in Ciconia’s prolation canon are widely believed to be 4:3:1.

This piece is unique for its time in its atypical use of prolation canon. Newes describes the prevalent tendency towards musical clarity during the early fifteenth century, which gradually supplanted the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic complexities of the Ars subtilior. This tendency towards rhythmic simplification is reflected in the proportion canons that have survived from this period. Newel observes that “in none of [the prolation canons] do we find ratios between the given and canonic voices, such as the 4:3 of [Le ray au solely], that produce irreconcilably conflicting rhythms at the minim level. Most belong to the simple augmentation type, employing the ratio 1:2,” (Newes, 27) such as that found in DuFay’s Bien veignes vous, amoureuse liesse.

Like most prolation canons, such as Johannes Ockeghem’s famous Missa prolationum, this motet opens with a simple triadic iteration. Due to the complex contrapuntal nature of prolation canon, harmony is usually simple and slow to change, especially with the addition of more and more voices. Harmonic difficulties begin to arise after the onset of the canon. Indeed, harmonic “progression,” even in the medieval sense, is atypical in this piece. The only convincing cadence comes at the end and there are arguably no intermediate cadences throughout. However, it seems that the interest in this piece lies not in its uninspired harmony, insipid text, or particularly uncompelling melodic arch. What Ciconia was clearly concerned with was rhythmic complexity and diversity.

Le ray au soleyl: A Rhythmic Analysis

The music Ciconia provides does not give any mensuration sign (the medieval equivalent of our modern time signature and metrical indication, i.e. 6/8 vs. 3/4). Newel, however, believes that the piece is clearly in tempus imperfectum, prolatio major. This would have been traditionally represented by the mensuration sign (time signature) of a half-circle with a dot in the middle (see below).

The half or “imperfect” circle shows tempus imperfectum (binary breves/double-whole-notes), while the central dot shows prolatio major (ternary semibreves/whole-note). According to Newel, a modern transcription without any metrical reduction leads to a 6/2 time signature, where a ternary or “perfect” semibreve is translated to a dotted whole-note, containing three half-notes. Thus, the meter of the piece is contained in two dotted whole-notes per measure. This is outlined in row four of the below chart.

While Newel’s estimation is reasonable and justifiably correct, I believe the rhythmic structure is a bit more complicated than this. An essentially 6/2 time signature with temporal prolations of 4:3:1 gives the top, fastest voice a 6/8 or 12/8 time as seen below.

This, I think does not do justice to the true rhythmic pallet of this piece. I contend that Ciconia sets up a variety of rhythmic groupings of twos and threes within this 6/2 structure to allude to an even more complex meter. I believe a more representative fabrication of this melody in modern notation would be as follows.

This structure would, of course, carry throughout all prolations, giving each voice a similar, yet elongated, pattern of twos and threes. Consequently, the rhythmic structure of this piece, taken as groups of twos and threes, rather than as simple measures of 6/2 or 6/8, would be as follows.

For more information on this conclusion follow this link to further explanations and some sound examples that demonstrate my analysis.

If my hypothesis is considered, the rhythmic world in which this piece resides becomes even more complex and rhetorically satisfying than previously imagined. Not only did Ciconia construct this piece under the harmonic and contrapuntal constraints of a highly intellectual form, he also imagined it in unusual and somewhat irrational porlation proportions, imbuing it with a constant rhythmic dissonance not really heard again in music until the mid to late 20th century. Furthermore, he also embedded within this dense rhythmic structure a deeper level of intrigue by implying constantly shifting metrical units which would not become a regular part of the West’s musical language again until the 20th century.


Original French Text:

Le ray au soleyl qui dret som karmeyne

En soy braçant la douce tortorelle,

Laquel compangnon onques renovelle,

A bon droit sembla qeu en toy perfect regne.

Translation: (by: John Fleagle)

The ray of sunlight, in whose true enchantment

sleeps the sweet turtledove – in his embrace –

ever rejuvenating that beloved one

faithfully makes his appearance in your perfect kingdom.



Primary Sources:

Biblioteca Comunale Augusta [I-PEc], MS 3065 “Mancini Codex/Lucca Codex,” no. 9 fol.

LXXXIII, “Ciconia”

Secondary Sources:

Apel, Willi, and Samuel N. Rosenberg, eds. French Secular Compositions of the Fourteenth

Century. Vol. 3. Anonymous Virelais, Rondeauz, Chansons, Canons. Rome: American Inst. of

Musicology, 1972.

Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music: Music in Western Europe, 1400-1600. New York:

Norton, 1998.

Elders, Willem. "Humanism and Early-Renaissance Music: A Study of the Ceremonial Music by

Ciconia and Dufay." Tijdschrift Van De Vereniging Voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis 27, no. 2

(1977): 65-101. doi:10.2307/938834.

Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Nádas, John L., and Agostino Ziino, eds. The Lucca Codex: Codice Mancini: Lucca, Archivio Di

Stato, Ms. 184, Perugia, Biblioteca Comunale "Augusta" Ms. 3065. Lucca: Libreria Musicale

Italiana, 1990.

Newes, Virginia. "Mensural Virtuosity in Non-Fugal Canons." In Canons and Canonic

Techniques, 14th - 16th Centuries: Theory, Practice, and Reception History; Proceedings of the

International Conference, Leuven, 4-6 October 2005, edited by Katelijne Schiltz and Bonnie J.

Blackburn, 19-46. Leuven: Peeters, 2007. 19-46.

Stoessel, Jason. "Con Lagreme Bagnandome El Viso: Mourning and Music in Late Medieval

Padua." Plainsong and Medieval Music 24, no. 01 (2015): 71-89.

Tertiary Sources:

Giuliano Di Bacco, et al. "Ciconia, Johannes." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music

Online. Oxford University Press, accessed September 4, 2016,

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