My first encounter with really complicated Renaissance rhythms was in
my sophomore year in college, when a friend attempted to organize a
performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. I had been singing
in a chorus for less than a year at that point, and this in
combination with a few years of lessons on piano, flute, and voice
wasn't enough to make reading Monteverdi easy (if anything is). But I
was fascinated by the polyphony, and tried quite hard, and at some
point got the inspiration ``It's just counting. Ignore the bar lines,
and just count however many eighth notes there are for the note.''
I didn't realize that there was any official sanction for this point
of view until a couple of decades later, when I joined the Boston
Recorder Society, which makes something of a specialty of teaching
people with a few years of music lessons to count complicated
renaissance rhythms. ``Subdivide'', is one of the watchwords of the
instruction given, which means roughly what I meant by ``just count
however many eighth notes there are''.
One year, I took a class with John Tyson where
he stated it as his goal to have us do all our playing from unbarred
parts. ``I play better when I don't have the other parts in front of
me, and so will you,'' he promised. He didn't do it for all the music
all year, but we did several very beautiful madrigals from parts he
had hand-written, and I came to believe that the modern score with
barlines was indeed a hindrance to playing this music.
Since then, I have done a fair amount of playing from facsimiles, and
have directed 2 recorder groups that have played a lot of Renaissance
Polyphony, as well as playing a lot of Renaissance polyphony from
modern editions, and I know more about the benefits and disadvantages
of all these approaches.
The facsimiles are frequently very beautiful, but a lot of the people
I play with refuse to even try reading from them, and even when you
find people willing to try, you run up against:
- Many parts are written in clefs which are unfamiliar to most
- Frequently the unfamiliar shapes of the notes and rests, and the
uncertain state of the original from which the facsimile was made,
combine to make it difficult to read the information on the page.
``Is that a dot or a rest or a speck?'' ``Does this note have 1 flag
- When you're reading through a piece, you end up having to start
back at the beginning because it's too difficult to specify where
the cadences are in each part.
The modern scores usually don't have these problems, but they
introduce others of their own:
- We're trained to read a score ``vertically'', and make our part
line up with the one above or below it. Renaissance musicians were
all soloists (who listened to the people they were playing with),
and they thought ``horizontally'', and put the tune in their part
across the best way they knew how, without thinking about whether
the other person was playing exactly in sync with them.
- The bar lines mean that notes with the same number of beats can
look very different. This makes it hard to see where one part is
imitating another one, and frequently introduces a false sense fo
For example, consider an exerpt from Il
Doloroso. Here it is as a modern score, with barlines:
As you see, the reader of the cantus part has to
struggle with the instinct to treat the part as syncopated, and it
isn't obvious at first glance to either player that the figure is
rhythmically identical in both parts.
And here are the parts as they appear in this edition:
Both parts look equally straightforward rhythmically.
The hand-written unbarred parts avoided these problems, and if written
by a really good music writer would probably be a good solution. Some
of the ones I have were written in haste and have errors. I don't
have a lot of training or experience at writing music by hand, and the
ones I tried to produce were not successful at convincing the people I
played them with that this was a better way to read music.
My day job is being a computer programmer, so one of the things I
expected when I bought a computer for home was that I would use it to
write music with. I did use the MIDI playback features as a
sophisticated metronome to practice with, but I didn't find the first
notation programs I tried were suitable for producing unbarred parts.
When I acquired a UNIX system at home in 1997, I was able to experiment with a
wider range of software, and I found that ABC was easy enough for a
touch typist to input and not impossibly difficult to edit. At that
point I started using ABC to produce arrangements for my recorder
groups, and was able to do the arrangements as unbarred parts when
that was the suitable way to do it for the music. These editions
have convinced many of the people I play with that the unbarred parts
are indeed easier to play from and produce better playing than modern
This edition is an extension of that work, and I hope it leads to more
people playing this music in something more of the spirit in which
Thomas Morley wrote it.