Monday, October 05, 2009

Musica Ficta

Musica ficta is the practice in pre-1600 music of adding non-notated accidentals at cadences and elsewhere, usually to avoid ungracious harmonic and melodic intervals. Practical problem for performers, especially modern ones who have not been brought up with the medieval hexachord system: knowing where, how, and how much to do this.

Lute tablature comes galloping to the rescue! In tablature, pitches of notes are shown precisely. So a composer or arranger for the lute had to show his musica ficta decisions explicitly. This means that arrangements for lute of music for voices or other instruments can offer solutions, or at least insights, into musica ficta practice. There are hundreds of such arrangements, of both sacred and secular polyphonic music, throughout the sixteenth century.

Firstly: on this evidence, music ficta undoubtedly existed. And was heavily used.

But, secondly: there are no universal rules. Where different composers have written versions of the same piece, they often adopt different musica ficta solutions at the same points. For example, a cadence going from e-g-c to d-a-d might have E flat and C natural in the first chord, or E natural and C sharp.

Or even a mixture of both. Albert de Rippe's version of Janequin's chanson D'un seul soleil in this context consistently uses a chord of E flat - G - C sharp, with an extra A in the middle for good measure. An early example of what, a couple of centuries later, came to be known as a German sixth, sounding strikingly out of place in 1552 but undoubtedly authentic. And the first of his two fantaisies for guitar (also 1552: yes, the guitar has been around for a while) has some even more exuberant scrunches in it: accidental logic taken to extremes.

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