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    Musica Ficta

    Dear Collective Wisdom (with apologies for cross-posting):

    A student is looking into the demise of musica ficta in the first

    part of the seventeenth century, and is having difficulty finding

    discussion of this by theorists or other commentators of the

    period. This is not my century of expertise, so I have been of less

    help than would be desirable. Any ideas will be gratefully received!

    With thanks and best wishes,

    John Snyder

    University of Houston


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    • 5 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • The fate of musica ficta in the 16th and 17th centuries seems to me closely linked with the history of pitch standards and the usage of the keyboard (mainly the organ). It must first be realized that the matter of pitch standard had not been discussed before Schlick in 1511 (see my paper in The Organ Yearbook 1975). Schlick explains that many organists cannot play musica ficta and that, therefore, organs must be constructed at a pitch standard convenient for the choir. He obviously is thinking here of the problem of transposition.

      Transposition had not been a problem before because music usually was notated 'untransposed' and singers sang it at any convenient pitch. The problem arose when organs began to be used to accompany choirs. The first solution (e.g. Schlick's) was to make use of two pitch standards a 4th or a 5th apart (i.e. playing either in durum or in molle), which proved satisfactory in all cases, as the vocal ranges used in the compositions were not extreme. This however is more difficult to achieve in practice than to explain here. The changes involved included

      (1) The construction of two types of organs, and probably of two types of harpsichords, differing by their pitch standard; also so called 'transposing harpsichords', where the two standards were available in one instrument.

      (2) A full reorganization of the description of modes, mainly in Glarean's reform, where each mode existed either in durum or in molle.

      (3) The usage of two types of notation a fourth or a fifth apart, forming the chiavi naturali / chiavette dual system.

      Note that with this system, the actual level of the two standards remained unimportant, the only important thing was the interval between them. Their actual level only determined the point at which it became necessary for the accompanyist to select durum or molle. The situation of the notation (in chiavi naturali or chiavette) was more complex, because the ambitus there was determined by the staves, not by the voices. [But the usage of clefs was less standardized than Harold Powers wanted us to believe.]

      Even with these two standards, musica ficta continued to be used as before, e.g. at the moment of cadences. The problem of the use of musica ficta for transposition had been temporarily solved, but was bound to reappear. The 'black' keys of the keyboard (they weren't always black) had been named ficta keys, or at times coniuncta. Lippius (Synopsis musicae novae, 1612) may have been one of the last ones to use this expression (ficta).

      Up to the 18th century, singers continued to sing without [minding the] notated transposition, i.e. in mobile solfege (heptachordal solmization) at any pitch convenient to their voices; and transposition was considered a problem specific to the instruments. But the distinction between the use of musica ficta for cadences and for transposition gradually disappeared, up to the point that any accidental was considered the sign of a change of diatonic system (i.e. a transposition – see François Campion, Traité d'accompagnement, 1716); music, at the same time, became more diatonic than it had been in the late 16th century: this is one striking characteristic of tonality.

      The duality durum / molle survived until the 18th century, among others in the French theory of the gamme double ("double scale"), which justified the names of the degrees, each with two solmization syllables (Cfaut, Dsolre, Elami, Ffaut, Gsolre, Alami, Bfasi) (see the collective paper, "La 'gamme double française' et la méthode du si" that I wrote with students in Musurgia VI/3, 1999). One striking point is that the key signature determined the solmization without any need to know the key itself: the last sharp in the signature was to be sung si, the last flat fa, no matter whether the piece was in major or minor – the signature was more important than the clef, as several theorists stress. Or else, the signature was for singers, the clef for instrumentalists.

      Each of the points alluded to above (e.g. pitch standards, notation, heptachordal solmization, gamme double, etc.) could be documented in an abundant modern literature, even if none of this at first sight would appear to directly concern musica ficta. I could provide references, but that would require some more work (which I am willing to do, if needed).



    • I am not sure that the "demise of musica ficta" is perhaps the way to approach this question. My guess is if the student looked toward the rise of chromaticism in the 16th- and 17th-century music, then they may be more successful in finding the answer that they are looking for. "Ficta" notes often became notated by the end of the sixteenth-century--and I would believe this has something to do with the rise of the expanding gamut and what theorists recognized as possible notes.

      I think Nicolas Meeus's idea of the organ tradition is probably a good first place to go to. There is, of course, that famous Harold Powers article "From Psalmody to Tonality" in Tonal Structures in Early Music that I think is a must read when trying to look into this particular issue in the 17th-century. 

      Devin Chaloux

      Indiana University

    • Nicolas's post lays out most of the central trends.  This may be obvious, but I would tend to recommend Greg Barnett's "Tonal Organization in Seventeenth-Century Music" from the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory to a student as a starting point for this research, since it covers many of the points Nicolas mentions (solmization, pitch standards, modal classification changes on the way to "keys," transposition and development of key signatures, etc.).  As Nicolas points out, it's important to consider that the conceptual idea of ficta was still deeply embedded in solmization structures, for example, so even after accidentals came to be written out more frequently, singers would still often solmize them as if they were ficta or part of ficta hexachords.  Thus, it's difficult to say that ficta principles actually died; rather, they just were incorporated more explicitly into notational practices.

      In general, the answer seems rather simple: ficta had previously been used to resolve certain problems (e.g., tritones) or in idiomatic successions of pitches (e.g., cadences, or the mi-fa-mi lines).  Transposition and pitch standardization with instruments required sharps and flats often in unpredictable places which were not handled by the old ficta rules.  Thus, these two systems came into conflict, and what you end up with in the 17th century is an odd mixture where most accidentals are written in (because they are necessary and couldn't be assumed from the old rules), but some of the old places where ficta were assumed (e.g., cadences) still might consider the accidental unnecessary.  You can certainly find plenty of sources even in the early 18th century where accidental usage was still quite different from today's standards (occasionally omitting an assumed accidental, more frequently notating extra accidentals in places that would seem unnecessary today, but in a seemingly haphazard way that would sometimes assume an accidental remained in force throughout a bar, other times not).

      Off the top of my head, I can't think of places in early 17th-century treatises that directly explain the demise of ficta, other than occasional references to the older rules with a note that the practice is old-fashioned or only sometimes observed or whatever.  I'm sure someone else may know of sources that address this more directly.

      One thing I'd add to Nicolas's list of driving forces is the interest in increased chromaticism beginning in the 16th century (particularly in things like madrigals).  More chromaticism meant that more accidentals were required, since they couldn't be determined from old ficta rules.  I assume that when you start writing pieces where there are accidentals all over the place anyway, it becomes more difficult to leave them out even in standard places covered by the old rules (and still expect performers to do them correctly).  For the sake of consistency and ease of performance, there seemed to be a trend toward including them more and more often.

      So, from my perspective, it's less about the "demise of musica ficta" than it is about the rise of notated accidentals in general which would not have been covered by the old rules, which made ficta rules less and less useful.  Thus, I'd be surprised if many treatises commented on the loss of ficta; they were more concerned with where and when to use the new accidentals everywhere.

    • I was just rereading Jean-Michel Vaccaro's geat old piece (“Anthoine de Bertrand: Las! Pour vous trop aymer.” Music Before 1600, edited by Mark Everist. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992: 175-207), where he says that Bertrand, in his preface, was maybe the first to insist that singers not introduce accidentals if he hadn't explicitly put them there (176-77).

    • One important change, in the first half of the 17th century, was the introduction of heptatonic solmization. It may have become clear, because of that change, that ficta notes did not result from a transposed (and often incomplete) hexachord, but from the transposition of the diatonic collection as a whole. As a result, it became quite normal to indicate the transposed heptachords by the appropriate signature. This may be seen as one characteristic of the new system of tonality, but it is only a rather superficial characteristic.

      The situation somehow existed already in the 16th century, but the signature was then a mere token of one among two possible hexachord combinations: naturale + durum did not require a signature; molle + naturale required a signature of one flat. But each of these pairs of hexachords in fact is a heptatonic collection: the worm was in the fruit. Signatures of more than one flat were easier to grasp in terms of heptachords, of which they determined the diatonic collection as a whole.

      Up to at least Rameau's Traité d'harmonie, the link between the diatonic collection and the key was not obvious. The signature determined the solmization, but did not say the key. Consider a signature of two flats, b♭ and e♭. The rule was that the last flat, e♭ in this case, was to be sung fa. If the mode was major, then the key was at ut, i.e. B♭; if the mode was minor with a complete signature, then the key was at la ("mode layen", they said), i.e. G; and if the key lacked a flat (as often was the case), then the key was at re ("mode réyen"), i.e. C. But the solmization remained the same, and e♭ remained fa, in all three cases; singers were unable to tell the key. The two minor modes corresponded to the earlier Aeolian (la) and Dorian (re), respectively. One may remind, in this respect, that Bach said on the title page of WTC I that he had written in all major keys "or ut re mi" and in all minor ones, "or re mi fa" – i.e. in Dorian minor.

      But early-18th-century singers, even if they sang in solmization, had no notion of hexachordal musica ficta anymore. Any accidental flat in a work modified the solmization, as it was to be sung fa (and accidental sharps were to be sung si ). They realized the change of diatonic collection, but didn't know the new key better than the former one, as they still didn't know whether it'd be major or minor; they therefore didn't know either about 'modulation' (change of key) in our meaning of the term.

      In the 18th century, accidentals dictated the solmization. This was a major change with respect to earlier musica ficta, where the solmization dictated the (unwritten) accidentals...