Capella Alamire - Sharps and Flats

Sharps and Flats: the "musica ficta" page

I'll begin by posting a response I wrote to a student correspondent who wrote:

I wanted to ask your opinion of another subject that was addressed in your email. I wrote a short paper for my undergraduate work regarding musica ficta and I noticed that your tone regarding the "modern ideas of so-called 'musica ficta'" seems a bit skeptical. I was wondering about your opinions of the validity (or misguidedness as the case may be) of modern ideas on musica ficta. Does the skepticism that I perceived refer to the misconception that many have of applying the term musica ficta to all accidentals in Renaissance music rather than just the implied inflections, or does it refer to some other aspect of modern practice.

In my view, the term has been misused in rather the opposite way than you suggest here. Instead of "the misconception of applying the term musica ficta to all accidentals in Renaissance music rather than just the implied inflections", I think the misconception lies in assuming that "ficta" necessarily means unwritten or performers' accidentals. That is the result of the modern equation: musica ficta = editorial accidentals placed above the notes of the score. But the medieval term simply refers to notes outside the hand, and takes no account of whether they are notated or not. In fact, in medieval discussions of "musica ficta", most often such notes are notated, otherwise they were difficult to discuss. When they are not notated, modern commentators often disagree on just what the medieval theorist was talking about. Of course, even when accidentals are indicated there can be much disagreement; the best examples are in the interpretation of Tinctoris's discussion of the sixth mode. Perhaps you've come upon the discussion, in which Tinctoris says that it is "asinine" to place the flat sign on B in order to avoid the linear tritone. Many people (e.g. Nicholas Routley, Early Music 1985), including those who ought to know better (Karol Berger and Margaret Bent for instance) have cited this one as evidence that theorists before Aaron thought signs were not necessary. They are wrong to do so. This passage is indeed about signs that are not needed, but it is not about "musica ficta" at all. The Bb Tinctoris is referring to is "recta", within the hand, and is the result of a singer choosing to sing within a hexachord on F. Other discussions about signs not being needed occur in the Berkeley treatise (Bent, Musica Disciplina 1972, 87-88) and in a treatise by Legrense (Berger, Musica Ficta, 162); these passages are also about Bb, and are not about "musica ficta".

"So what," one might say. "This is just terminology. Let's use the term musica ficta to discuss what we today mean by it, to discuss those accidentals that editors and singers must add to make the music work." But how are you going to decide when to add these accidentals, I reply. "Well, isn't there a generally agreed-upon set of rules of musica ficta?"

That's the crux of the problem. This set of rules is a modern invention. No theorist of the period ever listed "the rules of musica ficta" for us. The rules in common use today, (1-linear tritone avoidance, 2-cadential inflection, and 3-perfection of 5ths, unisons, and octaves "mi contra fa") were assembled from different sources: counterpoint instruction, solmization or mode discussions, and the very rare discussions of performer's accidentals. Most often modern commentators trot these rules out as though we have all agreed upon them, and then dither a little on just what to do when they conflict, which they do all the time. I generally disagree with others, for instance, on what to do when the rules conflict; at this point, I'm even unwilling to put all three of these rules down as "rules for performer's accidentals", because I disbelieve strongly that singers would have regularly adjusted for rule #3. That's a counterpoint rule, and requires too much score-knowledge for someone reading their own line to do on the spot. In addition, this rule, if applied by modern editors too freely, will harm the counterpoint of many cadences involving the lowest voice moving down 2-1, and will remove all dim. 5ths, and dim. 8ves, some of the most interesting aspects of the harmonic color of Franco-Flemish music. Would you remove all cross-relations from Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, and even Bach? That's what so-called "musica ficta" threatens to do to Ockeghem, Busnoys, Josquin, and Gombert. This is the original source of my skepticism.

Some thoughts by Peter Urquhart on the problems of accidentals in Renaissance music, especially that by Franco-Flemish composers:

For more on the viewpoint expressed by Capella Alamire, see my articles:

  • "Cross-Relations by Franco-Flemish Composers after Josquin."  Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis, 43 (1993): 3-41.
  • "Three Sample Problems of Editorial Accidentals in Chansons by Busnoys and Ockeghem," in Music in Renaissance Cities and Courts: Studies in Honor of Lewis Lockwood. Harmonie Park Press, 1996.
  • "Musica ficta (15th-16th centuries)." Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Ludwig Finscher, general editor. Kassel: Baerenreiter, 1997.

This last item is in German; I expect to post it here within this website in the near future in an English-language version.
Your thoughts, responses and questions are much appreciated, and I will make every effort to respond directly.

-Peter Urquhart