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A fifteenth-century dance manual contains this piece of music:

Scan of Renaissance music

which appears to be (uncharacteristically) in the locrian mode. Is it really, or am I mis-reading? Does anybody know of other music from this period in this mode? Any in multiple parts?

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Good question but I'm afraid my renaissance sheet music reading abilities are lacking :( – Rein Henrichs May 25 '11 at 3:51
I don't have enough specialized knowledge to provide an official answer here, but my understanding is that Locrian was not only rare, but inconceivable under the compositional/theoretical understanding of the time. This was because the only possible species of fifth involved some distribution of one half step and three whole steps, not the two half steps and two wholes that Locrian requires. To put it into modern terms, fifth species' were defined to only be perfect fifths, never diminished. Very interesting question though… – Pat Muchmore Jul 10 '14 at 4:10
Do you (or anyone else) have a better scan of the music? I'm no expert on this era of music, but I did pick up the ability to read music written in this time period. But I'm having trouble reading what's in the scan above. – trlkly Sep 2 '14 at 21:54
@trlkly is the one on p351 of this PDF any better? (It's small but closer to the source than the copy I linked.) BTW, if you click through on the copy in the question you'll get a larger copy, but it's still a bad photocopy. Thanks for the help! – Monica Cellio Sep 2 '14 at 23:04
It is much better. Unfortunately, the problem I had is still present. I can't distinguish the actual lines. It's not that great a loss, as I probably wouldn't have been able to help all that much, but I wanted to give it a shot. – trlkly Sep 3 '14 at 6:16

1 Answer 1

It partly depends how you read the accidentals at the beginning of each staff, and there are several manuscripts of this treaty and therefore of this Sobria. If one uses the PnD manuscript (from Paris National Library - Ex French Royal Library - Fonds Italien) as you do (I do not have access to something else anyway), and one makes the hypothesis that the two flats are one fifth apart, in the common order of B-E then the first three notes are D,D,D. It is consistent with the use of the C-clef in other parts of the manuscript, while strangely, no clef is written for this dance.

It is compatible with a Locrian mode on A : A Bb C D Eb F G A, but somehow I doubt it. The fact that the clef was omitted on this particular air, leaves doubt on the copist's faithfullness or the convention used here. It is also the only part of the manuscript I think where two flats are used (but look at the Proxenera which seems clearly in Bb).

I don't know of music in this mode for this period (around 1400-1450), especially italian authors, and Locrian mode is difficult to harmonize in several parts. I will ask around.

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Thank you! I don't see two flats anywhere else in this manuscript, and I also don't have access to the other sources for Sobria. A. William Smith in his collection interprets the key signature the same way you and I do, for what that's worth, and he had access to the other manuscripts, but obviously that's a step removed. PnD sometimes omits clefs in other places (e.g. Marchexana) -- out of sloppiness or intent I can't say. – Monica Cellio May 25 '11 at 12:42
Hi again. Did you ever get a chance to ask around? Thanks. – Monica Cellio Apr 19 '13 at 16:00

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