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There's an interesting musical phenomenon in "O Virgo Splendens" (14th century, in the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat) as it is consistently interpreted across all editions I have ever encountered.

The piece (a round of three) consists of 12 musical phrases of identical length and rhythm: 15 eighth notes (5 triplets) followed by a dotted quarter or in the interpretation I prefer, a dotted half -- in any event, an on-beat cadential note. There is no rhythmic variation in the pitches of the phrases. All of them have the exact same rhythm, and it's the simplest possible rhythm: a series of 15 notes of identical length, then a held note on the end.

The text, however, is assigned to the notes in ways which syncopate them. For instance, the 7th phrase starts with the word "conscendunt", each of the three syllables of which gets two eighths, turning those two triplets into a frank 3/4 hemiola. Examples of this sort of syncopated text underlay abound throughout the piece.

As a consequence, the piece is actually much more rhythmically challenging to sing, even just as a solo, than "15 eighths in a row, all starting on a downbeat" would ever suggest. Sung as a round, it becomes quite rhythmically complex and texturally rich, to the point of being challenging to sync the lines properly -- even though, technically, rhythmically, all the notes are strictly homophonic!

Is there a technical term for this? For syncopation that exists entirely in the syllabic assignment of a text in a vocal work and is otherwise not represented in the durations or marked dynamics of the notes?

And are there other examples?[*] Either contemporaneous or otherwise?

[* The only other thing I can think of is a brief moment in the 16th cen instrumental pavan version of "Mille Regretz", third system "...brief mes jours definer", where if you don't know how the text goes in the original Josquin chanson, you will misconstrue the phrases. But that's not even really syncopated.]

  • I do not think there is a specific term for this. I nominate Syllabic Syncopation as the terminology (if one does not exist). A web search found a few examples of people using the term Syllabic Syncopation but I don't see a formal definition for it. (Your description of the piece sounds intriguing.) – Matthew James Briggs Aug 25 '14 at 5:22
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I don't know of an established term. I'd propose "prosodic counterpoint". While this would include more than the verse metre (for example inflection), "metric counterpoint" would be too ambiguous since "metre" has an established meaning in music that is different from that of verse, and the lyrics do not need to rise to the actual level of metered poetry in order to accentuate music.

"syllabic" seems to fall a bit short to me since a syllable as such is not determining word stress: you need to assemble them into words first before you can find where the accents lie.

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I think you'll find it enlightening to look at this PDF of the original manuscript (O Virgo Splendens starts on p 44 of the PDF).

The origional notation, I think, drives home that this isn't really an issue of "syncopation" so much as an entirely different way of conceiving of meter, pulse, and accent. Taking your "conscendunt" as an example, the neumes are very clear that the groupings are two, then two, then four (co-on-scé-én-du-u-u-unt) — quite different from the CPDL version, which beam together two groups of 9 eighth-notes (or, better, a group of 18) into consistent units of three, leading the incautious performer to apply the modern assumption that the first note in each group of three should get a stress. This assumption would be totally anachronistic for the 14th century.

I suspect this is a case of bowing to the assumptions made by the notation software, rather than even an editorial decision — if you look at the edition by nakamura, it preserves the note groupings of the origional, using beams only to indicate when the neumes are joined together and inserting "bar lines" only when there are divisions in the manuscript. I would recommend that edition, or better yet just working from the original.

So, I'm not sure of a term for this per se, but that's because I don't think this is exactly an instance of "syncopation" so much as an example of the fundamentally different way pulse was organized in Renaissance music.

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