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?

  • 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… 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! Sep 2 '14 at 23:04

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.

  • 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. May 25 '11 at 12:42

(@Monica Cellio asked that I expand my comment into an answer.)

The beginning looks like a top voice to me because of its 3-fold repetition in semibreves D-D-D then breve C. The lowest line of the page looks to me like a tenor that could go with it: D D Eb F F F -- it doesn't exactly work, but it gives me a sense of what might be implied here.

If it is meant to be in Locrian, I would want to see a number of Ebs -- mode in the Renaissance isn't just final notes and key signatures, but also the usage and distribution of notes. There are only two notes a fifth above the cadential A and they're both neighbor tone minims. The D and A are much more prominent notes, letting me think that it's a mode with D and A as the final and co-final/reciting-tone.

There's an argument from a Bayesian/probabilistic standpoint -- the Locrian mode is not a mode that is discussed in any medieval or Renaissance treatise (I actually stumbled on this question while deciding whether to post a question about the earliest reference to the term "Locrian" -- I suspect it's 19th c.). Thus, to me there's an assumption that it won't be in Locrian unless it's very clearly there. I can't imagine that a piece designed to teach dance moves would also be the most harmonically innovative piece in a century without the author having commented on it. It seems more likely that the rhythms + contours are the most important elements for this discussion (esp. given the lack of clefs)

So none of this is to say that it's absolutely impossible to say that it's in the Locrian mode -- it could be an incredibly innovative genius choosing to hide his or her invention of a new harmonic system in an obscure place. People have made these arguments for a number of pieces, but I always find that another explanation (incorrect clefing in some works; painters who didn't care about painting music with accuracy in the case of music in art works) is more compelling.

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