Did Tinctoris Listen to Okeghem? Questions of Textuality and Authority in the Late Fifteenth Century

Ronald Woodley

The following is the unmodified text of a paper delivered at the 40th International Congress on Medieval Studies at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo in May 2005. I am grateful to the distinguished scholars in the audience who contributed to the wide-ranging discussion afterwards. Minimal references to the text are added here, mainly in-line bibliographical references and a small number of footnotes, whose links open into the bottom right window. Footnote reference numbers and other links remain red after they have been visited, and the footnote references also work in reverse (i.e. from footnotes back to main text reference), to facilitate navigation between the two windows. Linked images open in a new window in front of the main text; for minimum software required to view these images, see Guidelines for viewing these pages. In particular, you should ensure that your browser is JavaScript-enabled, without which the Examples will not open properly. For ease of reference, paragraphs are numbered in [blue].

[1] A few years ago Bonnie Blackburn published an extremely interesting paper in the Proceedings of the 500th anniversary Okeghem colloquium in Tours. Her title was 'Did Ockeghem listen to Tinctoris?' (Blackburn 1998), and she used the article to explore the extent to which Okeghem did or did not pay attention to the criticisms of the somewhat younger, somewhat pushy theorist in the 1470s, particularly with regard to mensural practice and dissonance treatment. One of the conclusions that Blackburn comes to – quite correctly in my view – is that in the few years between the provocative, acerbic swipes at Okeghem and others in the Proportionale of the early 1470s, and his treatises on the tones and on counterpoint of 1476 and 1477, Tinctoris softens his edge in certain respects, and is a little more accepting – albeit sometimes grudgingly – of current practices which do not entirely match his strict theoretical demands. 

[2] But there is another, tricky question nagging just beneath the surface of such passages in the treatises, a question to do with textuality and textual authority: not just Tinctoris's authority as critic, but the authority or authenticity of the musical texts which he is scrutinizing. Did Tinctoris believe, at least sometimes, that he was working with access to pristine, authenticated texts of the composers he is criticizing? And how did he respond to that perception? The criticisms levelled by the writer at Okeghem and other contemporaries are ostensibly promoted 'under the banner of truth'; as often as not, the intellectual criterion of 'reason' (ratio) is held up as the principal mode of arbitration, and the criticisms are couched in terms which emphasize the logical or technical imperfections that the theorist perceives in the composer's work. However, embedded here is an acknowledgement – and, I would say, a distinct anxiety – that individual 'style' characteristics are already straining the sides of any neatly circumscribed notational or theoretical logic. Tinctoris finds himself in something of a cleft stick here: he is happy to acknowledge the need for stylistic evolution and innovation; indeed, in the Prologue to the Proportionale musices he famously puts down the English for their compositional conservatism.1 But, for a theorist in the 1470s seeking rational order, the notions of ingenium (natural talent or inclination) and disciplina (learning) are beginning to jostle with one another in an increasingly tense and uncomfortable relationship. And there is an implicit belief here, too – even an assumption – not only that composers of stature will follow their noses and develop their own stylistic and technical idiosyncrasies, but that the true texts of their works, in all their notational detail, are in some clear sense 'knowable', even amid the vagaries of the exclusively manuscript culture in which they are circulating.

[3] When we ask ourselves how 'authoritative' a manuscript reading is, we are really asking a series of rather complicated questions about the scribe's image of the status of that text, the status of the exemplar in front of him, the status of his own power over that text, and of his sense of control – or acquiescence – in the face of the text's auctoritas as well as his control over its auctor. In the case of Tinctoris, we have a particularly valuable window open on these questions, because of the relationship between the writer and one of the most important sources of song in this period, the Mellon Chansonnier, compiled in Naples in the mid-1470s (New Haven, Yale University, Beineke Library for Rare Books and Manuscripts, MS 91). A substantial body of evidence has been building up, over the past 20 years or so, concerning this, apparently quite intimate, relationship. Some of this involves relatively circumstantial historical, contextual factors: we are pretty sure that the chansonnier was compiled for the king's daughter Princess Beatrice in Naples at a time when Tinctoris was tutoring her in music, probably becoming a wedding gift upon her betrothal to the King of Hungary.2 Jaap van Benthem, with his customary numerological zeal, argued as far back as 1982 that Tinctoris's name, together with that of Beatrice, was deliberately embedded into the manuscript's contents (Van Benthem 1982). I have myself suggested elsewhere that an apparent acrostic at the end of Mellon suggests that Tinctoris cryptically signed the manuscript as, in some sense, the work of his own hand (Woodley 2001: 56). There are still, frankly, some palaeographical problems with this, raised by a comparison with the one known example of Tinctoris's handwriting that have survived;3 and I think that we still have to heed the suggestion first made by Allan Atlas that the composer and scribe now identified as Vincenet du Bruecquet, a close compatriot of Tinctoris and Neapolitan colleague, may have been involved in the copying (Atlas 1985: 120).4 Nevertheless, cumulatively, the weight of evidence is that Tinctoris was at the very least closely implicated in the detail of Mellon's musical texts, probably as compilator and editor in collaboration, perhaps, with Vincenet or another colleague as copyist, shortly after the theorist had completed most of his notational treatises in the 1470s, and shortly before completing his large-scale book on counterpoint in 1477. (I should add in parentheses that despite the high degree of accuracy of the musical texts, the poetic texts in Mellon are generally much more poorly served; but the reasons for this – aside from those detailed in Howard Garey's linguistic study (Perkins & Garey 1979) – must await a future investigation.)

[4] Now, as any of you will know if you have dipped into his writings, Tinctoris figures the rhetoric of his criticisms in a language of extremes: such and such a notational usage is 'intolerable', or 'irrational', or simply 'incorrect'. A superficial reading of such rhetoric might lead us to think that, if Tinctoris were to put himself into the position of editor or compiler of the music of his contemporaries, he would necessarily feel the urge, even the obligation, to re-edit the musical texts in front of him so as to comply in all particulars with his own, supposedly rational and inviolable precepts. What is particularly fascinating about Mellon, though, is that this is manifestly not the case: his attitudes to textual authority, when it comes to the crunch, are rather more flexible, and more compromising, than the often blustering rhetoric of his theorist's persona would suggest was possible. I have chosen two straightforward examples of this to show you today, though I am sure that a larger-scale study will eventually yield more finely nuanced results.

[5] The first is a very well known crux in Tinctoris's texts, and has become such a focus for comment in recent years that I am almost embarrassed to bring it up again. I would argue, though, that some of this commentary has neglected a salient point about perceptions of textual authority operating between Tinctoris and Okeghem. Okeghem's song L'autre d'antan is in what we might call informally, and anachronistically, a fastish triple metre. Within the terms of mid-15th-century convention, though, its mensuration caused Tinctoris some difficulty. In his Proportionale of around 1472–3, he rebuked Okeghem roundly for using the signature O3 [Example 1]. There were two main grounds for Tinctoris's rebuke: firstly, that an initial figured proportion in all parts was meaningless (i.e. the 3), since no norm had been established, against which it could be proportionate. Secondly, Tinctoris points out elsewhere that this kind of proportion is figured incompletely anyway, with only one rather than two figures.5 And this in turn, according to Tinctoris, leads to confusion as to whether 3:2 (sesquialtera) or 3:1 (tripla) was intended. Although the detailed explication of Tinctoris's text has its own complications, as Bonnie Blackburn, Margaret Bent, Anna-Maria Busse Berger and Rob Wegman have discussed over the past few years,6 his recommendation in the Proportionale is nonetheless very clear: Okeghem should have employed  an O sign by itself [still Example 1] to indicate a speeded-up tempus perfectum modelled on sesquialtera ('instar sesquialtere'), even if it cannot be construed as a true sesquialtera. 

[6] Without getting too bogged down here either in the intricacies of mensural practice or certain ambiguities of Tinctoris's Latin, the significant feature of the criticism, for my purposes today, is that Tinctoris seems in no doubt at all that he is in possession of Okeghem's authentic reading O3 – a reading actually supported by two other strong sources of the song.7 He is no doubt, either, that it is intrinsically wrong. And yet, when we see L'autre d'antan copied into the Mellon Chansonnier, under the probably close supervision of Tinctoris himself, what do we find? The theorist has neither stuck to what he truly believed Okeghem wrote, O3, nor has he replaced it with what he actually believed to be a more rational, correct sign, Ostroke. Instead, he has done the last thing  that his ostensibly vitriolic criticism would lead us to expect: he has compromised on Ostroke3 [facsimile as Example 2]. That is, he has introduced the stroke that he believed necessary, but compromised on the pseudo-proportion sign. Since writing the Proportionale, he is becoming obliged to recognize this not as a deficient proportion sign at all, but, through increasingly currency, as an intrinsic, self-sufficient symbol of a certain kind of performance practice. Already in the Proportionale, in fact, I would argue that the slippage between reason and practice in Tinctoris's mind is becoming apparent. The crucial word in his text, which I think has been underplayed in the recent commentaries, is 'instar': the practice that Okeghem is signing can be understood pragmatically as being modelled on sesquialtera, but Tinctoris is thus acknowledging its otherness, which his terminology has difficulty in articulating. The lesson, in other words, is that we need to learn to read Tinctoris more critically, with more sensitivity to the rhetorical registers on which he is acting out his part as theorist, and more sensitivity to the levels on which that rhetoric relates to Tinctoris's perceptions of the musical reality around him.

[7] Is this example a fluke, a simple mistake, an over-reading on my part? Well, I think not. A second, interesting example of this gap between theoretical rhetoric and compositional practice is offered by a tiny but significant instance of dissonance treatment in the anonymous rondeau Loing de vo tresdoulce presence in Mellon. I could have brought forward a number of examples of this kind – and I am now steering away from Okeghem – but I have chosen this piece for two reasons: first, precisely because it is anonymous in the source, and therefore presumably anonymous to Tinctoris, so that there is no question of composer status influencing his general attitude to textual authority; second, because from a purely compositional, contrapuntal viewpoint, as we will see in a moment, it would have been simplicity itself to revise or 'correct' the text if Tinctoris had wished to do so. The passage in question – a distinctly idiosyncratic passage – comes at the main medial cadence at bars 11–12 [Example 3]. Here an explicitly notated B fa in the Contratenor causes a strong-beat diminished 5th with the Tenor, over the duration of a semibreve in the original notation (i.e. a crotchet in transcription) – and also briefly with the Cantus – before the piece cadences two beats later on to an equally explicit, and contemporaneously notated perfect 5th E–B mi (i.e. B natural) [facsimile as Example 4]8. Now, although they seem innocent enough to our post-tonal ears, the dissonant status of diminished 5ths in the late 15th century has become something of a hot topic in musicological circles in recent years, with specialist studies often in radical disagreement by, especially, Margaret Bent and Peter Urquhart on Okeghem, Busnoys and others (Bent 2001; Urquhart 1999). Such an over-long dissonance usage, in 15th-century terms (i.e. the diminished 5th occupying the mensura of a semibreve) is condemned by Tinctoris in his counterpoint book in terms almost as forceful as those used to condemn Okeghem's mensural malpractice, and the theorist brings to bear three consecutive examples in his treatise, by Faugues, Busnoys and Caron, already discussed in detail by Margaret Bent (Bent 2001), to illustrate how even such celebrated names could commit 'errors' of this sort.9 But, again, in terms of textual authority and, if you like, the power balance between theorist and composer, this is precisely the point. Tinctoris, whilst disagreeing vehemently with what they have done, is nevertheless finding himself having to acknowledge their right to be wrong. Contrary to what a naive reading of his writings might suggest, he is not insisting that the errors must necessarily be corrected in performance, but rather that they should not have been committed in the first place. (And there is a crucial difference between these two stances which in recent Tinctoris commentary Margaret Bent has been, I think, alone in recognizing.) And it seems to me that on the evidence of Mellon we can sometimes extend this thinking also to the re-editing and re-copying of texts. In the case of Loing de vo tresdouce presence, it would cause not a ripple to the counterpoint – indeed, it would be conventionally more correct – if the Contratenor flat in bar 11 were expunged, as has happened, in fact, in the only other source, the slightly later MS Bologna Q16.10 But, crucially, Tinctoris himself, as likely editor, has stuck with it in Mellon, and 'authorized' the more idiosyncratic music that results, even though it cuts against the grain of his own principles. Perhaps, indeed, this unexpected decision was in part conditioned by a real musician's awareness of the longer-term structural patternings created earlier in the song by other B fa inflections and B fa/B mi juxtapositions [Example 3, bar 3 onward, and facsimile in Example 4]: some editorial inflections here are obviously open to debate, but the overall effect of an intended see-sawing between the flat side and natural side in this first half is hardly in doubt. If this is so, it is a particularly interesting example of the relationship between local notational or contrapuntal detail and what we would call larger-scale analytical factors, which is virtually invisible in late medieval theoretical writing, and which I have also noted within a rhythmical dimension in an article on so-called 'minor coloration' a few years ago (Woodley 2001, esp. 53–9). So by implication, therefore, Tinctoris has stuck by some sense of his exemplar's authority as a text to be transmitted, despite his presumed qualms of theoretical principle at a local level: he is unmoved to intervene simply on grounds of some presumed power of his own authority over an anonymous text. What he is in fact displaying is something much more akin to humanistic ideals of textual integrity, as an embodiment of individual human dignity – a kind of proto-modern allowance for artistic discrimination to be made on grounds of taste rather than disciplinary logic.

[8] In fact, though, one can nuance this a little further. Although I don't have time here to discuss other instances in detail, my preliminary work on the ways in which Mellon's texts relate to Tinctoris's writings may be beginning to show a pattern, in distinguishing between textual elements that Tinctoris regarded as in some sense structurally or notationally essential to the fabric, and those elements that are in some sense incidental, deriving more from individual taste or diverse practice. In a way, this may seem a trivial observation, but the categories are not quite what we might imagine. For instance, in his treatise on imperfection, Tinctoris specifically cites the opening of Barbingant's song L'homme banny de sa plaisance, whose tenor, in his view, commits the notational solecism of trying to partially imperfect a long which is already augmented [Example 5, from Valencia 835, fol. 60v (right of bottom staff); Seay 1975, i. 154]. In Mellon, a year or two later [Example 6, beginning of top-right staff], this augmented long is, sure enough, split into long plus breve, to avoid what Tinctoris obviously regarded as irrational, causing fundamental problems of notational principle and readability that absolutely require correction. Even though the actual sound is affected hardly at all by the editorial revision, Tinctoris felt that he had to make it. And incidentally, as Leeman Perkins pointed out in his edition (Perkins & Garey 1979, ii. 287), this detail of correspondence between the treatise and Mellon is surely another confirmatory piece of evidence for Tinctoris's editorial hand in the compilation.

[9] On the other hand, we have already seen how Tinctoris was prepared to retain idiosyncratic accidental usage for a particular effect, even where the strict contrapuntal grammar is compromised, and there are other instances in the collection (for instance, the second half fof Busnoys's Je ne puis vivre (fol. 15v; Perkins & Garey 1979, ii. 66–7), where the fifteenth-century compiler or editor has retained a more unconventional option, rather than attempting to flatten out the stylistic idiom of a recognized major figure, on grounds of theoretical pique. Again, in the early 1470s, in his Expositio manus, Tinctoris is firm in his contention that the double-cross sharp sign should be reserved for the specially heightened chromatic semitone, and is not to be used as a simple mi indication.11 But he was backing a loser there, frankly, and he probably knew it (see Woodley 2006a): Mellon a few years later is full of such indications, and the example from Loing de vo tresdoulce presence, indeed, is one of them.

[10] Way back in 1987 I published an article on literary emulation in the prologue of Tinctoris's Proportionale (Woodley 1987, though now to be read alongside Wegman 2003). Here, the theorist takes a recently recovered discourse by Cicero on the new rise of Roman oratory under the inspiration of the older Greek masters, and he refigures it in terms of the new musical art of his own generation, under the inspiration of the English, especially Dunstaple. In this article I suggested that one could legitimately put a deconstructive spin on Tinctoris's own discourse, revealing the strain on the universalist claims of his theory, in the face of the evolving professionalization of the status of composition, the commodification of a composer's skills and output, and the increasing culture of artistic individuality (Woodley 1987: 219–20). This kind of reading of Tinctoris's essentially pre-modern texts, in turn, reveals interesting linkages with late 20th-c. poststructuralist concerns and anxieties with questions of authority and authorship.  But in some ways these represent mirror images of one another: far from the poststructuralist erosion of auctor and auctoritas, Tinctoris is acknowledging (albeit implicitly and ambivalently) the new will towards authorship of his own age. I would echo, in this regard, a recent article of Leeman Perkins in Current Musicology (Perkins 2003), in which he urges a re-orientation of the onset of the work-concept in music back from post-Enlightenment philosophical aesthetics to the 15th century.  In the end, the relationship between music theory and composition (and between music theory and performance) is for Tinctoris a fundamentally unresolved relationship – as it was unresolved in late medieval university studies, and arguably always will be.  But I would argue that these problematics of textuality, authority and authorship, which are part of that unresolved contention, need to be grappled with, if we are to understand the finer mesh of Tinctoris's 15th-century ars nova.