Ars Nova in France


"Ars Nova" -- the "new art" or "new technique" -- was the title of a treatise written about 1316-18 by the French composer and poet Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361).  The term was so apt that it has come to be used to denote the musical style which prevailed in France through the first half of the 14th century.  Another work, "Ars novae musicae" (The Art of the New Music, 1319) by Jean de Muris, also indicates the prevalence of the concept.

The chief technical points at issue in the Ars Nova were:

1)  acceptance in principle of the modern duple or imperfect division of the long, breve (and eventually, semibreve) into two equal parts, as well as the traditional triple or perfect division into three equal (or two unequal) parts
2)  the use of four or more semibreves as equivalent to a breve and, eventually, of still smaller values


Philippe de Vitry appears to have been one of the outstanding composers of his time.  His motet tenors are often laid out in segments of identical rhythm, as in the late 13th century (see rhythmic modes), but grew to a larger scale with longer note values in the tenor and much more complex rhythmic patterns which is, in essence, the isorhythmic motet structure.

The leading composer of the Ars Nova in France was Guillaume de Machaut.  Most of his 23 motets were based on the traditional pattern: an instrumental liturgical tenor and different texts in the two upper voices.  Considerable use is made of hocket in these motets.  Machaut's monophonic songs may be regarded as continuing the trouvere tradition in France.  It was in his polyphonic virelais, rondeaux, and ballades -- the so-called "formes fixes" -- that he showed most clearly the progressive tendencies of the Ars Nova.  One of Machaut's most important achievements was the development of the "ballade" or "cantilena" style, exemplified in his virelais and rondeaux.

Musical Style

Rhythm was expanded by the acceptance of duple patterns.  Isorhythmic structure was a common practice.

Melody was vocal in style (step-wise with a limited range). Perfect intervals (P8, P5, P4) were still the most common but 3rds and 6ths were used more often and treated as dissonance.  All earlier melodies were modal, but in the Ars Nova, melodies had a tendency toward intervals that suggested tonality, especially in secular music.

Harmony was the result of polyphonic texture.  There was no systematic chordal structure.  Dissonances were often very sharp and unresolved.  In the early Ars Nova, each of the upper voices related to the lowest voice and not to one another.

Polyphonic texture prevailed in all music after 1300.  Three-voice polyphony was most common but four-voice was in frequent use by the end of the 14th century.  The overall textural effect was an openness and lack of harmonic direction due to predominant use of perfect intervals.

Instrumentation/Tone Color
Music for voices dominated both sacred and secular music.  Melodic instruments could be substituted for the cantus firmus in polyphonic forms.  Instruments, no doubt, doubled the voice parts on occasion especially in secular polyphony.

Musical Forms

The motet, which had begun as a sacred form, had been to a great extent secularized before the end of the 13th century, and this trend continued.  The motet in the 14th century came to be used as the typical form of composition for the musical celebration of important ceremonial occasions both ecclesiastical and secular, a function it retained through the first half of the 15th century.

As the 14th century progressed, composers evidently began to think of the motet tenor as being constituted by two distinct elements: 1) the "color" or melodic pattern and 2) the "talea" or rhythmic pattern.  Motets having multiple repetitions of the "color" and "talea" have become known as isorhythmic motets.

Song forms were still used.

lais - a 12th century form similar to that of the sequence

virelai - characteristic is the form Abba . . . , in which the "A" stands for the refrain, "b" the first part of the stanza (which is repeated) and "a" the last part of the stanza (which uses the same melody as the refrain)

rondeau - like the virelai, made use of only two musical phrases, combined typically in the pattern ABaAabAB (capital letters indicate the refrain of the text)

ballade - normally consisted of three or four stanzas, each sung to the same music and each ending with a refrain.  It may be diagrammed  aabC, in which C stands for the refrain

chace - a form based upon canon, where a second voice repeats after a short time interval that which the first voice has sung.  (A similar form in Italy was the caccia.)

Musical Works/Examples

The earliest 14th-century musical document from France is a beautifully decorated manuscript, dating from 1316, of a satirical poem, the "Roman de Fauvel."  In one of the manuscripts of this work are interpolated about 130 pieces of music, constituting in effect an anthology of the music of the 13th and early 14th centuries.  Most of the "Fauvel" pieces are monophonic, but the collection includes also 33 polyphonic motets.

Machaut's rondeaux have a highly sophisticated musical content, and one of them is an often cited example of ingenuity.  "Ma fin est mon commencement et mon commencement est ma fin" ("My end is my beginning and my beginning my end") is a superb example of the "crab-canon," where all three voices proceed to the middle of the composition and then return to the beginning by repeating the material sung, but backwards (in reverse order).

The most famous musical composition of the 14th century is Machaut's "Messe de Notre Dame" (Mass of Our Lady), a four-part setting of the Ordinary of the Mass together with the dismissal formula "Ite missa est."  It is not the first polyphonic setting but it is important because of its spacious dimensions and four-part texture, because it is clearly planned as a musical whole, and because it is by any standard a first-rate work.