Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music


Uri Smilansky, Rethinking Ars Subtilior: Context, Language, Study and Performance (PhD, University of Exeter, 2010)

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Full dissertation (8.7 MB)

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This dissertation attempts to re-contextualise the late fourteenth and early
fifteenth century musical phenomenon now referred to as the Ars subtilior, in
terms of our modern understanding of it, as well as its relationship to wider
late medieval culture. In order to do so I re-examine the processes used to
formulate existing retrospective definitions, identify a few compelling reasons
why their re-evaluation is needed, and propose an alternative approach towards
this goal. My research has led me to analyse the modern preoccupation with this
repertoire, both in musicology and performance, and to explore external
influences impinging on our attitudes towards it. Having outlined current
attitudes and the problems of their crystallisation, I seek to re-contextualise
them within medieval culture through a survey of the surviving physical
evidence. The resulting observations highlight the difficulties we face when
looking at the material. Above all, they point at the problems created by using
narrow definitions of this style, whether these are technical, geographic,
temporal or intellectual. My observations shed some light on the scale,
complexity and relevance of the Ars subtilior phenomenon. The next step is to
look at the music itself by analysing the use and function of stylistic features
that distinguish the style. As my goal is to conceptualise the style as a whole,
and not merely isolate interesting events within it, the variety of stylistic
features examined is wider than those traditionally defined as characteristic of
Ars subtilior. A series of case-studies examine the validity and usefulness of
my conceptualisations, and attempt to couple modern inquiry into technique with
an understanding of its place within medieval culture and society. In my
conclusion, I attempt to bring the different strands together by proposing a new
conceptualisation of the Ars subtilior which takes our understanding of medieval
history and thought-patterns as a starting point, and proves useful also in a
modern context. My proposal revolves around the concept of „exceptionality‟
within a culture that seeks legitimacy. I have formulated it to make sense of
the apparent appeal of this music to medieval performers, audiences, patrons,
composers, compilers and collectors. Status and meaning was created by
attracting attention to a work as a whole, or specific locations within its
music or text, through the deviation from older or newly created norms. At the
heart of my conceptualisation though, are its modern implications. My goal in
this work is to transcend the technicalities of the Ars subtilior and supply
scholars and performers with the tools to interpret and perform its music
expressively, finding meaning in this unique musical phenomenon.

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Tables and examples
  • Manuscript signatures
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Ars subtilior research and performance – a historiography
  • Chapter 2: Ars subtilior manuscripts and distribution
  • Chapter 3: Composers and society
    • i. The surviving materials
    • ii. Order of evidence
    • iii. Interpretation
    • Conclusion


  • Chapter 4: Features of Ars subtilior style
    • Genre and register
    • Mode, setting and pitch-structures
    • Melody and counterpoint
    • Rhythm and notation
    • Visuality
    • Text and language
    • Conclusion


  • Chapter 5: Case Studies
    • Displicebat ei etc.
    • Non est inventus similes illi
    • Magister invidie / Magister meus Christus?


  • Chapter 6: Conclusion – a working definition for Ars subtilior style
  • Bibliography
  • List of recordings