Upon the Square: an ex tempore and compositional practice in fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century England

Chisholm, Jessica Lynn

PhD, Rutgers, 2012

Download PDF: Chisholm PhD Squares.pdf


References to “sqwars,” “sqwarenote,” “square song,” and “bokys of squaris” appear in various English ecclesiastical archival records, but the precise meaning of the term and its practices has yet to be fully understood. Aside from these textual examples, the only source where the term appears specifically in connection with musical notation is LonBL 17802-5 (the Gyffard Partbooks) which includes three Masses entitled “Upon the Square,” one by William Whitbroke (c.1501-1569) and two by William Mundy (c.1528-1591). Based on these Masses and other fragmentary evidence, the term square has come to be defined by modern scholars as a melody in measured notation (usually for tenor voice range), that most likely originated as the lowest part of a previously existing polyphonic composition (usually for three-voices), and was extracted for use in one or more later compositions.

Extant compositional evidence further suggests that squares derived from the practices of formulaic improvisation and ex tempore performance as described in contemporary theoretical treatises; perhaps as an “intermediary” phenomena, between preexistent melodies such as chant, and complex polyphonic compositions that are in turn based upon the preexistent melody. In other words, squares seem to have involved extemporizing or composing upon a melody that was once extemporized or composed upon a melody.

This study explores the extent to which this practice was used within English preand post-Reformation sacred music. It concerns both the origin and creation of squares as an extension of the practical training used by period musicians, and the use of squares in further polyphonic settings throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In particular, this study aims to demonstrate the variety of uses for these melodies, including how some squares may have been tailored for the liturgical needs of individual parishes and churches; as well as provide a window into the general methodology of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century elaboration and composition.