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Ars subtilior

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Ars subtilior

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Ars subtilior (more subtle art) is a musical style characterized by rhythmic and notational complexity, centered around Avignon in southern France, at the end of the fourteenth century (Hoppin 1978, p.472-473). Thus it was right at the dividing-line between the musical Middle Ages and Renaissance. Often the term is used in contrast with ars nova, which applies to the musical style of the preceding period from about 1310 to about 1370; though some scholars prefer to consider the ars subtilior a subcategory of the earlier style.


Overview and history

Musically the productions of the ars subtilior are highly refined, complex, difficult to sing, and probably were produced, sung and enjoyed by a small audience of specialists and connoisseurs. Hoppin suggests the superlative ars subtilissima, saying, "not until the twentieth century did music again reach the most subtle refinements and rhythmic complexities of the manneristic style." They are almost exclusively secular songs, and have as their subject matter love, war, chivalry, and stories from classical antiquity; there are even some songs written in praise of public figures (for example and modernist music of the 20th century's "emphasis on generating music through technical experiment" to the precedent set by the ars subtilior movement's "autonomous delight in extending the kingdom of sound." He cites Baude Cordier's perpetual canon Tout par compas (All by compass am I composed), notated on a circular staff.

Albright contrasts this motivation with "expressive urgency" and "obedience to rules of craft" and, indeed, ars subtilior was coined to avoid the negative connotations of the terms manneristic style and mannered notation. However, many of the devices first used by the ars subtilior composers became standard compositional techniques in the Renaissance, indicating that some of their music must have been widely known and distributed, i.e. it was not merely a dead-end artistic movement, even though subsequent music sounds nothing like it.

The center of activity of the style was Avignon at the end of the Babylonian Captivity and during the Great Schism (1378–1417), the time during which the Western Church had a pope both in Rome and in Avignon. The town on the Rhône had developed into an active cultural center, and produced the most significant surviving body of secular song of the late fourteenth century. From Avignon the style spread into northern Spain and as far as Cyprus (which was a French cultural outpost at the time); in addition, a handful of Italian composers such as Zacara da Teramo composed in a manneristic style related to the ars subtilior.

Notational characteristics

One of the techniques of the ars subtilior involved using red notes, or "coloration"; these red notes indicated a reduction of note values by one third. For instance, a three bar passage if written entirely in red notes would only be two bars long. If a "perfect" passage would be written in red notes it would become syncopated; this syncopation was considered a hemiola (see example 1). Triplets occurred when an "imperfect" passage was transcribed into red notes (see example 2).

  • Example 1: time signature of 3/4. If three dotted half notes were written as red notes, each of the notes would lose one quarter note, becoming a series of three half notes, therefore fitting into two bars. The quarter note on the third beat of the first bar would be tied to the quarter note on the first beat of bar two.
  • Example 2: time signature of 2/4. If three quarter notes were written as red notes, each one would become equivalent to 0.66 of a beat. [ 0.66 x 3 (three quarter notes) = 2 quarter notes ]

Composers in the ars subtilior style often wrote their manuscripts themselves in unusual and expressive shapes. In addition to the circular canon by Baude Cordier, a piece by Jacob Senleches, La Harpe de melodie, is written in the shape of a harp; this and other examples of the unusual notational style of the ars subtilior are preserved in the Chantilly Codex, the primary source for this music, and also the Modena Codex.

Composers in Ars Subtilior Style

Matteo da Perugia
Jacob Senleches
Anthonello de Caserta
Philippus da Caserta
Johannes Ciconia
Baude Cordier
Jacopo da Bologna
Lorenzo da Firenze
Martinus Fabri
Antonio Zacara da Teramo


  • Richard H. Hoppin, Medieval Music. New York, W.W. Norton & Co., 1978. ISBN 0393090906.
  • Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.

Further reading

  • "Ars subtilior," "Ars nova" in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980. ISBN 1561591742.
  • Harold Gleason and Warren Becker, Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, Indiana. Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 089917034X.

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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