At first, the title might be a little off-putting, but exploring these two key areas of cultural history brings with it many benefits.
Above all perhaps it offers the possibility for a deeper understanding of Medieval Music and how it created the foundations of practices that stretched forward into the Renaissance and beyond.
Ars Antiqua Vs Ars Nova
One important distinction is to realise that Ars Antiqua is the period of music that precedes Ars Nova, although a period of transition did take place. Essentially, Ars Antiqua refers to the old or even ancient art forms whereas Ars Nova refers to the new arts.
Ars Antiqua therefore can be considered to be a span of music running from approximately 1170 – 1310. Ars Nova in contrast is arguably attributed to this time frame 1310 – 1400. There is a further overlapping period of Medieval music that you may wish to explore called ‘Ars Subtilior’. (1360-1420)
Both Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova had their cultural origins in France. One distinguishing feature of Ars Antiqua is that the majority of the composers remain unknown to us. As Ars Nova emerged then we have more evidence of the composers writing at the time.
Two composers do surface from the ancient world and amazingly, whose manuscripts still exist. These are Léonin (probably from 1150 – 1210) and Pérotin (1180-1220).
Both of these composers are directly associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame. This can be thought of as the home of Ars Antiqua which established a series of important musical advances.
A vital area of advancement was in musical notation; in particular the notation of rhythm. What existed in terms of notation of late-Medieval music was called the mensural system.
This system flourished in various forms in Medieval Europe for nearly three hundred years. The system of rhythmic modes entailed a notation that required you to determine the length of a note or prescribed pattern of notes by their position within a notated group.
Pitch, therefore, was indicated but the complexities of rhythm were cumbersome.
What changed as the Ars Nova was the establishment of the mensural system where composers could not only indicate pitch accurately but also notate complex rhythms too.
This was a very important distinction between the two periods in terms of development, and in essence, set the pathway for notated music into the Renaissance Period. I wonder what would have happened if the treatise by Franco of Cologne titled ‘Ars cantus mensurabilis’ had never been written.
Two key musical forms existed during the Ars Antiqua; ‘organum’ and ‘conductus’. Organum you may already be familiar with as this music is in essence a ‘plainchant’ (single melodic line setting liturgical text), with the addition of one extra voice for harmonic purposes.
Quite often this second voice sings the same plainchant in parallel (parallel organum), at the interval of an octave or a perfect fifth or fourth. This gives the music a very characteristic sound used to great effect in some horror movies.
Towards the latter part of this period, these traditional forms lost popularity and composers moved towards a polyphony setting of the Latin sacred text.
In contrast, the ‘conductus’ was also sacred but the main difference was that the text was freshly written rather than simply taken from the liturgy. Usually, the conductus was performed by two or three voices in either a through-composed form or more commonly strophic form.
Both the conductus and organum eventually became replaced by the motet that continued to enjoy favour amongst composers across Europe for a few hundred years more.
Ars Nova then grew from the principles and practises that had been laid down over the previous era. Like one period of musical history that follows the next, the new concepts are often in reaction to or even contrary to what had preceded them.
The idea of the earlier rhythmic modes was now a distant memory. As a result of the evolution of new notation methods, the Ars Nova was dramatically different from the Ars Antiqua as the possibility of composing with considerable rhythmic independence was key.
The motet gained in popularity and new structures of music began to emerge in this exciting time of Medieval history.
Isorhythmic motets were a feature of Ars Nova that had not previously existed in former times. This major step forward and away from the confines of Ars Antiqua was a result of the 14th Century composers increasingly employing isorhythms not only in motets but other musical forms too.
An isorhythm is an important device as it provided composers with significant structural options. What is involved, simply, was the methodical use of specific rhythmic patterns.
This was most commonly found in the motet and in particular the works of Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377). What is all the more remarkable given how far away in time we are considering; many examples of Guillaume de Machaut’s manuscripts have survived.
The freedom enjoyed by late 14th Century composers who did not have to restrict their work to the rhythmic modes of the past encouraged the development of secular as well as sacred music.
From the earlier songs of the Troubadours, Ars Nova saw the creation of a broader range of polyphonic secular music. Forms such as the rondeau, the ballade, and the virelai took hold with their roots firmly set in the dances of the past.
These musical forms were songs usually composed around a refrain. Each had different numbers of stanzas ranging from three to as many as eight. Only the rondeau survived the Medieval period.
From the Ars Antiqua grew the Ars Nova. With the advances in notation that were made in the Ars Nova a new liberty allowed for composers to expand their ideas, developing music into structures that are still used today.
Both periods played a vital part in the evolution of Western Cultural Music. The world of either may sound unbelievably restricted and narrow to us in the 21st Century, but stop and listen to the motets of Dufy or Machaut and you will discover a musical world that still brings great delight and offers us all a window into a time long ago.