Cantus firmus

Cantus firmus

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In music
Music
Music is an art form whose medium is sound and silence. Its common elements are pitch , rhythm , dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture...

, a cantus firmus ("fixed song") is a pre-existing melody
Melody
A melody , also tune, voice, or line, is a linear succession of musical tones which is perceived as a single entity...

 forming the basis of a polyphonic
Polyphony
In music, polyphony is a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice or music with one dominant melodic voice accompanied by chords ....

 composition.

The plural of this Latin term is , though the corrupt form canti firmi (resulting from the treatment of cantus as a second- rather than a fourth-declension noun) is also attested. The Italian is often used instead: (and the plural in Italian is ).

History


The earliest polyphonic compositions almost always involved a cantus firmus, typically a Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant
Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services...

, although the term itself was not used until the 14th century. The earliest surviving polyphonic compositions, in the Musica enchiriadis
Musica enchiriadis
Musica enchiriadis is an anonymous musical treatise from the 9th century. It is the first surviving attempt to establish a system of rules for polyphony in classical music. The treatise was once attributed to Hucbald, but this is no longer accepted. Some historians once attributed it to Odo of...

 (around 900 AD), contain the chant in the top voice, and the newly-composed part underneath; however this usage changed around 1100, after which the cantus firmus typically appeared in the lowest-sounding voice. Later, the cantus firmus appeared in the tenor voice (from the Latin verb 'tenere', to hold), singing notes of longer duration, around which more florid lines, instrumental and/or vocal, were composed.

Composition using a cantus firmus continued to be the norm through the 13th century: almost all of the music of the St. Martial
St. Martial School
The Saint Martial School was a medieval school of composition centered in the Abbey of Saint Martial, Limoges, France. It is known for the composition of tropes, sequences, and early organum. In this respect, it was an important precursor to the Notre Dame School.Most of the manuscripts that are...

 and Notre Dame
Notre Dame school
The group of composers working at or near the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris from about 1160 to 1250, along with the music they produced, is referred to as the Notre Dame school, or the Notre Dame School of Polyphony....

 schools uses a cantus firmus, as well as most 13th century motet
Motet
In classical music, motet is a word that is applied to a number of highly varied choral musical compositions.-Etymology:The name comes either from the Latin movere, or a Latinized version of Old French mot, "word" or "verbal utterance." The Medieval Latin for "motet" is motectum, and the Italian...

s. Many of these motets were written in several languages, with the cantus firmus in the lowest voice; the lyrics of love poems might be sung in the vernacular above sacred Latin texts in the form of a trope, or the sacred text might be sung to a familiar secular melody.

In the 14th century, the technique continued to be widely used for most sacred vocal music, although considerable elaboration began to appear: while most continental composers used isorhythm
Isorhythm
Isorhythm is a musical technique that arranges a fixed pattern of pitches with a repeating rhythmic pattern.-Detail:...

ic methods, in England other composers experimented with a "migrant" cantus firmus, in which the tune moved from voice to voice, however without itself being elaborated significantly. Elaborations came later, in what was to be known as the paraphrase technique; this compositional method became important in composition of masses by the late 15th century. (See paraphrase mass
Paraphrase mass
A paraphrase mass is a musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, using as its basis an elaborated version of a cantus firmus, typically chosen from plainsong or some other sacred source...

.)

The cyclic mass
Cyclic mass
In Renaissance music, the cyclic mass was a setting of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass, in which each of the movements – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei – shared a common musical theme, commonly a cantus firmus, thus making it a unified whole...

, which became the standard type of mass composition around the middle of the 15th century, used cantus firmus technique as its commonest organising principle. At first the cantus firmus was almost always drawn from plainchant, but the range of sources gradually widened to include other sacred sources and even sometimes popular songs. The cantus firmus was at first restricted to the tenor, but by the end of the century many composers experimented with other ways of using it, such as introducing it into each voice as a contrapuntal subject, or using it with a variety of rhythms. During the 16th century the cantus firmus technique began to be abandoned, replaced with the parody (or imitation) technique, in which multiple voices of a pre-existing source were incorporated into a sacred composition such as a mass. Yet while composers in Italy, France, and the Low Countries used the parody and paraphrase techniques, composers in Spain, Portugal, and Germany continued to use the cantus firmus method in nationally idiosyncratic ways.

Probably the most widely set of the secular cantus firmus melodies was L'homme armé
L'homme armé
L'homme armé was a French secular song from the time of the Renaissance. It was the most popular tune used for musical settings of the Ordinary of the Mass: over 40 separate compositions entitled Missa L'homme armé survive from the period....

. Over 40 settings are known, including two by Josquin des Prez
Josquin Des Prez
Josquin des Prez [Josquin Lebloitte dit Desprez] , often referred to simply as Josquin, was a Franco-Flemish composer of the Renaissance...

, and six by an anonymous composer or composers in Naples, which were intended as a cycle. Many composers of the middle and late Renaissance wrote at least one mass based on this melody, and the practice lasted into the seventeenth century, with a late setting by Carissimi
Giacomo Carissimi
Giacomo Carissimi was an Italian composer, one of the most celebrated masters of the early Baroque, or, more accurately, the Roman School of music.-Biography:...

. There are several theories regarding the meaning of the name: one suggests that the "armed man" represents St Michael the Archangel, while another suggests that it refers to the name of a popular tavern (Maison L'Homme Armé) near Dufay
Guillaume Dufay
Guillaume Dufay was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early Renaissance. As the central figure in the Burgundian School, he was the most famous and influential composer in Europe in the mid-15th century.-Early life:From the evidence of his will, he was probably born in Beersel, in the vicinity of...

's rooms in Cambrai. Being that this music arose shortly after the Fall of Constantinople
Fall of Constantinople
The Fall of Constantinople was the capture of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which occurred after a siege by the Ottoman Empire, under the command of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, against the defending army commanded by Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI...

 in 1453, it is possible that the text "the armed man should be feared" arose from the fear of the Ottoman Turks
Ottoman Empire
The Ottoman EmpireIt was usually referred to as the "Ottoman Empire", the "Turkish Empire", the "Ottoman Caliphate" or more commonly "Turkey" by its contemporaries...

, who were expanding militarily towards central Europe. There are numerous other examples of secular cantus firmi used for composition of masses; some of the most famous include: Se la face ay pale (Dufay), Fortuna desperata
Fortuna desperata
Fortuna desperata is a secular Italian song, possibly originally by Busnois, . It was used by many other authors in the following 75 years, for both variations and cantus firmus masses, and over 30 such reworkings are known....

(attributed to Antoine Busnois
Antoine Busnois
Antoine Busnois was a French composer and poet of the early Renaissance Burgundian School. While also noted as a composer of sacred music, such as motets, he was one of the most renowned 15th-century composers of secular chansons...

), Fors seulement
Fors seulement
Fors seulement is a French chanson, popular as a basis for variations and as a cantus firmus. An early version is attributed to Ockeghem - this is sometimes called Fors seulement l'attente to distinguish it from his similarly titled Fors seulement contre.Brumel wrote a polytextual version,...

(Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem
Johannes Ockeghem was the most famous composer of the Franco-Flemish School in the last half of the 15th century, and is often considered the most...

), Mille Regretz
Mille Regretz
Mille Regretz is a French chanson which in its 4 part setting is usually credited to Josquin des Prez. Josquin's version is in the Phrygian mode...

, Pange Lingua (Josquin), and Westron Wynde (anonymous).

German composers in the Baroque period
Baroque music
Baroque music describes a style of Western Classical music approximately extending from 1600 to 1760. This era follows the Renaissance and was followed in turn by the Classical era...

 in Germany, notably Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach was a German composer, organist, harpsichordist, violist, and violinist whose sacred and secular works for choir, orchestra, and solo instruments drew together the strands of the Baroque period and brought it to its ultimate maturity...

, used chorale
Chorale
A chorale was originally a hymn sung by a Christian congregation. In certain modern usage, this term may also include classical settings of such hymns and works of a similar character....

 melodies as cantus firmi. In the opening movement of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the chorale "O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig" appears in long notes, sung by a separate choir of boys "in ripieno". Many of his chorale prelude
Chorale prelude
In music, a chorale prelude is a short liturgical composition for organ using a chorale tune as its basis. It was a predominant style of the German Baroque era and reached its culmination in the works of J.S. Bach, who wrote 46 examples of the form in his Orgelbüchlein.-Function:The liturgical...

s include a chorale tune in the pedal part.

As a teaching tool


Using a cantus firmus as a means of teaching species counterpoint was the basis of Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux, although the method was first published by Girolamo Diruta
Girolamo Diruta
Girolamo Diruta was an Italian organist, music theorist, and composer. He was famous as a teacher, for his treatise on counterpoint, and for his part in the development of keyboard technique, particularly on the organ...

in 1610. Counterpoint is still taught routinely using a method adapted from Fux, and based on the cantus firmus.

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