Music and the moderni, 1300-1350

Music and the moderni, 1300-1350: The ars nova in theory and practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
Winner, 2019 Lewis Lockwood Award, American Musicological Society
Finalist, 2019 Wallace Berry Award, Society for Music Theory

… [this book] alters our understanding of a crucial moment in music history. Drawing on a dazzling variety of evidence and leading the reader with grace through difficult terrain, the author rethinks what was new in the ars nova. To better see the new art as its contemporaries saw it, the author revises the datings of Jean des Murs’s writings; relates his innovations to developments in astronomy and mathematics; elaborates on the key aesthetic concept of subtilitas; enhances our artistic appreciation of destabilized rhythmic phenomena; and explores the philosophical stakes behind the theoretical controversy, involving two different conceptions of time.

— Official citation for 2019 Lewis Lockwood Award, AMS Awards Committee

Music theorists labelled the musical art of the 1330s and 1340s as ‘new’ and ‘modern’. A close reading of writings on music theory and the polyphonic repertory from the first half of the fourteenth century reveals a modern musical art that arose due to specific innovations in music notation. The French ars nova employed as its theoretical fundament a new system for arranging musical time proposed by the astronomer and mathematician Jean des Murs. Challenging prevailing accounts of the ars nova, this book presents the ‘new art’ within the intellectual context of its time, revises the datings of Jean des Murs’s writings on music theory, and presents the intersection of theory and practice for a crucial era in the history of music.

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Endorsements & Reviews

Karen Desmond’s book places early fourteenth-century music and musical thought persuasively within their intellectual contexts. Equally at home in music theory, the history of musical style, palaeography, prosopography, astronomy, philosophy and a whole host of other fields of knowledge, she rises to the challenge of saying something substantially ‘new’ about the ars nova. Drawing all these intellectual threads masterfully together, Desmond’s breathtaking study will be the defining work on the subject for many years to come.

Christian Thomas Leitmeir, University of Oxford

[Karen Desmond gives] an exciting, revisionist account of this crucial period in medieval music history, offering a wealth of new insight into staple texts and works, and a model framework for engaging theory with other modes of intellectual practice. This book will make a significant intervention in the field of fourteenth-century music studies, with repercussions not only for music historians, but also for scholars of intellectual history.

Emma Dillon, King’s College London

Karen Desmond’s impressive new book addresses all these points. Moving well beyond previous scholarship, she defines ars nova in a manner authorised by contemporary witnesses, signalling specific changes in notation that in turn allowed for new compositional possibilities that indeed do embody a new conception of musical time. The book redefines the problem and will stimulate scholars to rethink the issues. Beyond this, the book is a rich cornucopia of materials – far more than can be discussed in the space available here – that engage the history of science and philosophy as well as musicology and music theory.

Lawrence Earp, Plainsong and Medieval Music

Given the paucity of the evidence on which accounts of medieval music are based, and the inevitable supplementary role played by hypothesis and conjecture, it is surprising that such accounts resemble each other as much as they do. Challenges to the apparent consensus are to be welcomed; and Karen Desmond’s excellent new book is one such. It proposes a new way of thinking about the ars nova of fourteenth-century French music and a new date for its central activities. The book is valuable simply for its challenge. Yet this is not undertaken gratuitously; and to whatever degree Desmond’s revision is accepted, her account will prove an essential contribution to thinking about the period. A wide range of materials and topics is addressed, encompassing music theory, compositional practice, aesthetics and cultural context. Desmond has an impressive command of the subject and conveys her exposition with clarity and eloquence.

David Maw, Revue de musicologie