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On chansons notated in fa-clefs
– and the question of pitch in 15th century secular music

The aim of this text is to investigate the traditions of alternative notations, which form the background for Ockeghem’s famous canon, the final song of the Copenhagen chansonnier. A different version of the paper is published as Prenez sur moy vostre exemple: The ‘clefless’ notation or the use of fa-clefs in chansons of the fifteenth century by Binchois, Barbingant, Ockeghem and Josquin’ in the Danish Yearbook of Musicology 39 (2009), pp. 13-38. The printed article includes many musical examples, while this version links to the complete editions of the chansons (in PDF format) found on the site. To avoid chasing the reader around between different pages on the site, the present text contains some duplication of the commentaries to the single editions of songs in the ‘Loire Valley Chansonniers’. On their side these commentaries contain more material on the songs including editions and translations of the poems.

Table of contents:

Fa-clefs and the musica recta system
Barbingant’s »L’omme banny de sa plaisance« in many versions
»Comme femme desconfortee« and other chansons by Binchois
Four rondeaux in the Pavia Chansonnier
Guillaume le Rouge and the Schedelsches Liederbuch
Ockeghem’s »Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux«
Josquin remembering Ockeghem

A comprehensive list of all the compositions mentioned below with links to the editions can be found in the ‘Overview of the linked editions’.

In scholarly literature Ockeghem’s famous puzzle canon »Prenez sur moi vostre example amoureux« is often classified as member of an exclusive group of ‘clefless’ compositions. That this is a too comprehensive categorization becomes clear after a browse through David Fallows’ catalogue of polyphonic secular songs in the 15th century (Fallows 1999 – without this inexhaustible mine of information any research on 15th century chansons would be considerably more demanding). In his enumeration of songs the term ‘clefless’ describes pieces without any clef at all as well songs using combinations of flats in all or some of its voices to organize pitch structures. The last-mentioned songs do not use the conventional ‘letter clefs’ to specify the pitch, but they are certainly not ‘clefless’, since the flats or rather the fa-signs, which refer to contemporary hexachordal theory, carry out some of the functions of the normal clefs, and it is thus most productive to regard them as using ‘fa-clefs’.

Ockeghem’s famous Missa Cuiusvis toni may stand as an example of an extended composition, which uses neither letter- nor fa-clefs, only different symbols to specify the placement of the music’s final notes – it is really clefless (see further ‘Ockeghem’s Missa Cuiusvis toni and fa-clefs’). On the other hand, its companion in the Chigi Codex, the Missa Prolationum, was most likely originally notated entirely in fa-clefs (cf. Jaap van Benthem’s reconstruction in Ockeghem 1996b, pp. XII-XVII). Several sources especially from Central Europe contain examples of music entirely without clefs as the Schedelsches Liederbuch and Lochamer Liederbuch (cf. Wackernagel 1978, and Ameln 1972), or for example the sources catalogued in RISM BIV/3, pp. 360-372 (D-Mbs5023), 385-389 (D-TR322), and 421 (DK-Kar102).

How to decode the notation of ‘Prenez sur moi’ and other songs in fa-clefs was established in two short articles by Carl Dahlhaus in the 1960s (‘Ockeghems »Fuga trium vocum«’ (Dahlhaus 1960) and ‘Zu einer Chanson von Binchois’ (Dahlhaus 1964)). Here he rejected the prevailing interpretation of the sign formations in the examples under discussion as erroneous key signatures or as insufficient directions for the performers, and he recognized that they rather should be interpreted as hexachordal signs, which identify the positions of the semitone steps in the tone system. In the case of “Prenez sur moi” he opposed Joseph S. Levitan’s interpretation in ‘Ockeghem’s Clefless Compositions’(1937), and in the case of Binchois’ »Mon seul et souverain desir« the 1957 edition by Wolfgang Rehm in Die Chansons von Gilles Binchois (1400-1460).

David Fallows did put his finger on a crucial question, when he concerning the notation of “Prenez sur moi” asked “Why are the pieces written without clefs?”: “These writers are mainly concerned to derive appropriate transcriptions but fail to explain convincingly why the pieces are written without clefs. I cannot fill that gap except in offering two observations. The first is that the notion of a puzzle or game was plainly intriguing to many composers, particularly if it involved the kind of economy resolved by simple logic that we find here. The second observation is that composers have always derived inspiration from challenges erected by their predecessors; then as now, they show an awareness of the tradition within which they write.” (Fallows 1992, p. 66).

The notion of a puzzle and the awareness of tradition are certainly of relevance for Ockeghem’s design of the notation of “Prenez sur moi”, but they fail to answer the why-question about earlier songs. Here Knud Jeppesen proposed that an important characteristic of the ‘clefless’ notation was that it allowed performances at different pitches a fifth apart (La Frottola II, 1969, p. 15). And in line with Dahlhaus’ description of the fa-clef system Jaap van Benthem thinks that its features included an undefined sounding pitch of the music: “Since clefs are not provided in any source, performers are free to intone the music at whatever pitch is convenient for them. Any [modern] notation of the music remains editorial … ” (Benthem 1997, p. 100).

This is also the position of Margaret Bent in her discussion of these pieces in connection with the understanding of the musica recta system: “The problems of signatures and transposition is posed in a more pointed form by the phenomenon of “clefless” pieces, or rather, pieces signed only with flat signatures of undetermined and undeterminable letter-name pitch, often with differentiated signatures, whose pitches indeed do not need to be named except for purposes of transcription into modern notation … ” (Bent 2002, p. 9).

The whole idea of a repertory of pieces sounding at indeterminate pitch – how small this repertory may be – is of great importance for the discussion of pitch in the 15th century. That unaccompanied liturgical chant was performed at a flexible pitch standard is well known, songs in different modes and ranges were intoned and sung within the same convenient tessitura. How much such practices influenced the performance of sacred or secular polyphony is difficult to ascertain. But as a consequence of the expansion of the total vocal range in polyphony during the 15th century it is apparent that the leeway for a flexible pitch standard must have been considerably reduced.

My work on the edition of the Copenhagen Chansonnier (MS Thott 291 8° in the Royal Library of Copenhagen) has put the focus on the songs’ sound and expressive qualities. There seems to be a close connection between their expression as sounding entities and their vocal instrumentation, their total range and pitch and the relations between the single voices. Great care has been lavished on these parameters, not only concerning the individual song but also in the selection and combination of compositions in series or in complete chansonniers. In the chansonniers from the years around 1470 we often meet a careful balancing of contrasts in tessitura with changes in sound and mood, but also series of songs in the same range in which other features have to ensure variety and individuality. All this presupposes that the songs were composed with a relatively fixed pitch standard in mind, which of course does not preclude that practical issues at times overruled the notated pitch in performances. In this connection the existence of a small repertory of songs possibly created with an undefined or optional sounding pitch in mind is thought provoking. In addition, without the existence of a quite fixed pitch standard the fa-clef notation might appear meaningless.

“Prenez sur moi”, which I shall return to at the end of this paper, is the final song of the Copenhagen Chansonnier and originally it also opened the Dijon Chansonnier. The Dijon scribe who wrote both chansonniers (and part of the Laborde Chansonnier) was well aware of the exceptional character of Ockeghem’s canon. Moreover, the Dijon Chansonnier also contains two of the most interesting chansons appearing in fa-clef notation. They will be starting points for the following attempt to chart and elucidate the musical and notational tradition, which Ockeghem refers to in his canon. First, however, we have to take a short look on models of how the fa-clefs may be regarded.

Fa-clefs and the musica recta system

The history of the development of staff notation is well known. Since the 12th century it became more and more common to assign pitches to positions in a staff system by means of letters and coloured lines. C and F quickly became the most commonly used letters, but other letters were used too – even the B-rotundum and the B-quadratum in spaces between lines can be found alone as clefs in English sources (B-rotundum can be found in the famous Notre Dame MS W1 (Wolfenbüttel, Herzog August-Bibliothek, Helmstedt 628), especially ff. 58v [50v], 195v [178v], and 213-213v [196-196v] – Scottish, 13th c. (cf. Baxter 1931); and B-quadratum inBruno Stäblein, Schriftbild der einstimmigen Musik (1975), pp. 120-121 (Irish, 12th c.) and pp. 158-159 (English, 12th c.)). In the 15th century the stylized C- and F-clefs dominate musical notation as unmistakable indicators of the pitch and octave positions of the musical contents. Their normal use can easily accommodate a polyphonic range of nearly three octaves (F-e’’), i.e. the gamut of the Guidonian hand, and when a greater range was needed the high G-clef (G2) came more and more often in use (and some much rarer low pitch clefs).

To read a pattern of B-rotundum signs alone as fa-clefs is quite different from reckoning pitches from letter clefs. It means to correlate the positions of the signs on the staff with the hexachords contained in the traditionally used tone system, the Guidonian gamut. Figure 1 presents in schematic form the gamut of the Guidonian hand correlated with the positions of the hexachords, on which all pedagogical training in music depended. With the help of the inflexible structure of the hexachords (the semitone step mi-fa is always placed between two sets of whole tone steps ut-re-mi and fa-sol-la) the performer could build a mind map of the scale’s possibilities with its single variable step (B-rotundum and B-quadratum or B flat and natural) and always keep the placement of the semitones in mind. Combining hexachordum naturale and hexachordum durum it was possible to navigate through music using the high or hard B, and should the soft B be needed, the hexachordum molle came into play. This system was thought of as musica recta, while differing placements of hexachords (for example to obtain transitory leading notes etc.) were regarded as musica ficta or falsa (cf. Bent 1972 – on the discussion of the transposition of the Guidonian system by flat signatures and its possible categorization as ficta see Berger 1987 and Bent 2002, pp.1-25).

A default reading of fa-clefs must logically (as the notation does not indicate anything else) be defined as the reading resulting from the positions of the steps, which can be named fa in the standard tone system (the untransposed musica recta system). In figure 1 two models of arrangements of fa-clefs are drawn up (these models only show minimum configurations of fa-clefs to demonstrate the principle, and only two voices, one higher and one lower):

1) To the left a configuration of flats in distances of alternating fifths and fourths, which interlocks in the voices, with three flats in every voice (some of the octave doublings may be omitted). They constitute a scale in which the structure is repeated in every octave. The default position will have C as the upper fa of the fifth and F as the lower. In this way the fa-clefs will function like the quite common phenomenon of C- and F-clefs a fifth apart found on top of each other in the same staff in older sources, and can thus be read without any hexachordal signatures. However, it must be underscored, they do not prescribe pitches, only a scale structure.

2) To the right in figure 1 is a corresponding arrangement of interlocking fifths only, in which the lower fa in a voice denotes the same note as the upper fa of the next voice. This arrangement will typically have two flats in every voice, but nothing hinders that a flat sign in a voice can be doubled at the octave as long as the basic structure is retained. This coupling of two fifths causes that there cannot be octave identity between all pitches of the voices, and that all three species of hexachords will be used; and that means that at least one voice will need a signature of one flat or one sharp more than the other voices. In figure 1 the default reading can only be placed in the musica recta system in a high position (designating the notes b-flat, f’ and c’’, because the system does not contain the B-rotundum in its low octave. In practise this arrangement of fa-clefs will be read as sounding an octave lower, with a B-flat in the low octave.

Figure 1, The Guidonian tone system, the placement of hexachords, and fa-clefs


However, in many cases the sources force us to view the fa-clefs in a completely different light. When a piece in such pitch-indeterminable notation is copied into normal notation the scribes usually just added fitting combinations of letter clefs before the fa-clefs, which is then changed into hexachordal signatures (and reduced to the essential flats), and the pitch becomes locked. In this way contemporary practise reveals clef substitution as an appropriate procedure, and we have to discuss which and how many clef combinations can be used to read the chansons.

In the following discussion fa-clefs is mentioned in abbreviated form according to the same principles as used concerning letter clefs (C1, C4, F4, G2 etc.): fa1(-5) means a fa-sign or a flat on one of the five staff-lines (numbered 1-5 from below); fas1(-5) – fa-sign in one the five spaces of the staff; mi1(-5) – mi-sign or sharp/natural placed in the same way (only used by Ockeghem). (Top)

Barbingant’s »L’omme banny de sa plaisance« in many versions

This sad song about a man abandoned by all pleasures had in fa-clef notation the widest circulation of all during the second half of the 15th century. It was probably written in the 1450s or earlier as it appears in sources from the 1460s on in versions, which show up such a wide variation in notation that we must presume that it already then had been circulating for some time, and that its original notation without letter-clefs was on its way to oblivion (The song and its sources have been discussed several times in the scholarly literature, cf. Jeppesen, La Frottola II (1969), pp. 14-16, and Urquhart 2004, pp. 373-375, which both include tables of incipits).

The name of the composer is found in the Mellon Chansonnier (New Haven, Yale University, Beinecke Library, MS 91), which was prepared or supervised by the famous music theoretician Johannes Tinctoris in Naples around 1475 (Cf. Perkins 1979, and Woodley 1988, pp. 188-194), and it is confirmed by his quote of the beginning of the song under Barbingant’s name in a theoretical treatise. Barbingant was a French composer flourishing in the middle of the century and was highly regarded by writers as Eloy d'Amerval and Guillaume Crétin. A younger Italian source, Florence, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Ms. Magl. xix.176 (Florence 176), ascribes the song to the contemporary French composer Johannes Fedé (alias Jean Sohier), but Tinctoris’ ascription must be regarded as the authoritative one, not least because he lived and worked in Northern and Central France during the years when the song found favour.

The earliest sources, the Laborde, Leuven, Dijon, Nivelle and Pavia (Pavia, Biblioteca Universitaria, Ms. Aldini 362) chansonniers, transmit the chanson in differing clefs, and the scribes of Laborde, Leuven and Dijon did not understand its fa-clef notation at all. The Dijon scribe placed the flats in the upper voice exactly as in the lower voices (fas2, fas4, see Example 1); they were probably placed one step higher (fa3, fa5) in his exemplar. The Laborde scribe could not get the clefs to make any sense, so he wrote them apparently at random, letting them vary from staff to staff (see Example 2). Leuven shows up a sort of ‘reduced’ fa-clef notation. It has no letter-clefs, but one flat only in each voice, in the upper voice on the 3rd staff line and in the lower voices in the 2nd space (see Example 2a). This obviously means that letter-clefs must be imagined, namely G2, C3 and C3, which produces a song in high range (e-g’’) with signatures of one flat in all voices. The Leuven scribe also used this type of notation in his copy of »Comme femme desconfortee« on ff. 25v-27 in his chansonnier.

To get an impression of the original notation we must look at the clefs transmitted by some slightly younger sources, which were copied with greater care and understanding. The Florentine source Florence 176 has a set of fa-clefs, which conforms perfectly to the model with interlocking fifths (see Example 3). This means that according to a default reading the flats from top to bottom designate the following scale positions: in the upper voice f’’, c’’, and f’, in the tenor and contratenor f’ and b-flat; and it produces a tonal layout widespread in the middle of the century with an upper voice with a flat less than the lower voices.

Example 1:
Dijon, ff. 97v-98


Example 2:
Laborde, ff. 66v-67


Example 2a:
Leuven ff. 11v-13

Example 3:
Florence 176, ff. 54v-55


We find exactly this layout again in the contemporary Chansonnier Cordiforme (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. Rothschild 2973) and in the older Nivelle Chansonnier (see the edition), but now in pitch locked notation with letter clefs: G2 without flats and two voices in C3 with one flat – Cordiforme has even retained the flat on the f’’-line in the superius, which also can be used to warn the singer that the music exceeds the Guidonian gamut by using a high ficta hexachord on c’’.

The chansonnier Pavia 362 also locks the pitch of the chanson (see Example 4), but only in the upper voice, which has a G2 clef without flats, while keeping the three-flat clefs in tenor and contra, which then must be read as f’, b-flat and f. Unlike the Nivelle, Pavia and Cordiforme chansonniers the Florence 176 version is not locked to any pitch, and it can just as easily be performed a fifth lower by imagining a different set of letter clefs: C2 with one flat and F3 with two flats in the lower voices.

MS Pixérécourt (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, ms. 15123), also from Florence and possibly a few years younger than Florence 176, transmits the song in a different configuration of fa-signs (see Example 5). It corresponds to the fifths-fourths model described above and produces a default reading of the flats in the upper voice as c’’, f’ and c’, and in the tenor and contratenor as c’ and f – a fourth lower than in MS Florence 176, and no signatures are needed in any voice.

Example 4:
Pavia 362, ff. 21v-22


Example 5:
Paris 15123, ff. 29v-30


Example 6:
New Haven 91, ff. 30v-31


It was probably such a combination of fa-signs that the Dijon scribe saw in his exemplar when he was copying the song into his own collection. A default reading of Dijon with amended fa-clefs in pure G Mixolydian can be found in the PDF-edition. Of course, this set of fa-clefs may also be read with imagined letter clefs, in C-Mixolydian with one G2 and two C3 clefs, all with a signature of one flat (“Variant reading a” in the same file), and a fifth lower in F-Mixolydian with one C2 and two F3 clefs, all with two flats (“Variant reading b”). The Leuven version apparently has been ‘reduced’ from this version of the fa-clef notation. By keeping only one flat in each voice it forces a reading corresponding to the C-Mixolydian with a signature of one flat (like Dijon’s “Variant reading a”).

The Mellon Chansonnier does not specify the fifth in the upper voices (see Example 6). It could refer to any of the two models, but most probable it is meant to be read with the last mentioned combination of letter clefs in mind, one C2 and two F3 clefs, now with one flat in the upper voice and two in the lower voices.

If we presume that the Laborde scribe in some instances got the clefs right, and that he in the 2nd and 3rd staff of the upper voice and in the 2nd staff of the contratenor (see Example 2) really wrote what he saw in his exemplar, then Laborde could present the same set of clefs as Florence 176. It could be performed at any pitch, but an obvious reading is – like the Mellon Chansonnier – the one in low clefs (see the edition).

This reading of Laborde is interesting because it conforms perfectly to Tinctoris’ censoring of Barbingant in his Liber imperfectionum notarum musicalium of 1474-75, where he tells us that a note, which has been augmented by a dot, of course cannot be imperfected by a following short note, and he gives the start of the superius and tenor from Barbingant’s “L’omme banny” as an illustrative musical example – in F-Mixolydian (Book 1, Ch. 3, ‘De tredecim generalibus imperfectionum regulis’, see the online edition and translation by Ronald Woodley at In the tenor the first longa is augmented by a punctus additionis but then shortened by the following semibrevis, which to make things clearer in some sources is followed by a punctus divisionis (see the Laborde incipits in Example 2). We only find this ‘error’ in the older sources, while the younger sources have corrected the error by dividing the long first note into a longa and a brevis (which can be imperfected correctly), but so did also Leuven and Nivelle, which probably can be dated a little earlierTinctoris’ Liber.

Tinctoris’ and the assumed Mellon low-clef reading of “L’omme banny” is confirmed by a responce to it, the anonymous »L’omme qui vit en esperanche«, about the man who lives in hope, in the Pixérécourt MS, ff. 182v-183, which cites the beginning of Barbingant’s tenor and paraphrases its structure and cadential scheme (see the edition). Here a set of C2, C5 and F3 clefs is combined with a setup of flats very like the ones in Barbingant’s song in the Pixérécourt MS (and probably Dijon).

A possible relation to the high pitch reading is the anonymous three-part song »Plus que pour mille vivant« in the MS Bologna Q16, ff. 71v-72, mentioned by David Fallows, which quotes the opening music of “L’omme banny” (Fallows 1999, p. 261). The likeness is obvious in the first eight bars hereafter the connection becomes looser (see the edition).

To sum up – and disregarding other interesting variants in the music and presuming that the song was composed at some time before 1450 – the investigation of “L’omme banny” shows:

1) That it circulated in fa-clef notation during a long period of time. The sources can be dated between the 1460s and the middle 1480s, and already during the 1460s the knowledge of the notation was weakening (Dijon, Laborde and Leuven).

2) That both configurations of fa-clefs are found in the sources, the pattern of fifths only (Florence 176) and the pattern of fifths and fourths (Pixérécourt), but the resulting differences in performance become negligible by the conventional practice of inflecting melodic lines. The default readings put the song in C- or G-Mixolydian, but performances can be at any convenient pitch.

3) That several sources (Leuven, Nivelle, Pavia 362 and Cordiforme) lock the pitch of the song in high clefs according to the configuration in fifths only. In this process irrelevant flats (designating F or C) were usually suppressed.

4) That Tinctoris and presumably the Mellon Chansonnier (supervised by Tinctoris) may have regarded the fa-clefs as signatures, which just needed an appropriate array of letter clefs imagined or in writing in order to work. A reworking of Barbingant’s music in the Pixérécourt MS confirms that this was not an uncommon procedure. (top)

»Comme femme desconfortee« and other chansons by Binchois

Binchois’ rondeau »Comme femme desconfortee« enjoyed great popularity during the period from c. 1460 and until at least after 1500. It supplied materials for secular arrangements, to motets and masses, and it appears in many sources, among them four of the ‘Loire Valley’ chansonniers, Dijon, Laborde, Leuven and Wolfenbüttel (for sources and citations, see the comments on the song’s page). In by far the majority of sources this appealing song about a woman deploring her miserable loveless state is notated conventionally and in a normal tessitura with an upper voice in the range b-c’’ – the version of the Dijon Chansonnier may stand as a representative for these sources (see the edition).

The song may have appeared rather old-fashioned to some of the compilers of the chansonniers. Quite a lot of musical variants show up in the sources, especially in the contratenor. Some of the uneasiness surrounding the chanson could come from it being originally conceived in fa-clefs. In three sources it appears entirely without conventional letter-clefs. In the Leuven chansonnier it is notated in a sort of ‘reduced’ fa-clefs, just like we found in Barbingant’s “L'omme banny” with only a single flat in each voice to show the relationship between the voices. They can be understood only if letter-clefs are imagined: In superius a C1, in the tenor a C4, and in the contratenor a F4 – all with a signature of one flat. The upper voices in Leuven are close to the oldest version of the song (see below), but in order to to fit the one flat signature it has been supplied with a new, more modern, low contratenor (range F-a), which reorients the harmonic stance of the setting (see the edition).

“Comme femme” appears in fa-clefs among the latest additions, from the 1460s, to the Italian chansonnier Escorial, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo, Biblioteca y Archivo de Música, MS IV.a.24, ff. 131v-132 (cf. Hanen 1983 and Slavin 1990), and two of its voices are found among the fragments of a contemporary Burgundian chansonnier, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Mus.Ms. 9659 (fragments), f. 3v (cf. Petzh 1974). The Neapolitan copyist of Escorial IV.a.24 apparently was bewildered by the notation of his exemplar and placed the fa-clefs in wrong positions, which according to a default reading would produce a song in D-Dorian and create difficult problems for the harmony (see Example 7). Luckily the fragment of the song in Munich 9659 transmits enough, the whole superius and half of the tenor, for us to conclude that the two sources have basically the same version of the song. In Munich 9659 the fa-signs are placed correctly and show that all three voices had a clef of three signs, namely fa2, fa4 and fas5 (see Example 8).

Example 7:
Escorial IV.a.24, ff. 131v-132


Example 8:
Munich 9659, f. 3v


This is exactly the formation of interlocking fifths only, which is shown in Figure 1 above,and it produces a sound picture with a flat less in the upper voice than in the lower voices. A default reading of the combined sources (superius and tenor from Munich and contratenor from Escorial), in which we imagine a C4 and two F4 letter clefs, gives us a very low pitch, F-f’, hardly fitting for a song in a female voice, but with the entirely conventional combination of hexachordal signatures of no flat in the upper voice and one flat in the lower voices (see the edition according to a default reading). It can of course also be read an octave higher, but this is less probable as it then will exceed the Guidonian gamut.

At this point the fa-clefs prove their value, because we can just as easily imagine another set of clefs a fifth higher, C2 and two times C4, and pitch and range then come into the same tessitura as in the fixed pitch sources, namely form c to c’’ (see edition “high clefs reading”). However, in this reading the notes revealed as fa by the flat signs are c’’, g’ and c’ in the upper voice and f’, c’ and f in the lower voices, and the upper voice thus has to operate with a fictive hexachord on d’ comprising the semitone step mi-fa on f#’-g’.

A hexachordal signature of one sharp was close to unthinkable in 15th century polyphony, and it is not found in any of the main sources of French chansons. According to Jeffrey Dean (Dean 1996, p. 219) only one example of a B-quadratum used as a signature in a Continental chanson survives from the 15th century. It is in the anonymous four-part arrangement of »Se la face pale« in Trento, Castello del Buonconsiglio, Monumenti e Collezioni Provinciali, Ms. 89 (1376), ff. 424v-425, in which the three upper voices have a sharp at the start (cf. Dufay 1995, p. 107). But using fa-clefs you can perform the song at any pitch, even sing within the usual tessitura with a one-sharp signature without writing it. The performance of ‘Comme femme’ according to these rules brings about in a natural way the F-sharps otherwise demanded by the counterpoint in bar 4 and other places, and we hear a tonal shading rather characteristic of Binchois with a first section centred on G, while in the second section one has to sing naturals and firmly anchor the music on C. We can theorize that the Burgundian source Munich 9569 preserves Binchois’ original notation including the tonal shadings, which were lost when the popular song was transformed into fixed pitch notation.

Such a theory can be supported by two songs in older sources. The other chansonnier in Escorial, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo, Biblioteca y Archivo de Música, MS V.III.24 (called EscA), whose origins can be placed in Burgundian lands around 1436-1440 and very close to the court musician Gilles Binchois (c. 1400-1460; cf. Kemp 1990 and Slavin 1992, facsimile edition in Rehm 1958), contains two three-part rondeaux in fa-clef notation, »Tous desplaisirs n’en sont prochains« and »Mon seul et souverain desir« (ff. 7v-8 and 20v-21). Both are anonymous in the MS, but the second song is firmly ascribed to Binchois in the slightly older North Italian manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Canon. Misc. 213, f. 71v (cf Schoop 1971, facsimile edition in Fallows 1995a). Both songs show exactly the same two-octave range and the same system of fa-clefs as “Comme femme”, and the same reading procedure again results in a high clef alternative with a one sharp signature, which in both cases becomes inflected by an accidental flat after a few bars (both songs are in the editions shown in a high clefs reading as well as in the default reading):

Binchois, »Mon seul et souverain desir« 3v, Oxford 213, f. 71v: Binchois, and Escorial V.III.24, ff. 20v-21: Anonymous (see the edition). This setting of a lyrical rondeau quatrain is primarily declamatory with a strong harmonic colouring caused by the variable seventh degree of the Mixolydian scale signalled by the accidental in the superius in bar 3.2. The compact setting is marred by many errors in the Oxford MS, most of which can be amended by the version in Escorial V.III-24 (on the relationship between the sources, see Slavin 1992, pp. 44-48).

Binchois?, »Tous desplaisirs n’en sont prochains« 3v (unicum), Escorial V.III.24, ff. 7v-8: Anonymous (see the edition). The beginning looks like an exercise in three-part strict imitation at the fifth. As soon as the superius has finished its exact rendering of the motive first heard in the Contratenor and Tenor an accidental is brought into play (b. 5.2), which signals the constant oscillation between the high and the low seventh degree of the Mixolydian scale in the upper voice. The widespread imitation at the octave between Tenor and superius in several places compels the singer of the upper voice to inflect this degree (bb. 9.2, 15.1, and 30.3), while it at the start of the second section of the rondeau cinquain supports the high seventh degree (bb. 22-24), corresponding to the beginning of the chanson. The musical construction of the song and its notation seems closely connected, an exploration of its possibilities, and quite characteristic of Binchois.

While Binchois’ “Mon seul et souverain” has been discussed in scholarly literature (Dahlhaus 1964, Slavin 1992, Mengozzi 2008), “Tous desplaisirs” has received less attention. Walter H. Kemp tentatively ascribed it to Binchois based on its use of imitation, which does not appear to be a very convincing criterion (Kemp. 1990, pp. 39-40). The two songs’ identical system of notation and the resulting sound world is a much more convincing argument, and Dennis Slavin mentions this trait as a “technical procedure otherwise unique to Binchois” when discussing Binchois’ authorship of “Comme femme” (Slavin 1989, pp. 121-122).

I think that we can safely assume that Binchois composed all three chansons. Possibly he also invented the special notation with two flats a fifth apart in every voice, which permitted him to make songs with a sharp in the upper voice without putting such unheard things down in notation. This, however, raises the question if Binchois ever intended the notation to be of indeterminable pitch? There is a good possibility that the notation must be read a fifth higher than the default reading and that it is a substitute for the ‘unwriteable’: a superius with a sharp hexachordal signature. It is impossible to know for sure, but worth keeping in mind. (top)

Four rondeaux in the Pavia Chansonnier

The small paper chansonnier Pavia 362 probably originated in the region of Savoy sometime in the years around 1470 (cf. D’Accone 1986 and Schavran 1978). In addition to Barbingant’s »L’ome banny de sa plaisance« (no. 3, ff. 21v-22) it contains three more chansons with the lower voices notated in fa-clefs, while the upper voice has a letter clef. They may all have been created originally in pure fa-clef notation, and we will just take a short look at them.

The anonymous »Pour avenir a mon actainte« 3v (no. 20, ff. 37v-38) has an arrangement of three flats and a C2 clef in the upper voice, while the lower voices only have flats. According to the pitch indicated in the superius the clefs in tenor and contratenor have to be C4 and F3. The formation of flats belongs to the model with fifths and fourths alternately. A default reading of the flats without taking the letter clef in account will translate into these pitches from top to bottom: c’’-f’-c’ in superius, f’-c’-f in tenor, and c’-f in the contratenor, and the song will sound in pure D-Dorian without any hexachordal signatures, a tone higher than in the locked reading of Pavia 362 in C-Dorian. Its two-octave total tessitura can be moved up and down quite a bit, but the most natural alternative reading with a set of G2, C2 and C3 clefs all with one flat remaining is probably not relevant as it produces the very high tessitura of g-g’’.

The song reappears in the Nivelle Chansonnier (ff. 23v-24) and in the slightly later Florentine chansonnier, Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana, Ms. 2356 (ff. 83v-84), in normal notation with C2, C4, C4 clefs and signatures of two flats (see the song’s page). That the song originally really was conceived in fa-clefs is confirmed by its appearance in the Nivelle Chansonnier. Here it stands shoulder to shoulder with Barbingant’s “L’omme banny” (as nos. 19 and 20), and they probably followed each other through the transformation into standard notation.

The two remaining songs in Pavia 362 are both unique and follow the same pattern as “Pour avenir” in interpreting a fifth-fourth arrangement of flats as C-Dorian.

»Par ung seul mot bien ordonné« 3v (unicum; no. 27, ff. 45v-46) is moreover musically related to “pour avenir”, while its text is a paraphrase of Guillaume Du Fay’s famous song »Le serviteur hault guerdonné«, which inspired many other pieces and is also notated in C-Dorian (cf. Fallows 1999, p. 253, and Fallows 1995, pp. 259-265). “Par ung seul mot” seems most closely modelled on the anonymous musical and textual paraphrase of Du Fay »Le serviteur infortuné« 3v, which also is in Pavia 362 (no. 37, ff. 58v-59; sources see Fallows 1999 p. 254).

»Puis qu’il ha pleu a la tres belle« 3v (unicum; no. 39, ff. 60v-61) is a tour-de-force in proportional notation. From the beginning the tempus perfectum of the superius is juxtaposed with proportio dupla in Tenor and Contra, which must be performed twice as fast as the notes in the upper voice, and later on passages in the voices by turns has to be reduced by proportional signs to a fourth and an eighth of the notated values (longa = semibrevis or minima). All of this could just as well have been notated in integer valor, and the composer might have avoided some clumsy passages – it has been difficult for the composer to integrate especially the Contra and keep it free of dissonances – and the copyist could be spared a lot of errors. This notation was created primarily to make a visual impact and one cannot help wondering if the probable original fa-clef notation was part of this Verfremdung.

Especially the last song is in a low tessitura, in a range from G to a’-flat, and can with some advantage be performed a fifth higher by using another set of letter clefs (G2, C4, C4 with only one flat), but as we have seen before the copyist has chosen to use the clefs, which transform the fa-clefs directly into a key signature. (top)

Guillaume le Rouge and the Schedelsches Liederbuch

Hartmann Schedel’s private collection of a wide variety of music (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod. germ. mon. 810) was established in Germany around 1460 and contains many songs with no clefs at all. Such notation demands a good knowledge of music of its user. But it also has at least one chanson in fa-clefs, the three-part bergerette “Se je fais duel je n’en ouis mais”, which in the Mellon Chansonnier is ascribed to the French composer Guillaume le Rouge. In the Schedelsches Liederbuch it is not copied as a integral composition because the first part of the song, the refrain, is found on ff. 103v-105, while the short couplets are placed on f. 24v – they appear as two separate compositions.

Guillaume le Rouge, »Se je fais duel je n’en ouis mais« 3v, Schedel no. 89 + 21a , ff. 103v-105+24v: Anonymous, and Mellon Chansonnier no. 31, ff.40v-42: G. le Rouge (published in Perkins 1979). In Schedelsches Liederbuch the refrain only has text incipits (ff. 103v-105), while the couplets have full text. Its version of the music is better than the one in Mellon, which in some passages interchanges the musical lines of Tenor and Contra (bb. 1-12 and 26-41). This blurs the musical structure with two equal voices superius and Tenor and an accompanying Contra in the same range, and makes the performance of its complete text difficult. In both sources all three voices have three flats as signatures: fas1, fas3, fa5 (In Schedelthe flats are placed one step too low in the Contra from the beginning, but are given correctly in the second section). They can be interpreted in combination with several imagined letter clefs: G2 without signature, C2 with one flat, and the obvious C4 with two flats.

By virtue of its restricted range of only 11 notes this charming song can effortlessly be moved between different tessituras, and here the fa-clefs really could be meant to signal indeterminate pitch. In this spirit the transcription linked to above offers the song in a default reading without letter clefs and a tonality based on A, but the users of the Schedelsches Liederbuch as well as of the Mellon Chansonnier would probably prefer a reading with C4 clefs and in G-Dorian (cf. Perkins’ edition).

The Liederbuch contains other pieces with signatures of two or three flats, and in at least two cases it looks like some of the letter clefs have been added as an afterthought. All of them are unique and anonymous three-part compositions, which probably originated as French chansons, all use fifth-fourth formations of fa-signs, and they have a somewhat greater total range (two octaves and a third or fourth) than the songs, which we have been looking at until now, making them less flexible concerning placement of tessitura.

When copying “Tant me desplet” (ff. 70v-71) and “Du desir que tant” (ff. 105v-106) the scribe started without any letter clefs at all, only rather careless fa-clefs, but reaching the Contra voice he wrote a letter clef first to clarify the reading, and he also squeezed in some letter clefs between the flats in the already copied upper voices or in the margins. The Latin (contrafactum) “O florida rosada” (ff. 50v-51) was copied after an exemplar with letter clefs, but the original French song might well have been in fa-clefs as it is quite similar to the others. Tonally they are more varied than the songs in the Pavia chansonnier:

Anonymous (contrafactum), »O florida rosada« 3v (unicum), Schedel no. 42, ff. 50v-51. Full Latin text in superius and tenor. Disposition of clefs and fa-signs: C1, fa2, fa4 / C3, fas2, fas4 (fa4) / C4, fas2, fas4 (fas3). C-Dorian, range: B-flat - d’’

Anonymous, »Tant me desplet« 3v (unicum), Schedel no. 61, ff. 70v-71. Only text incipit in superius, which like Tenor originally was notated without letter clefs. Later a C1 clef and a C4 clef for superius and Tenor were added in the margin. Contra was from the start notated in C4. Fa-signs: fa1, fa2, fas4 (fas0, fa2, fa4) / fas1, fas3, fas5 (fa5) / fas1, fas3, fas5 (fa5)). D-Phrygian, range: B-flat - d’’.

Anonymous, »Du desir que tant« 3v (unicum), Schedel no. 90, ff. 105v-106. Only text incipit in superius, which also is without letter clef, In the tenor a F3 clef was added between the flats. Contra is from the start notated in F4. Fa-signs: fa2, fa3, fa5 / fa1, fas2, fas4 / fa2, fas3. F-Mixolydian, range: F - b’-flat.

Keeping Hartman Schedel’s habit of omitting clefs in mind, it is hard to know how much we can rely on this evidence. But it is quite thought provoking that he realized that precisely these songs needed clefs, when it did not matter in many other cases. The two- or three-flat arrays look difficult, but in reality they convey adequate information for a performance.

Many songs with a multi-flat signature may have started life in a flexible fa-clef notation, which allowed performances on several pitches. For example, the songs just mentioned could all in default readings be performed a tone higher without any flats. In a few cases copying errors seem to indicate that a transformation from one system into another has taken place. See for example the discussion of the anonymous rondeau »La plus mignonne de mon cueur« or Robert Morton’s »Le souvenir de vous me tue« in the Copenhagen and Dijon chansonniers (see also ‘A note on the motet “Beata dei genitrix”’)

Another interpretation, which we have to take in account, could be that in some circles during a period around 1450 it might be regarded as sufficient to notate the multi-flat signatures for pieces in for example C-Dorian; the letter clefs were obvious and superfluous. All the pieces under discussion are French, and the sources in which the letter clefs are added to clarify the music (Pavia 362 and Schedelsches Liederbuch) are Italian and German. But this, on the other hand, does not exclude that an element of pitch indeterminateness still was at work, even if music scribes later when the notation was on its way to oblivion made short work of this element.

The theories of pitch indeterminateness cited at the start of this article still hold true, but the investigation has shown that the situation turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. In addition to allowing performances of indeterminate pitch as such the fa-clefs may have had additional functions as means

1) to indicate alternative performing pitches a fifth apart by exchanging sets of (imagined) letter clefs,

2) to allow the notation of songs, which needed a signature of one sharp in the uppermost voice (limited to formations of fifths only),

3) to make shorthand notation for letter clefs in compositions with two- or three-flat signatures (limited to formations of fifths and fourths). (top)

Ockeghem’s »Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux«

While it is quite possible that the common music scribe’s knowledge of the meaning and advantages of the fa-clef notation was waning around the middle of the 15th century, Johannes Ockeghem (c. 1420-1497), the leading musician in the chapel of four French kings, certainly knew all its secrets, and he was the first to see and hear its full potential. Of course he was well versed in the music of his friend, the older master Binchois, on whose death he wrote the lament “Mort, tu as navré” (see latest Fitch 2001), and at Tours he lived with the music of Barbingant and Guillaume le Rouge, a singer in the ducal chapel in nearby Orléans during the years 1451-1465.

With »Prenez sur moi vostre exemple amoureux« he reduced the concept of fa-clefs to essentials and used it to develop or signal a new technique of diatonic canon and imitation, which here is presented emblematic in its stacked canon at the fourth and at the seventh. Canonic imitation was in the middle of the 15th century and earlier always exact or strict and restricted to the intervals of unison and octave, and fifth and fourth. Diatonic imitation, which Ockeghem unfolded in large dimensions in Missa Prolationum, reproduces the number value of an interval exactly, while its quality might change (for example minor third changed to major third or vice versa). This method of imitation soon became very common as it is easier to incorporate in harmony, and it was decisive for the development of the imitative style (cf. Urquhart 1997, pp. 76-79, and Urquhart 1996).

The canon is notated as one single voice part with a famous enigmatic array of flats and sharps (see Example 9). With a knowledge of the fa-clefs the enigma is easily solved when the signs is read as clefs two at a time: The first two flats a fifth apart designate c’ and f, and the first note is a; the next two, a flat and a mi-sign, are f’ and b-quadratum, and the second voice starts on d’; and the last two mi-signs have to be b’-quadratum and e’ with the last voice starting on g’ (see the edition). Hereafter the canon unfolds without any signatures, with the voices in three different intervallic realisations, and at a pitch convenient to the performers.

Example 9:
Copenhagen f. 39v


Example 10:
Alternative incipits


Ockeghem’s indubitable expertise in fa-clefs and the whole theoretical system surrounding them may have inspired the idea itself of the fourth-seventh in combination with the poem’s words. The point is that in a fifth-fourth formation of fa-signs moving one of the signs framing the fifth creates an automatic transposition of the following musical notation. The mechanics are drawn up in Example 10:The basic fifth c’-f defines the note a. If the lower flat is moved one step up, the signs become f’-c’, and the written note is now d’. Moving also the upper sign creates a new fifth c’’-f’ and the pitch g’. Instead of moving the fa-signs Ockeghem just replaced them with the sign for the lower note of the hexachordal semitone, the mi-sign, and in this way he was able to create a very elegant solution by retaining the signs on the same lines, and it confounded theoreticians for centuries. (top)

Josquin remembering Ockeghem

Composers one or two generations younger than Ockeghem had not completely forgotten the intricacies of fa-clef notation. Josquin Desprez (c. 1455-1521) raised a monument for the deceased master in his setting of Jean Molinet’s lament “Nimphes des bois, déesses des fontaines” combined with the Latin introit “Requiem eternam” for five voices. In the Italian MS of 1518, the so-called Codex Medici, Florence, Bibl. Medicea Laurenziana, Ms. Acquisti e doni 666, the song appears on ff. 125v-127 in fa-clefs, and it is copied entirely in black notes. Petrucci had printed it in Motetti a cinque libro primo (Venice 1508) as a motet with only the Latin textincipit “Requiem” and transposed into letter clefs. Without doubt the version of the Medici Codex is the original.

By using a nearly obsolete pitch notation Josquin honours Ockeghem – and puts his own knowledge of music’s history on display. His fa-clefs are simple to read (see Example 11), only a canon prescription in the tenor creates a bit of mystery. Read in the same way as Ockeghem used them in “Prenez sur moi” the flats designate the following pitches: superius c’’-f’, altus f’-f, quinta vox f, tenor f, and bassus f-F, and the music sounds without signatures in E-Phrygian within the range E-d’. (1) Petrucci’s reading with letter clefs sounds a fourth higher with a flat in every voice (clefs: G2, C2, C3, C2, F4).

Example 11:
Josquin Desprez, “Nimphes des bois / Requiescant”,
Codex Medici, ff. 125v-127, incipits


The canon in the tenor is rather deceptive. It says “Canon. Pour eviter noyse et debat / Prenez ung demy ton plus bas” (To avoid noise and quarrel, take it a semitone lower), but the voice-part is correctly notated on the staff, only the fa-sign has to be moved up on the line above, or Josquin could – like Ockeghem – have replaced it by a mi-sign. (2) The point is that the cantus firmus tune, the well-known introit for the Mass of the Dead, by this canonic operation changes its intervallic content, the Hypolydian tune is transformed into Phrygian by moving the fa-sign. This if anything is a reference to “Prenez sur moi vostre example” – respectful and possibly with a playful twist!

PWCH May 2010, revised 2023

1) See further Jaap van Benthem, ‘La magie des cris trenchanz : Comment le vray trésorier de musique échappe à la trappe du très terrible satrappe’ in Anne-Emmanuelle Ceulemans & Bonnie J. Blackburn (eds.), Théorie et analyse musicales 1450-1650. Actes du colloque international Louvain-la-Neuve, 23-25 septembre 1999. Louvain-la-Neuve 2001, pp. 119-147 (including an edition of the chanson based on the fa-clefs).

2) How difficult this ‘Canon’ can be to handle in letter notation is demonstrated by E.E. Lowinsky in his comments on the song in The Medici Codex of 1518 (Lowinsky 1968), Vol. I, p. 215. For further possible repercussions of the fa-clef notation in the music of Josquin and others, see Urquhart 2004.