Rhythms in early music
The rhythms of early music include a few piquant features that are sometimes unexpected. Perhaps it will all be obvious to you – but I had to discover all these!
If you're very much a newcomer to all this stuff, you might find the 'intro to rhythms' page will help to get started.
Three weak beats
Again and again in renaissance music you find the sequence of 3 crotchets leading to a long note. Usually you can regard the crotchets as 3 upbeats; i.e. not weak-strong-weak-strong but weak-weak-weak-strong. When I first met this I used to think it was weak-strong-weak-strong and so I played oom-PA-oom-PA but when I was told to play it oom-oom-oom-PA, growing towards the PA, it sounded much better.
Crecquillon, chanson 'Du cueur le don' tenor 2 bars 6-12 (from CPDL)
better image needed
Not having barlines meant that composers could start a motif on a 'weak' beat for one appearance and a 'strong' beat for its next appearance, or vice versa, without any fuss; presumably performers placed the accents where they thought appropriate, whereas modern performers would expect the down beat (the first beat of the bar) to be a strong beat unless specially marked. Remember that the renaissance edition had no bars – and therefore no down beat! The example shows the same rhythmic motif appearing on both strong and weak beats; where it overlaps the barline it looks rather different, but the performer has to spot that it's still the same motif and stress it in the same way each time.
Another effect of adding barlines where there were none - occasional bars of wrong length, 6 beats or 2 in a quadruple section - no change of speed, just carry on counting or stop counting too soon, as appropriate.
Opening of Janne moye by Lupus Helline. London Pro Musica, '5 Dutch Chansons'.
Quite often each voice will be moving independently of the others, weaving a lovely rich tapestry of sound – and making it quite tricky to keep your place. In the example, the outer voices move together in the first bar shown while the middle voice moves across them. The cross rhythms can get really tricky but hang in there, the result is worth it.
I find it sometimes helps to imagine 'adding' what the different parts do. In the diagram, more here ....
The Attaignant example shows fairly typical cross-rhythms. In the bars just before, the three voices move together, and then the composer suddenly changes the texture by introducing cross-rhythms. A very effective idea.
Fitting rhythms together
Attaignant, 'Dolent depart', bars 8-10. From 'Trente et un chansons', London Pro Musica edn. LPM ????
During the renaissance the galliard dance was very popular with both dancers and composers, and is noted for a striking feature. The galliard dance has 6 steps to the phrase, so the galliard is written down in with 6 beats to the bar, mostly grouped in two threes ("pussycat, pussycat" or Oom-pa-pa Oom-pa-pa) ..... but occasionally the dancers like to switch and divide the 6 beats into three twos ("mirror, mirror, mirror" or Oom-pa Oom-pa Oom-pa). Composers liked that too and so they occasionally put a bit of it into the music.
In the example (which by the way starts with three weak beats, like most galliards – see above) the bass line has this pattern, called a hemiola, just before the cadence. Although that is the most common way to use the hemiola effect, some more daring composers made use of it in other contexts. example to come - Dowland?
The Marie-Golde, by Anthony Holborne, bars 1-8, outer-lines only shown. From IMSLP
At certain periods composers liked gliding between duple time (in twos or fours) and triple time (in threes, like a waltz). Quite often a sequence of minim-crotchet pairs can be treated as triple time, if the player feels like it. Unfortunately the sequence can easily be hidden by modern barring conventions, so you have to keep an eye out.
Also, the infamous 36/24 time ;-) where all parts are pretty well equally split between compound duple and triple, switching between the two, and never at the same time as each other. Fairy Rounde for example. Helpful to be able to switch between counting 2 and 3, because counting 6 at speed does your head in. Example to come!
Hidden switch from twos to threes
Mico, Fantasia for four viols number 2, alto part bars 1-12 (from IMSLP). Brackets show a possible triple time sequence that the player could choose to bring out. Modern barring disguises the minim-crotchet-minim-crotchet pattern.
During the renaissance you occasionally find – at least in certain types of music, such as the canzona and the madrigal – a section of explicit three-time in a duple-time piece, and usually the editors suggest that the three-time part should go quite a bit faster, with one bar of the three-time equal to half a bar of the duple time. That takes a bit of practice. Getting out of the tripla and back to the duple, I for one am usually at a loss as to the original speed.
Editors sometimes expect you to count the tripla section in semibreves, rather than minims, so it looks very white indeed, and the semibreves whip past much faster than you expect.
Gabrieli, Canzon Terza, ed. Allen Garvin, canto part (from IMSLP). Notice that the tripla section is essentially a galliard, complete with a hemiola-type switch between 3/2 (bars 6 and 7) and 6/4 (bar 8). Exhilarating when you can bring it off.
John Farmer, 'Fair Phyllis I saw', from Oxford Book of English Madrigals.