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Book Review

The Notation of Medieval Music

Notation of Medieval Music by Parrish

The Development of Musical Notation
from the Ninth to the Fifteenth Century

Carl Parrish
New York: Pendragon Press. 1978. xx + 230.
ISBN-10: 1576471756
ISBN-13: 978-1-57647-175-3
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The Notation of Medieval Music is a specialist title, to be sure. It is a superb (and still standard) survey of the systems of musical notation which obtained from the late ninth century through to the early fifteenth century. Systems: not only were there many and developing ways of recording music over time; but practices also differed regionally. An understanding of the way music in which was written down (when it was) materially informs listeners of many aspects of the music itself, including its transmission, performance, composition, the styles of its composers, and even its reception by contemporaries.

For those reasons alone, The Notation of Medieval Music is an extremely useful and informative source for all but the most casual listeners to such music. It's a volume in the Pendragon Distinguished Reprints series. Parrish's text first appeared in the late 1950s as an imprint from W.W. Norton. Even the present version first appeared in 1978 and was edited by James McKinnon, although what's under consideration here is a modern volume (issued in 2009), which also reflects the corrections indicated by Parrish himself before the first edition went out of print. So it's important to be clear that the subject matter in The Notation of Medieval Music is restricted to what was known 50 years ago; and there has, of course, been much scholarship in the intervening years.

Nevertheless, the thoroughness and comprehensiveness of Parrish's research and presentation still have a place. And a place that extends well beyond the snapshot of what was known half a century ago about medieval notation which the book clearly also represents: The Notation of Medieval Music is based largely on the meticulous examination of over 60 medieval manuscripts, which have not themselves changed and can still be claimed to be representative of the corpus as whole. These are reproduced as monochrome plates (actually with a mid-gray background – yet quite legible) in the middle of the book.

Two books that could be used to supplement The Notation of Medieval Music are Willi Apel's Gregorian Chant (Indiana University Press, ISBN-10: 0253206014, ISBN-13: 978-0253206015) and Notation of Polyphonic Music 900-1600 (Mediaeval Academy of America); although these are also a generation or two old. There are no other books outside the specialist monographs covering the area. So it's as well that Parrish's text is as good as it is.

And indeed it is a good book: it has the merits of thoroughness and a near-exhaustive treatment of the issues of music notation for the period to the 1400s given its length (200 substantive pages) and intended audience. Parrish's style and tone suit the non-specialist reader well. It's an easy and flowing narrative that's not packed with superfluous devices or verbiage. Interspersed in the text are tables, figures and quotes as well as quotation extracts additional to the aforementioned facsimiles (which are referenced as the text progresses) and enough white space to make the book more than accessible. For anyone new to the subject there is sufficient introductory background to make it approachable; for a specialist player plenty that is still illuminating. A basic understanding of the concepts of staff and notes is, of course, a prerequisite.

The Notation of Medieval Music is organized into eight major sections. On Gregorian, Secular Monophonic, Early Polyphonic, Modal, Franconian, French Ars Nova, Italian Ars Nova notations; and the special cases of Keyboard and Proportional notation at the end (Chapter 8); and a short appendix on music ficta. These chapters range in length from 13 to 38 pages, each further broken down into from a couple to ten linked and inter-related topics. Although the treatment of medieval notation nowadays might not be quite so tightly partitioned chronologically, Parrish's approach does make finding your way around what can be an intimidating (because technically dense) subject easy. His lucid expositions consistently unfold and gloss the technicalities – though most of the examples do need to be followed closely to get the best from the book.

In each chapter Parrish deals with the manuscripts themselves as starting points to examine how they work as musical notation per se. But also to expand outwards and examine the underlying principles with close reference to contemporary theoretical texts, where these are extant. He also takes problem parts and manuscripts and attempts to cover and resolve them where this is possible. Lastly, Parrish suggests how the originals could be transcribed into modern notation.

One of the strengths of The Notation of Medieval Music is the extent to which Parrish has avoided the twin pitfalls of over-simplification on the one hand; and of allowing the complexities and intricacies of the area to confuse the reader on the other. In the case of the latter, Parrish satisfies himself with allusions and references, all (implicitly or explicitly) inviting further exploration. This is a satisfactory approach. It has the effect of encouraging the reader to feel equipped to apply what they have understood from one context in an analogous one. This even means that if you have successfully followed Parrish's working of transcription examples from the period to which he restricts himself here, you ought to be able to do the same with Renaissance scores, which are otherwise outside the chronological scope of the book. This does not apply, of course, to the tablature system which was developed in the Renaissance – although the last chapter does discuss organ tablature and so provide some pointers in that direction as well.

The bibliography (which occupies four pages), and to some extent the abbreviations, are not so out of date as you might imagine: many primary sources are referenced. Also supplemental to the book's main text are a dozen pages of translations into modern English of the all the substantive texts used throughout. This is typical of the high standard of construction for which Parrish's work (he died in 1965) can rightly still take credit.

At around $30 this book represents good value for money, would serve as a suitable introduction and specialist text for listener and aficionado of medieval music alike. Although sooner or later a new study is sure to appear making use of later scholarship and research, The Notation of Medieval Music remains a key work with a great deal to offer.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Sealey