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Research in Music Series: A Talk by Megan Kaes-Long (Oberlin)

Megan Kaes-Long (Oberlin)

The Mensural Ambivalence of Repeat Signs in Early Music

Free & open to the public, Fine Arts Center Room 365 (up the long ramp from N. Pleasant St. and make a right down the hall)

Ms. Kaes-Long writes about her topic:
Repetition is both a formal parameter and an aspect of performance practice. Sixteenth-century notation provides an incomplete picture of how formal repetition was understood in practice. Often, when repeat signs are taken literally they displace the repeated section by a minim relative to the semibreve tactus (yielding a two-beat displacement dissonance relative to the four-beat grouping). Such displacement suggests that either regularity on the semibreve level was not important to composers, or singers were expected to correct the irregularity in performance.

Ruth DeFord identifies what I have called the minim-displacement phenomenon in the mid-sixteenth century villanella and argues that offset indicates that the minim is the most important governing mensural level in light songs (rather than larger levels typical of more serious styles). Indeed, DeFord treats the limited mensural hierarchy as a defining aspect of these light genres. By contrast, Balletti and Canzonette (ca. 1585–1610)—direct descendants of the villanella—demonstrate a greater concern for regularity on the semibreve level. The rarity of minim offset in written-out repeats suggests that offset is a deliberate intervention against mensural norms. Thomas Morley indicates that performers could extend the final note before a repeat to maintain mensural alignment; the repertoire of balletti and canzonette bears out this assertion.

The different evidence for minim displacement in the midcentury villanella and the late sixteenth-century balletto and canzonetta reflects changing mensural priorities. Repeat signs suggest that composers and performers increasingly prioritized a larger mensural grid, a practice that we associate with later metrical styles.