article 10:   Adrian Willaert’s Chromatic Latin Part-song Quid non ebrietas

(with sound clip)

There is a 16th-century report about an unknown composer from Flanders by the name of Adrian Willaert, who appeared one day in the year 1519 at the Sistine Chapel in Rome and found the singers up on the little balcony, rehearsing a motet of his. They were somehow under the impression that it was by the most famous composer of the epoch, Josquin Desprez. When the young man, who had come looking for a job, modestly claimed the work as his own, interest suddenly faded.

Willaert, who later became maestro di cappella at St. Mark’s and the most influential composer-teacher of his generation, went home and produced another piece for the snobs in the space where Michelangelo had recently finished painting the ceiling. The text of the four-voice song was from the 5th Epistle of Horace, praising inebriation as a source of inspiration. We do not know if the members of the Sistine cappella were drunk when Willaert visited, or whether he was recommending that they imbibe before trying to sing his new piece. In any case, they couldn’t manage to get it right, so the story goes, because Willaert had inserted a notational trick into the tenor voice, which made it appear to end the work on a dissonant interval, and took the whole thing through impossible keys.

Renaissance Humanism not only rediscovered the learning of antiquity, but its controversies as well, and gleefully carried them on. Quid non ebrietas became a subject of widespread polemics. The great Venetian harpsichordist Marc’antonio Cavazzoni got ahold of it (probably directly from his friend Willaert), deciphered it, and sent it to some theorists, who either approved of the joke, or scolded the composer for using “incorrect" micro-intervals, and Cavazzoni for daring to spread such nonsense abroad. Quid therefore holds an important place in the history of chromaticism in general, and more particularly, of those tiny adjustments to the tuning of keyboard instruments called “temperament”, which are necessary to reconcile nature’s pure intervals with a system of twelve keys to the octave.

At some point in the 16th century, only the soprano and tenor got passed along for discussion, and the idea took hold that it was a “Chromatic Duo”. It went through centuries of music history as such, before fading into obscurity. The discussion of the “Duo” was revived in 1938 by Joseph Levitan, who deciphered the tenor voice correctly, but failed to see that there had to be voices missing. Then in 1957, the German-American scholar Edward Lowinsky took a cue from Alfred Einstein and looked up the alto part-book in Bologna, the only one still extant from the publication of Quid around 1530. He found that it fit the soprano and tenor. The bass, however, was still missing, and Lowinsky offered a reconstruction in his outstanding article (Tijdschrift der Vereeniging voor Noord-Nederlands Muziekgeschiedenis, Deel 18, 1ste Stuk (1956), pp. 1-36). He rather too optimistically proclaimed it to be at least harmonically definitive under the strict laws of counterpoint (much as he declared his ofttimes bizarre views on the vexed question of music ficta to be error-free). As strictly as the laws of counterpoint were enforced by WiIlaert and his contemporaries, there are nevertheless a plethora of other possibilities for the missing bass line. In this recording I offer my own best guess - and that is all it is.

Here is the text, in the 1926 translation by wonderfully-named H. Rushton Fairclough: "What a miracle cannot the wine-cup work? It unlocks secrets, bids hopes to be fulfilled, thrusts the coward into the field, the load from anxious hearts, teaches new arts. The flowing bowl — whom has it not made eloquent?” The most difficult modulations come just where one would expect, at “thrusts the coward into the field”, and more sweetly, at “anxious hearts”. And at the word “eloquent" there are three quarter notes in the soprano against two in the alto. I have given the bass eighth notes, just to add to the fun. That would not have been a problem for singers with their separate lines, but the great theoretician Pietro Aron is mentioned at the time as having played the piece on his more or less equally-tempered harpsichord, and I like to imagine him (and Cavazzoni) wrestling with that particular bar. They, and others, would have put the piece into either open score, or two-staff keyboard score. I found open score too hard, because of the voice crossings and close harmony typical of Willaert’s early style, and took refuge in an intabulation on two staves. I would be happy to send a scan to anyone interested.

Glen Wilson

click to listen (wav file)

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