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Current Musicology 2011-12

Paper: Music, love, sex, birds and a cardinal

Geert Jan Kroon 3426475




The approach of Elizabeth Eva Leach


Motets, love, sex, birds and a cardinal


The sexual and devotional nightingale







The goal of this paper is to provide an overview of the current state of medieval

musicology. My interests lie with the work of Elizabeth Eva Leach and therefore I will be

focusing on two of her publications, one about birds in medieval song 1 and the other about

Leach’s feminization of the semitone. 2 In my opinion it is not very satisfactory to only look

at the current state of medieval musicology by looking at other scholars, but also at their

relation to my own work. In my view my research is also part of current musicology. I also

believe that every assignment should fuel my own interests and research. For these reasons I

will incorporate my own research as part of this assignment.

I like Leach’s approach of embedding her work in medieval thinking and interpreting

it with concepts like gender or birds. After she establishes a theory she starts to analyse music

with it. However, she also uses musical examples to redefine and improve these theories. I

like to think that this is the hermeneutic circle at work. This paper explores this approach and

asks the question if Leach’s work is useful for my own research.

First I will introduce Elizabeth Eva Leach and her book Sung Birds and article

“Gendering the semitone, Sexing the Leading tone”. According to me these publications are

two good examples of her work. Following, I will briefly introduce my own research and

some new hypotheses I have. Finally, I will focus on the concept of the nightingale developed

by Leach in Sung Birds and try to apply this to the triplum of Mo-M312 (The motet Au tans

nouvel que naissent flour/Chele m’a tollu ma joie/J’ai fait tout nouveletement from the eight

fascicle of the Montpellier Codex 3 ).

1 Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds : Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

2 Elizabeth Eva Leach, "Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the Leading Tone: Fourteenth-Century Music Theory and the Directed Progression," Music Theory Spectrum 28, no. 1 (2006), 1-21.

3 Mo f. 359, VIII, 312.

The approach of Elizabeth Eva Leach

Leach is Professor of Music at the University of Oxford. She describes herself as

“music theorist and musicologist, with wide-ranging interests in everything from the minutiae

of musical structures and manuscripts to the broadest cultural, historical, and philosophical

contexts for music”. 4 Her main focus is on music and poetry of the fourteenth century.

The following publications are taken from a long list produced by Leach. I am going to

use the top two publications and the last is a recent book by Leach about Machaut.

- Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle

Ages. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).

- Elizabeth Eva Leach, “Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the Leading Tone: Fourteenth-

Century Music Theory and the Directed Progression,” Music Theory Spectrum 28

(2006): 1-21.

- Elizabeth Eva Leach, Guillaume de Machaut: Secretary, Poet, Musician (Ithaca:

Cornell University Press, 2011).

Leach describes on her website that Sung Birds “deals with the ontology and ethics of musical

sound through the lens of the earliest composed pieces that imitate birdsong”. 5 The chapter on

sirens in Sung Birds led to the article “Gendering the semitone”, which won the Outstanding

Publication Award of the Society for Music Theory 2007 and started a heavy debate with

Sarah Fuller, which I will discuss later.

In her latest book on Machaut Leach tries to combine several aspects of Machaut. The

dismembered Machaut, who is sometimes a secretary, sometimes a poet, and sometimes a

musician, is put back together by Leach to make a total Machaut. Although, we could ask

4 Elizabeth Eva Leach, "About Me," http://eeleach.wordpress.com/about-me/ (accessed october, 24, 2011). 5 Ibid.

ourselves if a separation between the poet and musician is even legitimized. In addition to the

two publications discussed here I would recommend this book as a fine example of current

work in the field of medieval musicology. However my interest lies not in Machaut, therefore

I will not discuss it.

What strikes me is that Leach’s work is a combination of music and medieval

thinking, writing and theory. She interprets the work medieval thinkers and theorists to show

how medieval thinking was formed and the impact it had on music. I my view her approach is

one of trying to construct a framework in which we can try to understand music as people

from medieval times would have understood it. However after an encounter with Leech-

Wilkinson 6 , I should ask myself if this approach is in any way a better approach than any

other. Actually, I can only say that her approach is very useful for me and that is the only

argument I need.

6 Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002).


Sung Birds is the first publication I will examine. I will focus on the first chapter of

this book, because this is the part where she forms her theory. I will also discuss one example

where she looks at a virelai. Following I will discuss “Gendering the Semitone” by looking at

the discussion it sparked between Leach and Sarah Fuller.

Sung Birds

The first sentence of Leach’s book is: “Is birdsong music?” The second sentence is the

answer: no. Through the perspective of birds and how they were performed in music Leach

tries to show what music was in the Middle Ages.

Following, Leach explains the medieval conception of music as a rational thing, which

is totally different from our current view of music as emotional or aesthetic. Of course I could

argue that the production of current music could be seen as a rational act, but listening is

mostly not. Even if listening could be seen as a rational act, Leach shows that in the Middle

Ages sound is only music when it is “both produced and received by an intellectually engaged

rational animal” 7 . In this context the beautiful sound of a bird is never music, because a bird is

not a rational being. Leach illustrates this with an example from Augustine’s De Musica, were

Augustine shows that a nightingale “does not understand the liberal art of music” 8 , thus

making it incapable of producing music.

In the first chapter Leach claims that musica – the medieval concept – is actually

broader than our definition of music. She tries to prove this by looking at music treatises and

asserts that music is in fact much more then sounding music in performance, because there are

also political, ethical and mathematical discourses that should be considered. As an example

7 Leach, Sung Birds : Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages 8 Ibid.

Leach uses Boethius – using his De institutione musica – who divides music into three

species: musica mundane, musica humana and musica instrumentalis. Only the latter is

something we would define as music, but when Boethius gives his extended discussion about

musica instrumentalis he writes about harmonics. Or, to quote Leach, “this study of

harmonics is a study of musica instrumentalis9 .

The Boethius example is, for me, a good argument for thinking about music through a

medieval conception of music, because Leach clearly shows that ratio, mathematics and

number are certainly a bigger part of music in the Middle Ages than they are now. Leach also

states that it is self-evident (or axiomatic) that “theoretical writings that consider music are

part of a spectrum of information about the cultural status of music of this period”. 10 I think in

this quote she explains and justifies her way of working.

Chapter one continues with examples of how grammar and music are linked and how

vox (voice) has been theorized and divided. In essence Leach gives an overview of how music

was perceived as a rational thing in the Middle Ages and illustrates this with examples of

theoretical writings. To me this chapter is the most useful part of the book for medieval

musicologists. Leach explains and justifies her approach and gives a clear example of how the

conception of music in the Middle Ages influences her work. However, in the second chapter

Leach is comparing birdsong and human singing and her exposition about the nightingale is

very useful to my own research and I will explain this later.

All the above mentioned parts of the book do not relate to musical examples.

However, in her third chapter “Birds Sung” Leach interprets several medieval songs with

birdsong as a feature. Senleches’s En ce gracieux is a virelai that is used as an example. A

narrator imitates a nightingale and a cuckoo in this song. The fact that the imitation of the

9 Ibid. 10 Ibid., 14

nightingale “has displacement syncopations” 11 and a downward melodic sequence leads

Leach to believe that the narrator – and in her view also the author – finds the singing of the

nightingale pleasing in opposition to the monotonous song of the cuckoo, which is

represented by a simple repetition. With the medieval discourse around nightingales and

cuckoos in mind Leach interprets text, melody, rhythm, counterpoint and other aspects of

music in detail to explain what is happening. This kind of analysis – a very narrow one and

based in medieval thinking – yields the most interesting results, according to me, although it

is never based on solid evidence. In the end every interpretation Leach makes could be wrong.

Gendering the semitone

I will be showing Leach’s methodology in “Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the

Leading Tone” and its shortcomings by looking at the reaction to this article by Sarah Fuller,

Leach’s reaction to Fuller, and the much shorter letter by Fuller in the music theory spectrum

volume 33 (Fall) from 2011.

Leach’s method in “Gendering the Semitone” is one of interpreting medieval texts

about music using the concept of gender. Sarah Fuller presented some strong reactions to this

article in an article of her own. 12 She shows that Leach’s claim that the semitone is gendered

feminine is based on a small number of music treatises within a larger body of treatises. Fuller

asserts that the fact that most treatises do not use the exemplum of the men of Phrygia or other

feminine examples does not make the idea that the semitone could be gendered as feminine

commonplace. 13 In my view Fuller has a point: maybe the feminine semitone was not

commonplace in the Middle Ages. However, the absence of a gendered context does not make

11 Ibid., 125-7

12 Sarah Fuller, "Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone 'Gendered Feminine?'," Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (2011), 65-89.

13 Ibid., 68

it untrue either. Leach reacts by stating that she is interpreting the, indeed commonplace,

notion of the semitone as imperfect as feminine. 14 A rather small, but crucial difference.

The second argument against the feminization of the semitone by Fuller is asserting

that several theorists have described the use of semitone as positive, sweet and beautiful and

therefore the negative connotation of feminine is out of the question. 15 According to me this is

a really bad argument, because Leach never claims that feminine is a negative category. A

directed progression, with its semitones, is interpreted as feminine, desiring or sensual by

Leach, but to me these categories are not negative. Fuller’s claim that when “Marchetto of

Padua speaks of ‘elegance and beauty’ when a lightly inflected imperfect consonance …

approaches a subsequent … consonance by the smallest possible distance” 16 – a directed

progression – poses a challenge to Leach’s interpretation, holds no grounds for me. Leach

asserts that “Fuller’s citations on this point serve to strengthen the reading of the semitone as

feminine, since the positive characteristics are all those that are part and parcel of feminine

gendering in the Middle Ages. Women are beautiful, colored, about surface, necessary,

imperfect.” 17 It seems Fuller’s attack is towards an anachronistic use of gender by Leach

(gender is part of our current mind set), but in her attack she is using her own mind set –

feminine is negative – in an anachronistic manner.

Another point made by Fuller in her latest letter is: “Progressions from imperfect to

perfect consonance are commonplace in both sacred and secular music of that [the fourteenth]

century and occur in a variety of textual contexts in which an erotic signification would be

14 Elizabeth Eva Leach, "Reading and Theorizing Medieval Music Theory: Interpretation and its Contexts," Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (2011), 90.

15 Fuller, Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone "Gendered Feminine?",


16 Ibid., 77

17 Leach, Reading and Theorizing Medieval Music Theory: Interpretation and its Contexts, 93

unlikely or inappropriate.” 18 Here Fuller claims that an erotic signification in a religious

context would be out of the question in the Middle Ages. To me this is also an anachronism.

The fact that church and sexual context do not mix in our time, does not mean it did in the

Middle Ages. If anything is clear about the Middle Ages it is that most symbols are

ambiguous. The symbol of desire (directed progression) can also be interpreted in a

devotional way as the desire for God. In my view Leach is open to this ambiguity, but Fuller

is not.

What I can learn from this rather broad discussion between Leach and Fuller, besides

the fact that this debate is fiercely fought, is firstly that as a scholar you should always be

clear that you are making an interpretation. Secondly, an interpretation should not be

generalised. Leach uses a small amount of sources to make a point about medieval music in

general, which is, in my and Fuller’s view, wrong. However, using this concept of the

semitone as feminine in musical analysis delivers fruitful results. It is this usefulness of

Leach’s research that makes it valuable for me. Finally, it becomes clear that scholars should

never dismiss interpretations on the basis of their own beliefs. Falsification should be based

on the context in which a theory is formed.

18 Sarah Fuller, "To the Editor: A Brief Response to Elizabeth Eva Leach's 'Reading and Theorizing Medieval Music Theory: Interpretation and its Contexts'," Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 2 (2011), 231.

Motets, love, sex, birds and a cardinal

After an analysis of the motet La mesnie fauveline/J’ai fait tout nouveletement/Grant

despit from the Roman de Fauvel I continued my research with an analysis of a motet from

the Montpellier Codex, Au tans nouvel temps/Chele ma tollu/J’ai fait tout nouveletement (Mo-

M312), textually connected to the Fauvel motet. The triplum of the latter motet is about two

nightingales. Therefore I would like to look at the triplum and use some of Leach’s ideas to

make some new interpretations.


The triplum of Mo-M312 tells the story of how the writer/singer saw two nightingales.

The male bird wants to make love, but the female bird wants none of it. The female bird says

that word goes round that he will “let off singing” (‘let off’ as in ‘leave off’ or he ‘will’ sing.

The French supports the latter). The male bird is offended and says that he only will sing

more gaily, but when they have children he will leave of singing and in silence cry. 19 This can

be interpreted as the – still current – discussion between young people, who want to make

love but are afraid of the consequences. 20

19 Here I deviated from the translation that I found in Tischler, The Montpellier Codex 4, 106-7. The translation I found is “I leave off singing and whistling henceforth, cry.” Upon examining the French I came up with the translation “I leave off singing and henceforth, whistling (in silence) cry.” 20 “Singing” is interpreted as ejaculation, as it does in the Dutch expression: to leave church before singing, which is a metaphor for Coitus interruptus.

1 Au tans nouvel, que naissent flours,

In springtime, when the flowers sprout and lovers are light hearted from the mild clime and their loves, then one day at dawn I arose;

2 Qu’amant ont les cuers eslevés

3 Du dous tans de leurs amours,

4 Lors que petit paroit li jours

5 Me sui par un matin levés;

6 Si entrai en un bosquet


went out into the woods

7 Et vi le roussignolet

and saw the nightingale and his mate on a branche, side by side; he wanted to make love to her, but she hit him with het winglet and said: “Get away! Everyone says that you will let off singing.”

8 Et da femelete

9 Seur une brancete,

10 Lés á lés;

11 Il voloit joïr de li,

12 Et ele de s’elete Le feri

13 Et li dist: “Fuiés!

14 Vo chant en lairiés,

15 Ce dist on communement.”

16 Il respondi simplement,

He answered straightforwardly, as one fearful and hurt:

17 Comme cremans et blesciés:

18 “Bele, que nus en die,

“Fair one, whatever anyone may say, truth is not to be found in statements such as these; rather will I sing more gaily. But truly, as soon as we have little birds,

19 La verité ne set mie,

20 Qui ensie l’entent,

21 Ains en chant plus gaiement;

22 Mais vraiement,

23 Loes qu’avons oiselons,

24 Lai mes chansons,


leave off singing

25 Et puis en avant,

and henceforth, in whistling(silence) cry. All lovers who value their honour sing nobly.”

26 En siflant plour.

27 Cantent gent

28 Tout amant

29 Qui aiment leur honour.”

Table 1Text of the triplum of Mo-M312


A question always in the back of my mind was: how did the

author(s)/composer(s)/poet(s) of the Fauvel motet know about the tenor of Mo-M312? 21

Maybe they did not know it at all through this source or maybe they had access to the

manuscript? In a footnote I found a lead towards the owner or sponsor of the Montpellier


21 The possibility of it being a refrain is not considered here, but that could also be a viable option.

“The statement of ownership names 'Johannis Cardinalis dicti Cholet' (quoted in A.

Barzon, Codici miniati, Biblioteca capitolare della Cattedrale di Padova (Padua, 1950), p. 13).

S. J. P. Van Dijk and J. H. Walker (The Origins of the Modern Roman Liturgy (Westminster,

MD, and London, 1960), p. 404) assume that Cholet had the missal together with a matching

epistolary (Padua, Biblioteca Capitolare, C. 47) and evangeliary (now lost) made for him

while he was a papal legate in France, beginning 1283. Branner (p. 132) also supposes the

books were made for Cholet, but not necessarily while he was cardinal.” 22

The last source, Branner, asserts that the manuscript was signed by the Cholet group who

worked under order of Cardinal Jean Cholet 23 . I still have to consult the other sources, but

based on Wolinksy’s article I am under the impression that the book could have been ordered

by or possessed by Cardinal Jean Cholet.

A preliminary search, with nothing more than Wikipedia, shows that there is a

possible link between Cholet and Charles Valois, because Cholet accompanied Valois in 1285

on a crusade and pronounced him king, which supposedly gave him the nickname “king of the

hat”. Furthermore, it is said that Cholet left a considerably amount of money to Valois’ war

chest. Another source states that Cholet was in fact friends with Philip III and Philip IV of

France, the latter being the brother of Valois and the former being his father. 24 These possible

connections could mean that the Montpellier Codex and the Roman de Fauvel have been

located in the court of Paris around the same time or the were used in the same circles.

Because of this possible connection to a cardinal I want to take another look at the

Mo-M312 motet and also make a reading with a devotional perspective The fact that the

22 Mary E. Wolinski, "The Compilation of the Montpellier Codex," EMH Early Music History 11 (1992), 276.

23 Robert Branner, Manuscript Painting in Paris during the Reign of Saint Louis : A Study of Styles (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1977), 132.

24 Salvador Miranda, "The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church," http://www2.fiu.edu/~mirandas/bios1281.htm (accessed november 3, 2011).

Montpellier Codex could be made for a religious audience opens up this devotional space for

interpretation, according to me. Even if it was not made for a cardinal another interpretation

can yield new results and insights. I will pursue this by looking at the triplum of the Mo-

M312 and using the nightingale concept by Leach, which can be both explained in a secular

sense and a devotional sense.

The sexual and devotional nightingale

Leach shows in Sung Birds that the nightingale “occupies a number of sharply distinct

spaces” 25 . These spaces are a positive secular space and a devotional space. The positive

nightingale or oral nightingale is the bird of “love, spring, the poet, his messenger” 26 and a

“conventional representation of youthful sexual desire”. 27 The nightingale is often

“symbolical association with the je of courtly love poet”. 28 As mentioned earlier the tenor of

Mo-M312 reads: “J’ai fait tout nouveletement amie”. Translated it means “I have gained a

new sweetheart quite recently”. The “I” in the tenor can be interpreted as the author 29

speaking; i.e. the author has a new flirt. Following Leach, I would like to suggest interpreting

the nightingale in the triplum as a symbol for the author.

In hindsight I, unknowingly, used the positive secular context of the nightingale as

Leach described it. The text clearly directed me towards this sexual interpretation and it is

quite clear that the nightingale in this story is a symbol for this youthful sexual desire.

Furthermore another link to the nightingale as a bird of love and spring is present in the text

“au tans nouvel” or in English “in the new time”, meaning “in the spring”. The extra

25 Leach, Sung Birds : Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages, 91

26 Ibid., 91

27 Ibid., 93

28 Ibid., 91

29 With author I always means author/composer/poet.

dimension that Leach provides with her interpretation of the nightingale gives me new

insights in the nightingales used in this triplum.

In the devotional interpretation the nightingale is often seen as female. It is a positive

bird that wants to die for the desire of God, but the negative devotional nightingale is often

seen as seductive, leading a religious man from the straight path. This nightingale is also often

interpreted as female.


In addition to my earlier reading of triplum I will try to read it in another context. I

will try to interpret the text with the devotional nightingale in mind. First of all, it is clear that

there are two birds presented in the triplum one female and one male. This fact opens up more

than one possible interpretation.

Leach suggests that the devotional nightingale is mostly female, so I will start with the

female bird. A negative variant is easily spotted in the triplum: the female bird is the seductive

one and the male bird, possibly a cleric I, is seduced. However, it is the female bird that

corrects the male bird and that seems rather strange, because in medieval thinking it should be

the more rational male that should be able to withstand temptation. Trying to interpret the

female bird with the positive context is more difficult and I have not yet found a satisfactory


Changing my our focus to the male bird I think both a positive and a negative reading

are possible. In the negative sense the male bird is the seduction and the female bird is able to

withstand this temptation. Again this is a rather strange situation, except if the gender roles

are turned around in this example. In the positive sense the male bird is actually a clerical I

that wants to make love, but with true intentions. Love being the love for god. So the bird

wants to love god, but for the right reasons. As the male bird says: “All lovers (of god) who

value their honour sing nobly”. I interpret singing nobly as being a good Christian.

I think that, with this Christian connection in mind, I could say that there is a possible

Christian message carried by this text, namely be a good Christian and not only when it suits

you. However, there seems to be something going on with the gender roles in this triplum.

This ambiguity needs to be further researched to be fully understood. If there is something to

be understood.

To make better interpretations and grasp the message behind this triplum I first have to

be more at home with the Old-French language. For instance, the difference between leave off

and let off could be very crucial to my interpretations. Let of singing, could be seen as coitus

and leave off singing could mean, leave the faith, which opens up a totally new and different

interpretation. Also some more research into the use of nightingales as symbols in poetry

could give more insights.


For me Leach sums up her approach towards medieval music when she writes “I take

it as axiomatic that theoretical writings that consider music are part of a spectrum of

information about the cultural status of music during this period.” 30 The medieval writings

about music give information about the cultural status of music in the Middle Ages and

therefore a context for interpreting medieval music. I like Leach’s way of working, but it is

not a given that everyone can work in this way. To read medieval theoretical treatises and

understand medieval philosophers I have to invest a lot of time in Latin and get to know a big

amount of manuscripts. With that in mind I am content with using Leach’s work for my own


The question is if Leach’s research is useful to my own research? Her approach seems

to give good results and the theories and concept she works out are very useable, for me at

least. The things Leach picks up on seem to come back in all types of music of the Middle

Ages. The feminized semitone seems to work when applied to musica ficta and the

interpretation of molle hexachords as ‘soft’ or feminine and durum hexachords as ‘hard’ or

masculine also seems to work when applied to music, especially in the Roman de Fauvel. As

we have seen Leach’s theory about the nightingale makes for some interesting interpretations

that are not immediately apparent from the triplum itself. In sum I think I can use Leach’s

work, but only when critically engaging with it. In my own research the different perspectives

used and produced by Leach give me new insights and open up new paths to pursue as to

better understand a very small part of medieval music.

30 Leach, Sung Birds : Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages, 14


Branner, Robert. Manuscript Painting in Paris during the Reign of Saint Louis : A Study of Styles. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Fuller, Sarah. "To the Editor: A Brief Response to Elizabeth Eva Leach's 'Reading and Theorizing Medieval Music Theory: Interpretation and its Contexts'." Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 2 (2011): 230-231.

———. "Concerning Gendered Discourse in Medieval Music Theory: Was the Semitone 'Gendered Feminine?'." Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (2011): 65-89.

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. "About Me", accessed October, 24, 2011, http://eeleach.wordpress.com/about-me/.

———. "Gendering the Semitone, Sexing the Leading Tone: Fourteenth-Century Music Theory and the Directed Progression." Music Theory Spectrum 28, no. 1 (2006): 1-21.

———. "Reading and Theorizing Medieval Music Theory: Interpretation and its Contexts." Music Theory Spectrum 33, no. 1 (2011): 90-98.

———. Sung Birds : Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music : Scholarship, Ideology, Performance. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Miranda, Salvador. "The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church." , accessed november 3, 2011,


Wolinski, Mary E. "The Compilation of the Montpellier Codex." EMH Early Music History 11, (1992).