Cruel Mistress/I Heard My Mistress Say/Meow


Level of Authenticity: Modern project, inspired by period styles and forms.  I do though believe it’s possible to put together a modern composition (music and lyrics) that reaches a high level of authenticity.  On the lyrics front, I’d want them to be in Latin and/or French, and about something other than how my cats are the saddest cats in the world, and on the music front, I’d want to use a documentable tenor melody and do a lot more work on understanding the compositional norms.

The Actual Composition: So anyway I hope you can read music because I don’t have a recording of this.  Yet.meowchat1



Who: Speaking very broadly, the types of compositions that inspired this work were composed by, and performed by and for, university-educated clerics (all men) who were working as bureaucrats and administrators within the church or university hierarchy.

What: This work is roughly in the form of a motet, in its earlier sense as a fragment of plainchant with one or more different texts above it.

When: Motets of this style were popular in the thirteenth century.

Where:  The development and flourishing of this style is most closely associated with Paris.

Why: In a treatise of about 1300 called variously Ars Musicae (The Art of Music) or De Musica (About Music), the author, Johannes de Grocheio, describes “the music which men in Paris use” and “how men in Paris use it”.  With respect to motets, Grocheio says “This kind of song ought not to be propagated among the vulgar, since they do not understand its subtlety nor do they delight in hearing it, but it should be performed for the learned and those who seek after the subtleties of the arts.  And it is normally performed at their feasts for their edification…”  In other words, this was a style that was consciously and intentionally used as a status marker by a self-identified elite.  There’s a lot I could try to unpack here about the apparent exclusion of women as audiences or musicians and the still-ongoing use of particular musical styles as elite status markers, but really I just want to talk about how I made what I made and where my cats fit into all of this.

How:  Lyrics:  Extant motets from the thirteenth century tend to have texts in Latin and French, usually both in the same piece.  In content, texts might be both sacred, both secular, or one of each.  When secular, the character and subject matter followed on from the earlier lyric traditions established by troubadours and trouveres, including pastoral scenes and the pains of unrequited love.  In form, texts might be rather free-form, or might be based on one of the thirteenth century formes fixes, which dicated particular rhyme schemes and particular repeats of phrases.

When I embarked on this project, I didn’t want to use existing lyrics.  There were a variety of reasons for this, including a wish to stretch my creativity in the realm of poetry as well as music, and also including a wish not to have to do too much research to find suitable lyrics from the period.  Although my understanding of French and Latin is good enough that I would feel comfortable setting words in those languages to music, it’s not good enough for me to feel comfortable writing my own lyrics in those languages.  This meant that I needed to write my lyrics in English, though at times I wasn’t sure that my command of the English language was good enough to be using it to write lyrics.

I haven’t studied the lyric forms intensively.  Instead I have just looked at the examples that are scattered throughout my music history textbook and read the descriptions of how they are supposed to come together.  French and Latin both have quite different prosody than English and it’s normally a lot easier to come up with lots of words that rhyme with each other.  I also noticed that in many cases the individual lines of poetry are quite short compared to what we are used to in English poetry.  Although I sometimes tried to achieve short line lengths, I decided not to try constraining myself to the meters found in the example texts but just to write lines that flowed nicely in English.  As it turned out, this meant I often fell naturally into using that Shakespearean standby, iambic pentameter.

As to content, when I studied the chapter on troubadour and trouvere music, I took a look at the common types of subject matter and then brainstormed ideas that I could put together.  Fortunately or not, I don’t tend to spend too long these days pining away in unrequited love, so I actually have had some difficulty channelling enough of my angsty teenaged self to put together any halfway respectable troubadour/trouvere lyrics.  And then I got talking to Rosalind Hampton, who in a flash of brilliance had written a troubadour song from the perspective of her cat.  “Well,” thought I to myself, “I can do that!”  So I did.  The lyric in the triplum, “Cruel Mistress” is written in virelai form (B aab B aab B) and the lyric in the duplum, “I Heard My Mistress Say” is written in canso or bar form (aab).  Since this confused me when I was first trying to figure these forms out, I note here that each of the letters denoted in the forms can consist of several lines of text.

Choice of Tenor:  In this time period, the word “tenor” refers not to the vocal range of the part but to its function in the piece, which is to provide a framework above which the rest of the piece is written.  In most motets, the tenor is some short fragment of an existing melody, and again in most cases, a fragment that is drawn out of some piece of plainchant.    However, there are exceptions, and one of the exceptions in the textbook has a tenor texted “Frese nouvele! Muere france!” (“Fresh strawberries!  Nice blackberries!”), which appears to be some imitation of a street vendor’s cry.  This is a popular motif that winds its way through art music until at least the sixteenth century and probably later.  When I was considering what kind of tenor might be appropriate for a cats’ motet, I of course quickly concluded that the most proper, and quite possibly only, option, was to use a recent (second half of the twentieth century) version of a street cry, advertising cat food, which if you watched any television at all in the 1980s you are probably singing in your head right now without further prompting.  You’re welcome.

Music:  Despite the fact that I’m working from a music history textbook, I actually found it harder to get a good handle on what the music should sound like than what the lyrics should be like.  I think that’s because this textbook is more focused on describing the various musical forms that developed, rather than on describing the compositional rules or norms associated with each form.  Most of the music that audiences today would be familiar with hearing, not just in art music but also in most forms of popular music, is based around compositional rules and norms that started to be developed in the late sixteenth century in Italy and Spain, and later on into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, France, and Germany.  In this style, the music is built on chord progressions that conform to a “major” or “minor” modality, which is where notations like “Amin” and “G7” come from.  In addition, by at least the sixteenth century if not, in places, before, a method of notating rhythm and note values were developed that are still in use today.  To be very general, this method uses something called a time signature (which looks like a fraction but is not) where the top number indicates how many beats there are in a bar of music and which note value gets the beat.  This is the kind of music theory I studied in my Royal Conservatory of Toronto days.  This is NOT the theoretical basis on which earlier art music is based, which is why medieval music can sound funny, formless, and/or non-intuitive.

Instead, art music of this period tends to be based on a chosen tenor, the types of intervals above the tenor which form consonances and dissonances, and the ways the voices are permitted to move against each other.  A method of notating rhythm and note value was developed during the thirteenth century (Franconian notation) that looks and behaves a good deal like the modern time signature method, but that can be used to do things the modern method doesn’t do.  One of the most interesting things it can do is to separate the melody of a tenor (in thirteenth century terminology, the color) from the rhythm of the same tenor (in thirteenth century terminology, the talea).  The ability to separate these two aspects and to repeat them a differential number of times (for instance, you might have a color taking up three notes and a talea taking up four notes, meaning you’d need to repeat the entire sequence twelve times to come to the end) is what forms the framework for your ensuing composition.  This was the part I was really interested in exploring.

The textbook doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d like about constructing a melody, but I did want something that was going to sound at least something like the original pieces.  In the absence of written information, I decided to use an approach that might arguably be better, which was to just listen to a whole bunch of recordings of music from the period to get the sound of it into my head.  I really wanted to be wary of writing tunes that sounded too modern because they were unconsciously based on the harmonic progressions and major/minor modalities I’ve been using since I wasn’t quite yet four years old.

The first time I tried writing the music for my little motet, I came up with a talea that would allow me to repeat my chosen color a differential number of times, which was more difficult than you might think, because the notes of the Meow Mix song, like so much other post-sixteenth century music, come in tidy little packages of four phrases of four notes each, and sixteen has an inconveniently large collection of factors.  I did make one change to the original tune: in the fourth phrase, it actually modulates to a new key by raising/sharping the subdominant degree of the scale so it becomes the seventh of the dominant, which becomes the new tonic.  This is very characteristic of post-sixteenth century music, but so alien to medieval music that they don’t even really have a way of describing it.  Instead I chose to repeat the previous note in the melody, which we’ll call fa here instead of the subdominant.  Then I carefully stretched out the phrases of my two texts to fall somewhat into place with how many bars my tenor came out to, and I also carefully placed intervals that constituted consonances to the medieval theorist at spots where I guessed they might be appropriate.  That was a while ago so I don’t actually remember what criteria I used, but anyway the end result didn’t really sound much like the recordings I had listened to and yielded only one catchy hummable bit, the music that accompanies the text “cruel mistress.”  So I took it up to Bitter End to enter in a Shire level prize tourney because it was vaguely Paris-themed, and then it sat in the Bad Project bin for quite a while (in fact, so long that I don’t even know where the original composition is any more).

This past weekend I travelled with Althea Tambourri and Bieris de Romans to Borealis for Days of Dance and I came away really inspired.  We had a lot of really interesting conversations about period music, and the way some musical forms and instruments have a reputation for being privileged, and just about being musicians generally, and I told Bieris about my cat troubadour poetry and she was enthusiastic about it, and when I got home I decided that I needed to try rewriting the whole motet.

I barely used any of the original material because I didn’t know where it had got to and I hadn’t liked it much anyway.  The only bits I used were the “cruel mistress” musical phrase and the Meow Mix tenor.  Instead of carefully lining everything up and putting in my consonances first, I decided to just write hummable but medieval-sounding tunes for the two texts, making sure they were the same number of bars.  In order to maximize the number of consonances I might incidentally end up with, I set the two melodies to centre around tones that were a perfect fifth (a favorite medieval consonance) apart from one another, and I compared them against each other and revised only where I had wound up with a really unforgiveable dissonance (there’s only really the one, variously called a tritone, augmented fourth, or diminished fifth).  Where I came up with intervals that a modern ear might hear as a dissonance, or just a weird combination, I left it as is.

Once I was done that, it was time to insert the tenor.  My two texted tunes had both come out to a mathematically interesting 46 bars in 6/8 time, but my math skills were not up to the challenge of determining the length and rhythm of talea that would let me repeat my color a number of times that could be expressed using a whole number, so I decided I would let myself diverge from a strict interpretation of the rules.  I developed a talea that I could repeat two full times, leaving me exactly 8 bars of 6/8 time in which to repeat the color in dotted quarter notes.  When you listen to it, the effect is that the tenor, which has been a somewhat abstract accompaniment to the two texts, suddenly coalesces into the well-known ear worm that it is.  Other than my rhythmic liberties with the tenor, which I could achieve because I was using modern notation instead of Franconian*, I found that my second, less consonance-focused, attempt at writing the motet, actually sounded closer to the period examples that I have.  This was an outcome I didn’t expect – I thought once I had done this phase I was going to have to go back and do a lot of nitpicking and adjusting to get my intervals right – but now that I know it’s an approach that seems to work, I will try this approach first next time.

Works Cited:  Information and quotations in this post are sourced in Richard Taruskin “The Oxford History of Western Music: Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century”, in Chapter 7, “Music for an Intellectual and Political Elite”.

*I think it would be an interesting challenge to try notating something using period schemes and I’d like to try it some day, but I’m not up to it yet.  I read and write modern music notation as easily as I read and write the English language in Roman characters, so I think of trying another notation style as about like trying to write using Greek or Cyrillic characters.



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