Guillaume Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores has been ground zero for symbolic interpretation in musicology ever since Charles Warren suggested that the form of the motet reflects the architectural proportions of the cathedral of Florence. We know Du Fay wrote Nuper rosarum flores in conjunction with the 1436 dedication of Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, the architectural marvel that caps the building. The temporal proportions of the motet’s tenors have been said to reflect the architectural dimensions of the cathedral—or, as Craig Wright has argued, the Solomonic temple, which Santa Maria del Fiore references. These tantalizing connections have canonized the motet, making it a mainstay of music-history textbooks. Indeed, such a specific set of extramusical associations is so rare in the fifteenth-century as to prove all but irresistible.
Although the text of Nuper rosarum flores unequivocally references the dedication of the cathedral, whether and how the music reflects the occasion is much less clear. Arguments about musical symbolism often fall into the trap of what I’ll call false exceptionalism: without considering what is unique (or at least unusual) about a given piece, we risk burdening it with more interpretative weight than it can bear. None of this should preclude symbolic or extramusical interpretation. Rather, my aim is to question the project of seeking out such extramusical meanings to the exclusion of other modes of significance and aesthetic experience. In order to understand what is special about Nuper rosarum flores—and to identify which musical features might relate to its compositional occasion—I consider the motet in the context of its generic norms. I ask what this motet and others like it can tell us about text, form, and notation, and about how fifteenth-century music constructs meaning.
Emily Zazulia is the Shirley Shenker Assistant Professor of Music at UC Berkeley, having previously taught at the University of Pittsburgh. Her recent work includes studies on the role of obscenity in 15th-century song, the L’homme armé tradition, the history of music theory, and ideas about rhythm in the middle ages. Her research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Musicological Society. A specialist in Medieval and Renaissance music, she is currently working on a wide-ranging study of notational aesthetics in polyphonic music, ca. 1350–1520, from which material for this talk comes.
Co-sponsored by the Medieval & Renaissance Studies Program, The Humanities Center, and the Department of History of Art and Architecture