Monday, April 28th, 2014...12:13 pm

What’s New: Di Lasso motet partbooks

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2013T-57(5) Leaf 22v Detail

The Harvard Theatre Collection has just purchased a pair of bound volumes of Orlando Di Lasso motet partbooks, printed in 1588. At this time, music was printed note by note in movable type. Due to the extreme complexity of lining up four, five, or eight parts in a score using this process, most works were only printed in parts.

2013T-57(3) tp

The volumes include five separate parts between them, from three different motets, Moduli quatuor et octo vocum, Moduli quinque vocum, and Moduli sex vocum. Parts like these are rare, as they didn’t wear well under heavy use. Fortunately for us, owners sometimes had their parts bound together, and many of the surviving partbooks from the period come to us in contemporary bindings.

2013T-57 Bindings

2013T-57(4) Bookplate

The bindings are excellent examples of contemporary technique, as there are no paste-downs and the structure is visible. That vellum flap with writing is just what it appears to be, a piece of manuscript “waste,” which was re-used to support the spine. Manuscript “waste” is used in both bindings. The bookplate is from the library of Abbé Jean Petite, canon of the cathedral of Bayeux, who left his extensive library (as well as the funds to administer it, thoughtful man) to the chapter’s library when he died in 1694. Was it he who originally had these parts bound?

2013T-57(4) Leaf 2v

The music is set in movable type, cast for the publishers by Guillame Le Bé in the 1550s. Notice that even the empty bars at the bottom are set piece by piece.

Guillo, Pierre I Ballard v. 1 page 229

Since each note had to be set individually, you can see why the printers chose to set single parts rather than scores. The complexity of aligning parts vertically into a score would rise exponentially with the addition of each part. The illustration above shows two common patterns of setting the notes (From Laurent Guillo, Pierre I Ballard et Robert III Ballard: imprimeurs du roy pour la musique, 1599-1673, v. 1, p. 229)

2013T-57(1) Leaf 22v-23r

Of course the practice of printing the parts separately means that sometimes not all of the parts survive for a given piece. In the case of the particular part seen above, other parts are mixed in with the contra part specified on the title page (specifically, the contra part is on leaves 2-14, a 2nd bassus is on leaves 15, 21-24, and a 2nd superius is on leaves 16-20). I’ve never worked with partbooks from this time, so I don’t know if this was common: all of the other parts contain only the specified part. The O on the right illustrates Orpheus playing his lyre on a 2nd bassus part.

2013T-57(5) Leaf 11v

The illuminated woodcut initials are occasionally decorative as seen opposite Orpheus above, but more often employ imagery related to their letter, as in this case: R is for RATCATCHER! (Click to enlarge the image, then close to return to the post.) The initials appear in several different sizes and levels of complexity, and were created at different times by different artists.

2013T-57(3) Leaf 6v

D is for King David, and I’m indebted to visiting scholar Jed Wentz for helping me to identify the attributes associated with some of the images less familiar to me. David’s harp gives this one away. Guillo identifies Jean Cousin as the probable designer of these larger, more sumptuous initials.

2013T-57(5) Leaf 22v

My favorite of all however, is this image of Athena and Hermes flanking a page of printed music. Is Athena giving this page to Hermes to disseminate? And what does the “L” stand for? Could there be some connection here to invention? After all, in 1588 printed music was still very much in its infancy (particularly in France, where the Ballards resisted innovation), and must still have seemed marvelous to behold. These partbooks still retain that glamour today.

[Thanks to Andrea Cawelti, Ward Music Cataloger, for contributing this post.]


  • Hermes is the legendary inventor of the musical instruments, both the pipes and the lyre, from the shell of a turtle he killed as a baby. Maybe that’s the reason for the L?


  • Excellent point Aaron, thanks so much for sharing that. I had to laugh, as my colleague Susan Wyssen has just mentioned the same thing to me a few days ago. That connection seems entirely logical, though Professor Wentz has pointed out some other examples of this same pair, flanking other printed items such as Feuillet notation for instance:
    as in this later Lambranzi example. I can’t help thinking there must be something deeper here, but what? Wikipedia introduces (to me) the concept of “Hermathena”:
    as articulated by Cicero, but how the “L” (or indeed the printed examples) fit into this concept, I just don’t know. Calling all brain cells!

  • An interesting post. I always assumed that it’s simply cheaper to print parts than full scores (and indeed, European choirs still often sing from parts), but this explanation makes perfect sense. It would also have been expensive and required a lot more paper, but the complexities of the typesetting are daunting. Thanks for including the illustration of typesetting methods, and all the history. How lucky we are to have such wonderful resources!

  • In the end, I suppose it WAS cheaper, you’re right about that. Examples of fuller scores certainly exist in this time period, but there was often a specific reason for going to all that trouble and expense. I recently heard a fascinating presentation by Jane Bernstein, on Cavalieri’s Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo, in which she showed scans of the 1600 score printed by Nicolo Mutij in Rome, wow. But Cavalieri had ulterior motives, which Professor Bernstein will clarify for us all in her upcoming book. We are indeed lucky that such fragile resources have survived 400+ years to pique our interest and curiosity!