Jonathan Wild

Scale Theory in the 16th Century — the Case of Nicola Vicentino

In his treatise of 1555, L’Antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica (henceforth L’Antica Musica), the theorist and composer Nicola Vicentino describes a tuning system comprising thirty-one tones to the octave, and presents several excerpts from compositions intended to be sung in that tuning. The rich compositional theory he develops in the treatise, along with the few surviving musical passages, offers a tantalising glimpse of an alternative pathway for musical development, one whose radically augmented pitch materials make possible a vast range of novel melodic gestures and harmonic successions. In this article I begin with an acoustic derivation of the thirty-one-tone scale; a derivation that is not entirely explicit in L’Antica Musica. I go on to examine the aesthetic rationale claimed by Vicentino for his tuning system, and to investigate, through close reading of the treatise, the modal and generic frameworks that he develops within it, while considering their historical antecedents. Finally I consider to what extent these pre-compositional pitch structures are realised in the surviving compositions, by performing some preliminary analysis on the works excerpted in the treatise.
One difficulty in working with a repertoire such as this is the inability of the modern musician to recreate, mentally or in performance, the sound and affect of the unfamiliar intervals from the enharmonic genus. In my own experience I found I needed to hear what Vicentino intended, before fully grasping what was at stake in his theorizing or appreciating the import of the musical possibilities. And so together with my colleague Peter Schubert we have created aural illustrations of the musical examples by retuning, in post-production, specially recorded performances by professional singers to match precisely the intonational stipulations in L’Antica musica.