Guillaume Du Fay’s Nuper rosarum flores (1436) has been subject to symbolic interpretation ever since Charles Warren suggested that the structure of the motet reflects the architectural proportions of the cathedral of Florence. More recent analyses have accepted the premise that the motet’s form has extramusical meaning, in particular, that mensural and architectural proportions can be directly analogized. These tantalizing connections have led scholars to canonize this motet, now a mainstay of music history textbooks. The extent and specificity of the extramusical associations Nuper rosarum flores enjoys—an occasion, a place, and a secure attribution—are rare in the fifteenth century. This fact alone makes the motet appear to be exceptional. But reading Nuper rosarum flores alongside the norms of genre and notation and against the grain of the work’s modern historiography suggests that it isn’t all that special—or at least that it is no more special than Du Fay’s other ceremonial motets. The interpretive history of Nuper rosarum flores exemplifies what I call “false exceptionalism,” which relates to a more general problem in music studies—the alluring but often elusive relationship between musical form and social meaning.
Out of Proportion: Nuper rosarum flores and the Danger of False Exceptionalism
Emily Zazulia is an assistant professor of music at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century music and the history of music theory has been supported by fellowships from the AMS, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and Villa I Tatti. She is completing a book on late medieval music notation and its intersections with musical style, theory, and intellectual history.
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Emily Zazulia; Out of Proportion: Nuper rosarum flores and the Danger of False Exceptionalism. Journal of Musicology 1 April 2019; 36 (2): 131–166. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2019.36.2.131
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