minstrel: 12/8 time signature

vlatovlaska at woh.rr.com vlatovlaska at woh.rr.com
Thu Feb 2 14:21:46 PST 2006

OK, this gets tricky in all sorts of ways. First, technically, a triplet
is 3 equal divisions of a note that is usually either undivided or
divided into two. For instance, if you have a piece full of quarter
notes and eighth notes, triplet eighth notes would be 3 notes that fill
the same amount of time as a quarter note, and when written down they
are marked with a little number 3. So I think what you're talking about
are not called triplets, but are simply three eighth notes that have the
same duration as a dotted quarter when the dotted quarter gets the beat. 

You are right that currently this is marked in the time signature as if
the eighth notes each got a beat, for instance, good old 6/8 time, which
is actually 2 beats of a dotted quarter each. This is simply a
convention because noone has bothered to figure out a better way of
indicating that a dotted note gets the beat. So 12/8 time is simply our
convention for indicating measures with 4 beats of a dotted quarter
each. You're right that alternatively you could write it in 4/4 time
with triplets everywhere. Personally, I think that puts a lot of
unnecessary ink on the page. 

Now... back to the middle ages and the medieval tune. You say you heard
the piece, and then you say "It was written in 12/8 time with
alternating quarter notes and eighth notes ..." I am not clear whether
you have a modern transcription of the tune  that you can look at, or
whether you are visualizing how you would write down what you heard.
What's important for you to know is that the development of music
notation has a long history (which can be fascinating in and of itself).
The conventions we use now were not all put in place until well after
our SCA time period. The notation used early in the middle ages (600s)
contained much less information than later notation. What I'm getting at
here is that the rhythm you heard may not be indicated in the original

Let's look at when and where this piece was written. I find in Wikipedia
that "Alfonso X, El Sabio, the Learned, the Astronomer, or the Wise
(November 23, 1221 – April 4, 1284) was a king of Galicia, Castile and
León (1252 - 1284)." So we're talking about 1200s Spain. This is the
monarch who commissioned the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a well-known
(among period musicians) collection of songs in praise of Mary. 

Doing a Google search on the title of the song takes me to 
http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/cds/dec9416.htm, which tells me that "Da
Que Deus Mamou" is #77 in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which by the way
were probably not composed by Alfonso himself. 

In order to see the original notation, I do a Google search on "Cantigas
de Santa Maria", which takes me to http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cantigas/
(many thanks to our list host for yet another excellent web site), and
by following the Facsimile link I get to
http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cantigas/facsimiles/To/. This site does not
seem to have a facsimile of Cantiga 77, so I look at some of the others. 

When you look, you will discover that there are no quarter or eighth
notes in the music. Instead, there are lots of black squares for notes
and nothing that obviously indicates rhythm. So I go back to this site's
home page and follow a link to "Accentation and Duration in Music of the
Cantigas de Santa Maria (article)", which takes me to a scholarly article.

Here's the very beginning of the article: "In the three Cantigas de
Santa Maria manuscripts, which contain musical notations, melodic
intervals are specified with great precision and, as far as we can
determine, with admirable accuracy. The notations do not contain
indications for melodic accents; however, and with regard to duration of
individual pitches, the scribes' notational practices may well have
presented us with more problems than solutions. Higinio Anglés, in his
pioneering edition, (1943­1964), evaluates the indications for duration
in an ambiguous, if not contradictory manner." 

In other words, we don't know what rhythm or rhythms were originally
intended or acceptable. Any interpretation is hypothetical. Music
historians are still arguing about and actually making some progress in
interpreting early music. Just thought you should know. 

Hope this has been helpful,

Lady Mathilda Harper

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