Semibreve

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Franco of Cologne, the earliest known writer on measured music who furnishes the types for which the forms of our modern notation are evidently derived, describes the semibreve as the shortest note in use, though no very long time elapsed before the minim was added to the list.

The forms of these notes are generally supposed to have been suggested by those of the Neumes of an earlier period, the Breve and Semibreve being derived from the Punctum.

Don Nicola Vincentino, however, in his L’ antica Musica ridotta alla moderna Prattica, printed at Rome in 1555, refers the forms of all these notes to a different origin; deriving the Large, the Long, and the Breve from the B quadratum, or square B; and the semibreve from the B rotundum; the transformation being effected, in each case, by depriving the figure of one or both of its tails.

But Vincentino has fallen into so many palpable errors that we cannot trust him; and, in the present instance, his theory certainly does not accord with that early form of the semibreve which is produced by cutting the Breve in half, diagonally.

This form soon gave way to the Lozenge, which was retained in use until late in the 17th century, when it was replaced in measured music by the round note of our present system, though in the Gregorian system of notation the lozenge remains in use to the present day.

Until the beginning of the 17th century, the semibreve represented one third of a Perfect Breve, and the half of an Imperfect one. In the Greater Prolation it was equal to three minims; in the Lesser to two. In either case it was accepted as the norm of all other notes, and was held to constitute a complete measure or stroke.

In the Greater Prolation – or, as we should now call it, triple time – this stroke was indicated by a single down beat of the hand, representing what we write as a dotted semibreve. In the Lesser Prolation – the common time of the modern system – it was indicated by a down and an up beat, called respectively the Thesis and the Arsis of the measure. It will be understood that these two beats represented two minims; and, happily for us, we are not left altogether in doubt as to the average pace at which these two minims were sung, in the great polyphonic compositions of the 15th and 16th centuries: for apart from the traditions of the Sistine Chapel, early writers have left a very definite rule for our guidance.

The Thesis and the Arsis of the Lesser Prolation, they say, represent the beats of the human pulse., taking into calculation the variations exhibited at all ages, and in both sexes, ranges between 66-7 and 140 per minute; allowing, therefore, for roughness of calculation, we may say that the compositions of Josquin des Pres, and Palestrina, may be safely interpreted between 60 and 140 a sufficiently extended range for any conductor.

In modern music the semibreve retains more than one of the characteristics that distinguished it in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is now, indeed, the longest instead of the shortest note in common use, for the employment of the Breve is altogether exceptional; but it is none the less the norm form which all other notes are derived.

We may say that, of all the notes now in use, the semibreve is the one which unites us most closely to the system of those who invented the germ of the method we ourselves follow; and it furnishes the safest guide we know of to the right understanding of their works.

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