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Panat Times

Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


Volume 1


Orest's Pages

Patricia's Musings



Musical Rhetoric

Transcribed Sources


Size as an element in Thierry Favier's Continuum
of Charpentier's handwriting


This Musing refers to Thierry Favier's "L'Atelier intérieur de Marc-Antoine Charpentier," pp. 83-100,
in Les Manuscrits autographes de Marc-Antoine Charpentier, edited by Catherine Cessac and published by the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles (Wavre: Mardaga, 2007).

There may be a fundamental problem in Thierry Favier's Continuum, a problem so troubling and deep that his most basic observations are open to question and can only lead scholars astray. I sincerely hope this problem can be expelled or remedied.

Handwriting size

Early in my ponderings about the different handwritings discerned by Thierry Favier, I was struck by how frequently he referred to size in his Continuum, which spans Marc-Antoine Charpentier's entire career, beginning with the earliest works copied out when he was in his late twenties, and continuing on to his handwriting at the Sainte-Chapelle, during his early sixties. In the order that Favier presents them, these hands are:

"allongée et fine, hampes longues"; "écriture très large, très allongée"; "grande écriture"; "hampes allongées"; "diminution"; "écriture plus petite"; "écriture encore diminuée"; "... dans une dimension plus petite"; "écriture petite"; "proche de la précédante mais plus petite"; "écriture plus petite"; "écriture plus petite" (my emphasis).

Elongated to small

In his Continuum, size does indeed play a major role. T. Favier presents Charpentier's handwriting as gradually moving from "very elongated" during the early years, to an increasingly "smaller" (in the sense of "less elongated"?) hand, beginning in the late 1680s or early 1690s, just about the time when he began working for the Jesuits. Favier points out that this "diminution" accelerates during the final decade of the composer's life (p. 96), that is, circa 1693 or thereabouts. As a result, for those final ten years Favier indentifies 10 hands (or transitional hands marked "Tran-," plus a letter. That is roughly one new hand per year. Many of these hands differ from their predecessor in size, but in little else.

Has T. Favier become carried away by this notion of a long-term movement from elongated handwriting to "small" handwriting? This appears to be the case, for he decided to "donner la priorité à une diminution progressive de l'écriture" (p. 94).


Cahiers XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII pose a problem for T. Favier, owing to the "différence de taille notable entre l'écriture des cahiers XXV à XXVIII" and, for example, the size of the hand in cahiers 14-18 (which date from 1677). The unusually elongated notes in cahiers XXV-XXVIII lead him to believe that these four cahiers are quite early, because "selon un processus physiologique courant, l'évolution de l'écriture de Charpentier est marquée par une diminution progressive de sa dimension qui s'accentue considérablement à partir du type 3" (p. 94). For this reason, Favier assigns to cahiers XXV-XXVIII a hand all their own, hand (or "type") 1b ­ which his Continuum describes as "large, très allongée, fine et souple, notes ovales." Owing to the unusual elongation of the handwriting in these four cahiers, he places the cahiers among the earliest works in Mélanges.

But the works in these four cahiers are not early works. In late 1669 or early 1670, Charpentier began filling two sets of cahiers, and he began numbering each series consecutively, one with arabic ("French") numbers and the other with roman ("Roman") numerals. By the time he reached cahier XIX, it was early 1675, and cahier XXIII (the later of two consecutive cahiers containing miscellaneous preludes) brought him to mid-1679. Since cahiers XXV-XXVIII immediately precede a theatrical work composed for November 1680, they presumably were copied out in 1678, 1679, and early 1680. That meshes perfectly with what we know about the composer's career: in cahier XXV he refers to the "Pièche," that is, the Dauphin's musicians, for whom he began composing in 1678 and for whom he composed for approximately three years. In short, cahiers XXV-XXVIII can scarcely have been copied out during the early 1670s, for a musical ensemble that did not yet exist. Rather, they constitute a little four-cahier corpus of works composed for the Dauphin's Music.

Some other explanation must therefore be found for the unusually elongated hand in these four cahiers.

Stave size

As Laurent Guillo shows in one of the charts for his article on printed music paper, in the Actes of the 2007 conference on the Mélanges (p. 39) the staves are unusually large in PAP-20. (PAP plus a number is his way of naming the different printed music paper formes). In PAP-20 the staves are between 14 mm and 14.5 mm in height, compared with the staves on the other papers employed by the composer, which generally hover between 10 and 11 mm in height and which never exceed 12 mm. T. Favier clearly is aware that stave-size is potentially a crucial factor, for he alludes to this problem on two occasions (p. 85, n. 12, and p. 91, n. 20); yet he disregards the issue here.

Let us look more closely at the size of the staves in cahiers XXV-XXVIII. As one thumbs through Vol. 17, a sudden increase in stave size between the final sheets of cahier XXIV and cahiers XXV-XXVIII might go unnoticed, because cahier XXIV is a collection of preludes copied out over several years onto quite a few types of paper, and therefore has disparate rather than uniform staves. However, paying close attention to the volume as a whole might reveal that cahier XXIX brings a return to a consistency in stave size (that is, a return to 10 mm staves). Of course, if one views cahiers XXV-XXVIII as an aberrant four-cahier unit that is out of chronological order, the sudden shrinkage in handwriting in cahier XXIX could easily be overlooked. And overlooked it was!

The example provided by cahier 26

Cahier 26 (Vol. IV) is an excellent example of how the size of the musical staves affected Charpentier's handwriting. This cahier contains some especially pertinent evidence, because it too contains some PAP-20, with its super-sized 14-14.5 mm staves. Let us thumb through a few pages of that cahier, which contains works composed for early 1680.

fols. 14-19v are made of PAP-83, where, according to L. Guillo, the staves are 10 mm high.

fols. 20-21v are made of PAP-20, printed with those large 14-14.5 mm staves. (Curiously enough, on these folios, T. Favier sees hand 1c, not the very large hand 1b he associates with cahiers XXV-XXVIII.)

fols. 22-23v are made of PAP-76, and the staves are 10 mm high, according to L. Guillo. (These particular pages are replacements dating from post-1681.)

fols 24-26v are more PAP-20, with the 14-14.5 mm staves (here T. Favier again finds hand 1c).

As one thumbs through these pages, looking only at the staves, these shifts in size are very clear, even though the overall size of the page has been modified by the photographers working for Minkoff. Favier was aware of the problems posed by the Minkoff Facsimile: "Notons simplement que la variation des formats photographiques dans le fac-simile rend toute évalution fine délicate," he observes (p. 91, n. 20). It would indeed be a very "delicate" task to attempt a correlation between the size of the staves in the Minkoff Facsimilies and L. Guillo's very precise codicologie for each type of PAP.

The Minkoff Facsimiles can nonetheless be used to make some general observations about Charpentier's handwriting between 1678 and 1680, as seen in cahiers XXV-XXVIII and in cahier 26. The son of a master scribe, Charpentier was a sort of athlete of the pen. He did not balk in surprise before a musical staff that was a bit higher or a bit more condensed than usual. He did not stubbornly persist in keeping his writing the same size, be the staff unusually large or be it somewhat smaller than usual. Rather, he adjusted the height of the note-stems to the paper across whose surface his hand was racing.

To demonstrate this phenomenon, we need only measure, in the Minkoff Facsimiles, the staves and the note-stems on the pages from cahier 26 discussed above:

fol. 19v, the staves are just under 10 mm. high ― which is very close to the 10 mm of PAP-83 that L. Guillo measured on the originals. From the top of the notes to the bottom of the stems, the average height of a quarter note in the Minkoff Facsimile is just under 10 mm. Idem for half notes and melismas. Eighth notes tend to fluctuate between 8 and 9 mm.

fol. 20, the staves vary from 12 to 13 mm ― which is approximately 2 mm less than in the real PAP-20! In other words, here the Minkoff photographers reduced the staves somewhat more, proportionally, than they did the staves on fol. 19v. From the top of the quarter notes to the bottom of the stem, the average height of a note in the Minkoff Facsimile is 10 mm, and sometimes a note is as tall as 12 mm. Idem for the melismas and the half notes. Eighth notes are 9 or 10 mm high.

fol. 22, the staves are only 9 mm high ― which is 1 mm smaller than the real PAP-76 measured by L. Guillo. Most quarter notes and half notes are only 7 or 8 mm high, and so is the melisma. (This is the handwriting on the replacement page from the 1680s.)

An overall pattern in Charpentier's handwriting is clear here, despite evident inconsistencies in the percentage of photographic reduction. Probably without giving it much of a thought, Charpentier adapted his handwriting to the height of the staves on the paper he was using at the moment. Irrespective of the paper, his average note was approximately 1 mm shorter than the staff itself. Hence my analogy of a trained athlete: Charpentier had been trained since childhood to adjust the size of his writing to the document being copied; and he had learned to write so well-proportioned a musical hand that, whether he wrote large or whether he wrote small, the height of the average note was approximately 1 millimeter inferior to the height of the staves.

The above brief exercise calls into question T. Favier's emphasis upon age as a factor in the size of Charpentier's writing. At any rate, increasing age can scarcely be a factor during this three-year period, 1678-1680. During that brief time, the size of his writing clearly depended upon the size of the musical staves.

The Jesuit years, and Charpentier's smaller handwriting

This raises an important and more far-reaching question: Did Charpentier's hand really does get smaller throughout his lifetime? Or, during the 1690s ― when his handwriting is noticeably smaller than it was in the 1670s and 1680s ― was he responding primarily to the size of the staves on the paper being supplied him?

In other words, how big were the staves on the mainly hand-ruled paper that the Jesuits supplied to Charpentier throughout the 1690s? Laurent Guillo did not measure manuscript staves, so the best I could do to answer all these questions was to dip into the Minkoff Facsimiles for the Jesuit years. I looked closely at the staves in Vol. 5, where, according to L. Guillo, all the paper is hand-ruled.

The results of this little experiment were most interesting! The hand-drawn staves on Jesuit paper In Vol. 5 are noticeably smaller than the printed staves in Vols. 1-4. And if we dare suppose that the Minkoff Facsimiles did not unduly enlarge or reduce the sizes of the staves, very few of the hand-drawn staves in Vols. 1-4 approach the Jesuit ones in smallness of size. Was the small size of the staves in Vol. 5 caused by Minkoff photographic reductions? Or did the ruling device used in the late 1690s produce much finer staves than print shops were producing?

To be specific, in Vol. 5 the staves range from 7 mm to 8 mm in height ­ in other words, they are 2 or 3 mm smaller than the average printed staves in Minkoff's Vol. 4, and 4 or 5 mm smaller than Minkoff version of PAP-20. Assuming that the amount of photographic reduction in Vol. 5 was more or less that same as in cahier 26 ― that is, relatively minimal ― it appears that the manuscript staves of the 1690s are considerably smaller than the printed ones of the 1670s and 1680s. Does the size of the hand-drawn staves, rather than advancing age, therefore explain the descent into miniaturization that T. Favier remarked for the 1690s?

Toward understanding the composer and his handwriting

I suspect that Thierry Favier's presuppositions about the relationship between handwriting size and age would not hold up to close scrutiny, if fluctuations in the height of the musical staves are taken into consideration.

Does that mean that his interesting and insightful observations should be ignored? I sincerely hope not! Perhaps a way can be found to adjust the Continuum so that it can become a research tool for dating Charpentier's works.