Does “fa-mi fa-mi” spell “fumeux fume”?

Fumeux fume par fumee
Fumeuse speculacion.
Qu’antre fum met sa pensee;
Fumeux fume par fumee
Quar fumer molt li agree:
Tant qu’il ait son entencion,
Fumeux fume par fumee
Fumeuse speculacion.

The smoker smokes, through smoke
smoky speculations.
Which keeps his thinking in the smoke;
The smoker smokes, through smoke
For smoking suits him very well
As long as it is his intention.
The smoker smokes, through smoke
smoky speculations.

While preparing a transcription of the famous Solage composition “Fumeux fume” for a concert programme during the course of my studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in 2004 an idea came to me which since has crossed my mind every once in a while: What if the extreme use of ficta in the piece can be explained as a solmisation game in which the singers are constantly forced to think of the syllables “fa-mi” while performing the chanson? The play between the actual text with its ever reoccurring inflexions of “fume” and the forced solmisation syllables “fa-mi” could open up a new perspective on the interaction of text and music in this piece. At the same time the plenitude of accidentals causes the system of solmisation to run into its limits because “mi-fa”-places are persistently inserted all over the piece, thus literally “clouding” its tonality—just like “fume” clouds the mind. I was sure that the idea of “fa-mi” being used to spell out “fume” in this chanson had already been considered and written about, but since I have not yet come across any mention of this notion I decided to lay out the idea here.

It seems that the concept of solmisation in “Fumeux fume” is consciously reduced to absurdity. This is reminiscent of similarly ficta-rich compositions such as “Lantefana” by Ser Lo”re”renço (GB-Lbl add 29987, fol. 55) which apparently was designed as a sort of practice or test-piece to deliberately lead students of solmisation astray. Naturally one can assign a majority of the pitches in such chromatic pieces to “fa” or “mi”, but as far as the chanson at hand is concerned I believe it not to be a coincidence that these two syllables neatly spell out the word “fume”.

It was a sequence in the chanson’s B-part which first drew my attention to the idea, which is marked out by ficta signs as 8 “fa-mi”s in a row:

"Fa-mi" sequence in the B-section of "Fumeux fume".

“Fa-mi” sequence in the B-section of “Fumeux fume”.

In the following rendition of the sequence the explicit “fa” and “mi” positions are marked above the notes, while implicit “fa” and “mi” positions are marked below the corresponding notes in brackets:

"Fa-mi" sequence with marked solmisation syllables (explicit syllables above the notes, implicit syllables below).

“Fa-mi” sequence with marked solmisation syllables (explicit syllables above the notes, implicit syllables below-with the first two notes being “f” and “e” of the natural hexachord thus not in need of specific accidentals).

It is almost immediately followed by its inversion (three times “mi-fa”):

"Mi-fa" sequence near the end of "Fumeux fume".

“Mi-fa” sequence near the end of “Fumeux fume”.

Once this code is pointed out, one cannot but notice a multitude of places in the chanson which seem to call out or even oscillate between “fa” and “mi”, and once this concept is accepted it can be used for making additional ficta decisions. There is of course a natural danger for a circular argument here and the concept can most certainly be overworked, but a number of places in the chanson appear quite telling, nonetheless—allow me to indulge in a slightly gaudy narrative: After tentatively spelling out “fume” in the first few bars throughout the three voices (the first “fa-mi” in the cantus, expected for the first two notes, is delayed until bar 5), the contratenor introduces a stuttering motif “mi, mi, mi”, which is being answered by all the voices in unison with “fa, fa, fa”, before it resolves into a “fa-mi” sequence in bars 9-11. The “fa”-stutter is picked up by the cantus for the final sequence of the A-part, almost like a confused question. The B-part seems to give the answer to this confusion by continually spelling out “fa-mi” until the rising motif of bars 38-40 where this statement is inverted to form another question mark: “mi-fa”?

It does not even need to be a coherent system—once the “smoke screen” is layed over the solmisation system and “mi-fa” places can turn up anywhere, it does not really matter if every position can be precisely pinned down: “fa-mi” = “fume” or “fumeux” is all over the place anyway.

The following transcription leaves out the text underlay in order to make room for suggestions of solmisation syllables. Also, the red notation of the manuscript is retained in the transcription in order to avoid additional color-brackets.

"Fumeux fume" by Solage (F-CH 564, fol. 59) with suggestions for solmisation syllables as a play on words: "fa-mi" spells out "fume". Red notation of original retained.

“Fumeux fume” by Solage (F-CH 564, fol. 59) with suggestions for solmisation syllables as a play on words: “fa-mi” spells out “fume”. Red notation of original retained.

This concept of mirroring the song text by constantly spelling out the word “fume” through the use of musica ficta (“fa-mi”), combined with the “stutters” (“fa-fa-fa”) and “questions” (“mi-fa”?) nicely contrasts an alternative reading of the song text—based on the assumption by Patricia Unruh in her thesis on the “Fumeur” poetry* that the concept of “fume” is connected to the humour of “cholerica”:

A quick-tempered man cooks up
volatile theories in his rage,
which clouds his mind.
A quick-tempered man cooks something up,
because it pleases him to fume with rage,
until he gets his way.
A quick-tempered man cooks up
volatile theories in his rage.

(Translation by M. Lewon)

The only other fumeur-poem surviving with music—Symonis Hasprois’ “Puisque je sui fumeux”—could be thought of as supporting the idea of “fa-mi” = “fume” (or in this case: “fumeux”): The first tendere place of the piece with its longa-note on c (which could be read as a c-sharp in order to support the inherent directed progression with subsequent cadenza fuggita) spells out “fa-mi” almost as if written with capital letters by using a brevis and a longa. Since thus the stress is transferred to the second syllable it seems as if the word “fumeux” is not only spelled out in the words of the cantus (in both A sections) here, but also in the music:

Beginning of "Puisque je sui fumeux" by Symonis Hasprois in F-CH 564, fol. 34 (tenor of the A-part in "modus perfectus"—see canon) with tendere-place marked as "fa-mi" = "fume".

Beginning of “Puisque je sui fumeux” by Symonis Hasprois in F-CH 564, fol. 34 (tenor of the A-part in “modus perfectus”—see canon) with tendere-place marked as “fa-mi” = “fume”.

 

Marc Lewon

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


* Patricia Unruh: ‚Fumeur’ Poetry and Music of the Chantilly Codex: A Study of its Meaning and Background, Master’s Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1983.

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