Among other databases, JSTOR has made it possible to make new and surprising scholarly connections, often to much older material whose relevance would never have been noticed without the possibility of full-text searching. I have ended up citing from journals I didn’t even know existed just because articles in them turned up in a particular search. The quality of research in the humanities today is radically inflected by the individual’s scholar’s ability to conduct online searches in a productive way: too specific and you miss stuff; too open-ended and you can’t deal with it all. On the other hand, sometimes serendipity is just as valuable (and just as possible online as in a physical library!). A search for one thing can often turn up something else as well.
One search I’m particularly pleased by is the one that turned up an article from 1905 that has a surprising relevant for musicologiusts of late-medieval song. This is the article (now freely available because it’s so old):
Little about its title would suggest it is at all relevant to medieval music, but for my book on music and birdsong I was eager to find out how far back composers notated animal noises. I turned Holbrook’s article up when I was trying to ascertain whether, as some have suggested, the polyphonic song of the ass from Beauvais makes a noise imitating braying in its chorus ‘Hez, hez, sire asne, hez!’. Holbrook’s short article makes it clear that ‘hez, hez’ is not the sound of braying, but rather a goading cry of a handler to the beast, so I concluded that the Beauvais piece notates human shouts but not animal noises.
So much for the song of the ass. But my eye was caught by one of the other expressions for goading an ass that Holbrook’s title gives — ‘Hay avant!’ — which is a cry that occurs in a fourteenth-century song by Matheus de Sancto Johanne, Science n’a nul annemi, and has always, it now seems, been misunderstood. Matheus’s song laments the ignorance of bad singers and has a two line refrain: ‘Qui plus haut crie “Hay avant!” / C’est trop bien fait disons ainsy’. The cry itself is aurally prominent in the three-voice musical setting because the two lower voices, which don’t ordinarily carry any text and would have been played or sung wordlessly, have the words ‘Hay avant!’ copied underneath their musical imitation of the little motif that these same words have in the cantus part. Thus all three parts sing ‘Hay avant!’ in musical imitation in the refrain.
In an article in Early Music 2003 these lines are translated as ‘Whoever shouts loudest “Me first!” / Let’s just say, it’s very well done’ with a short note on the text saying, ‘This expression might also be translated as “Forward march!”; the sense seems to be that the ignorant are pushing themselves into the limelight’. However, unless one reads the idea that this is ‘very well done’ with heavy sarcasm, that reading makes no sense given that the rest of the text castigates these ignorant people. Holbrook’s article allows a much better reading of the refrain as: ‘Whoever shouts “Go away, [ass]!” the loudest is doing very well, so say all of us!’. This is the refrain of the entire singing body, the three people singing this song, all of whom shout ‘Hay avant!’ in imitation — and each presumably trying to be the one who shouts it the loudest — in the refrain, which they (the first person plural subjects of ‘disons’, i.e. the singers of the song) direct against the bad singers described by the first person singular ‘je’ in the rest of the text, song only by the singer of the cantus part.
It’s a small gain, perhaps, but it is significant for our understanding of this particular song. Implying that an ignorant singer is an ass, often by saying what Guido of Arezzo said (which was that an ignorant singer would prefer the loud, tuneless braying of an ass to the well-tuned pitches of a nightingale), accords with a long tradition in the Middle Ages.