Music blog

02 November 2016

Musical chess

Fascinating fact for the day: on 2 November 1924 (92 years today!), the Sunday Express published the first crossword to appear in a British newspaper.

We’re marking the occasion with a musical puzzle of our own: Ghiselin Danckerts’ ‘Ave maris stella’. This ingeniously-crafted canon is presented in the form of a chessboard, with each of the 64 words of text appearing on a separate square.


Ghiselin Danckerts, ‘Ave maris stella’, in Pietro Cerones El melopeo maestro (Naples: Giovanni Battista Gargano and Lucrezio Nucci, 1613), p. 1129. British Library Hirsch I.114

Born in Tholen, Zeeland around 1510, the Netherlandish composer, singer and writer on music Ghiselin Danckerts was little-known and sparsely published. This curiosity was first printed on a single sheet in 1535, though this edition has since been lost. The earliest extant copy is that produced in Augsburg in 1549 by the Melchior Kriegstein firm, a copy of which can be found in the Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel (186 Musica div. fol. (1)). It is pictured here in a reproduction found in Pietro Cerones’ treatise on music El melopeo maestro (Naples: Giovanni Battista Gargano and Lucrezio Nucci, 1613).

At the time of its first publication, it had an impact on the Italian composer and theorist Nicola Vicentino (1511-1576). On 2 June 1551, Danckerts was chosen along with the Spanish-born composer Bartolomé de Escobedo (ca. 1505-1603) to judge the debate between Vicentino and Vicente Lusitano on the role of the chromatic and enharmonic genera in contemporary musical practice. Unlike Vicentino, Danckerts clung to the ideal of modal purity, a viewpoint that earned him a reputation as having a preference for conservative compositional methods.

Vicentino lost the debate, and with this in mind, it is no coincidence that Danckerts’ canon is discussed in scathing terms in Vicentino's 1555 treatise L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica. Entitled “Rule for discovering an unwritten canon, and how it should be sung”, chapter forty contains a veiled reference to Danckerts’ work. Here, Vicentino declares that a composer “should not make a canon in the shape of a tower, a mountain, a river, a chessboard or other objects, for these compositions create a loud noise in many voices with little harmonic sweetness”. Danckerts clearly disagreed!