‘Fauxbourdon’ was an enigmatic French phrase attached as a tag or label to short compositions or sections of longer ones, normally sacred and written as apparently two-voice pieces with the cantus firmus in the upper part, appearing in continental musical manuscripts from about 1430 to about 1510. The words ‘faux bourdon’ were often preceded by the preposition ‘à’ or ‘per’, sometimes ‘au’ (even ‘aux’) or ‘in’; the expression might also be shortened to ‘per faulx’ or ‘per bardunum’. Although some scribes contracted the two words into one, this article follows Trumble in reserving ‘fauxbourdon’ for use as a generic term referring to the whole technique or complex of voices, or to the category of composition.
The designation ‘faux bourdon’, or one of its variants, was usually placed in either the discantus or the tenor part – more often the latter, especially in the earlier years, perhaps because the tenor directed the ensemble; it might also appear in both parts, or elsewhere on the page. It signalled the fact that the two given voices had been so composed – essentially by using a framework of 6ths and octaves – that the performer or performers could add a third and eventually a fourth part to them by following certain strictly formulaic procedures. The earliest method was to derive a contratenor altus from the written discantus by singing the same notes simultaneously at the 4th below, which produced essentially a chain of what would now be called 6-3 chords, varied and punctuated by single 8-5 chords, though with some decorative passing notes and suspensions, particularly at cadences, and on occasion more licentious dissonances. This was still regarded as the ‘classic’ manner by most music theorists of the late 15th century and has become known in musical literature as the ‘6th-chord’ or ‘fauxbourdon’ style. But around 1450, or even before, composers and performers started to use a contratenor bassus, derived not from the discantus but from the tenor, beneath which they sang alternate 3rds and 5ths, beginning and ending with a unison or octave, and with the cadential octave preceded by a 5th; to the resulting tricinium a new kind of contratenor altus might also be added, by singing alternate 3rds and 4ths above the tenor, beginning and ending with a 5th, and with the cadential 5th preceded by a 4th (see exx.3 and 4 below).
‘Faux bourdon’, though not in itself a mandatory canonic instruction, is therefore a kind of trademark that tells the performers that they may increase the sonority of the music by adding one or two canonically derived parts.
Not to be confused, of course, with Faburden:
The term ‘faburden’ originally designated the lowest voice in an English technique of polyphonic vocal improvisation that enabled a group of soloists or a choir to sing at sight a three-part harmonization of plainchant, derived from the notes of the chant itself. It flourished from about 1430 or earlier until the time of the Reformation. The highly schematic formula used led to chains of what would now be called 6-3 chords, punctuated by occasional 8-5 chords (particularly at the beginnings and ends of phrases and words). The plainchant was thought of as the mean or middle voice, from which the other two parts were derived, although of course the chant was also present in the treble, which doubled it at the upper 4th while the bottom part sang 5ths or 3rds beneath it. The singers apparently declaimed the words simultaneously in the normal rhythm of plainchant. Ends of phrases were slightly ornamented, probably from quite early on, to provide satisfactory cadential suspensions; it is unlikely, at least in choral performance, that general ornamentation was introduced.
So, Fauxbourdons have to do with expanding plainchant into polyphonic chant, and with a technique of intervals. It has been described to me as a kind of forerunner of Anglican Chant - but of course, Fauxbourdons actually began in France, and came to England, somehow, as Faburden.
The Compline Choir of St. David's Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas has several examples of Fauxbourdons available at its "Music Files for Downloading" page.
Here's one example: a Nunc Dimittis by Ludovico Grossi da Viadana, Tone 5 Fauxbourdons/Antiphon Resurrexit Dominus.
Here's another: another Nunc Dimittis, by Richard Runciman Terry, Tone 5 Fauxbourdons/Antiphon Resurrexit Dominus.
(An aside: What's really interesting to me is that the "Alleluia" in the Antiphons above is the same one used by the French group Discantus in their version of the hymn to St. James the Apostle ("Alleluia, O Iacobe Sanctissime"), sung on the Pilgrimage to Compostela. Go here to listen to it; press the little red triangle under the CD image. Was this a common music theme used in that era, I wonder?)
And here, much to my delight, is The Advent Prose, (with Vaughan Williams Fauxbourdon), sung just this past December 9th. The words of this text (with refrain: "Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour forth righteousness: let the earth be fruitful, and bring forth a Saviour") come from Isaiah; you can see the full set of lyrics, in Latin and in English, here. (The English words used on this recording are a bit different than the ones at that link; you can find them here.)
February 14's Choral Evensong at St. Thomas Church featured a wonderful Evening Service - the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis - listed as "Tones VI and II in Fauxbourdon - Dearnley." Christopher Dearnley was the Organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London from 1968-1990. It's a beautiful and dramatic piece - I'm thinking it's probably a technician's delight - but the link will be gone in another week or so. So act now!