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Saturday morning quote #36: Inventing music history Part III

January 28, 2012

This is our third Saturday post that includes quotes from and offers an outsider’s perspective on the thrust of the book, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (MIMM).  At this point, the reader is probably wondering why the writer of this blog is devoting so much time and energy to the book.  Is it that important?  Does it offer a synthesis of insight that helps us understand the importance of historical music and its relevance to modern musicians and their audiences?  Are there scholarly insights that dangle before us the keys to unlock the mysteries of ancient compositional practice or modes of performance, giving us the tools that lead towards an effective interpretation of early music?  The answer is a disappointing ‘none of the above.’

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson’s name pops up frequently in articles and recording reviews found in the journal, Early Music.  For those of us involved in the realm of lute songs, his article, “My Lady’s Tears: A Pair of Songs by John Dowland” (Early Music, Vol. 19, No. 2 (May, 1991), pp. 227-233), provides a useful analysis of one of our favorite songs, ‘I saw my Lady weepe’ from Dowland’s Second Booke of Songs (1600), and discusses the natural pairing of the song with the more famous ‘Flow my teares fall from your springs’.  The article also offers a comparison of Dowland’s setting of the text with that of Thomas Morley from his First Booke of Ayres (1600).  But Leech-Wilkinson’s name is more frequently associated with medieval music and his book, Machaut’s Mass: An Introduction (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), offers a perspective and analysis of this incredibly complex yet richly expressive setting of the Mass.

Expertise in a given area of research affords a scholar the privilege to opine with authority on related disciplines and historical eras that may border his area of specialty, since the very practice of historical research imprints artificial boundaries on events and practices.  And there is much to learn from reading the insights of a scholar who has undertaken the task of understanding and relating a repertory as complexly nuanced as that of Machaut.  But when that scholar decides to blur the objectivity necessary to recognizing and understanding nuance with the distinctly opinionated role of reviewer and commentator, this writer begins to feel a rise in blood pressure.

The Medieval Ensemble of London, directed by Peter and Timothy Davies, researched, performed and recorded an enormous amount of medieval music from the 1970s through around 1985.  Their recording, Johannes Ockeghem -The Complete Secular Music (released 1982) remains a classic, and they received excellent reviews from some sources when the recording was current.  The Davies were interested in keeping abreast of current research and, as their recorded output demonstrates, they embraced some of the very ideas being advanced by Leech-Wilkinson and his colleagues.  But their downfall was that the Davies played instruments – flutes and plucked strings that were even appropriate for the era – and their recordings  were subjected to critical reviews in Early Music because they did not fully embrace the all-vocal performance mode that was being advanced deliberately and relentlessly by certain reviewers.  Leech-Wilkinson writes:

“…Peter Davies explained that they genuinely wanted to do medieval music the right way…but the brothers had nothing to do themselves, and in the end preferred to give up rather than go on getting it ‘wrong’ or not being involved.”  (MIMM, p. 139)

And somehow detaching himself from his own significant role in the downfall of the Medieval Ensemble of London, and seemingly without contrition, he states:

“It is a salutary reminder of the way that special interest groups, even in early music, can twist a consensus to suit their own narrow agenda.” (MIMM, p. 139)

And, yet again, I repeat the quote that inspired this writer to comment at all:

“We wanted to influence the performers, the record-buying public and through them the record companies, and…we spared none of the instrument-based groups whose records came our way  The tone may be scornful or patronisingly sorrowful, lofty or irritated, but the message was unmistakable: buy Gothic Voices, the Taverner Consort, the Hilliard Ensemble, and leave the rest.”  (MIMM, p. 138)

Next week’s post will conclude this series with interesting insights on the work of Howard Mayer Brown.

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