Saturday morning quotes 2.6: 15th century music
“Fifteenth-century composers apparently conceived their music without regard for certain important elements that have since become an integral part of the the compositional process. Thus, they left to the imagination of performers the tasks of fitting each syllable of poetry to the music, of adding accidentals, and of creating a specific sonority by selecting appropriate combinations of voices and instruments.”
“How the composer’s intentions were realized in actual sound would have depended on the intelligence and musicality of the performers—on how well they understood the “meaning” of the music—to a much greater extent than today, and any one version of a piece would have varied according to the forces available and the acoustical environment in which the performance took place.”
- Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson.” Current Thought in Musicology, ed. John W. Grubbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976) p. 90
Today, we share a few quotes excerpted from an article by Howard Mayer Brown (1930 – 1993), a musicologist and renaissance specialist whose work brought to light many important aspects of performance of old music. We have mentioned his work previously in connection with a series of posts (#35 – #37) on the interpretation of medieval music, as an advocate for a more flexible interpretation of music for which no performance indications survive.
Brown makes a case for the use of the lute accompanying a solo voice by playing the lower parts of the typical three-part 15th-century chanson, based on iconography, good common sense, and surviving evidence:
A fragmentary manuscript discovered some years ago in Bologna by Hans David contains an arrangement of Vincinet’s Fortune par tu cruaulté for solo voice and lute, in which the lute plays the lowest two voices…The manuscript is bound with a mathematical treatise printed in 1484, and so the music may date from the last quarter of the fifteenth century. [p. 103]
Our recording La Rota Fortuna has several examples of this format, to which we add a video of our unique version of ‘Myn hertis lust’, by John Bedyngham (fl.1450) from a 2009 performance of our program, “The Tudors”, a four-part lecture/recital series exploring the musical, social, religious, and political developments of the turbulent 118-year Tudor reign.
‘Myn hertis lust’ is a rhythmically nuanced musical setting by Bedyngham of a rhyme royal text. Arriving at a convincing performance edition of this piece was a challenge, since the text of the original found in the Mellon Chansonnier (c. 1476, Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library) was quite corrupt. The piece was apparently copied into the continental manuscript by a person with a vague understanding of the English text, creating an interesting problem in text underlay for the editor.
Myn hertis lust, sterre of my confort
Which is the guide unto my parfaite liffe,
Cherti, that welle of plesance and disport,
Whom that y serve with herte atentiffe,
And sithe for you is my care and striffe,
Off womanhede so have upon me routhe,
Sithe y, pray you, mene veray and trouthe.
There are several other recorded interpretations of ‘Myn hertis lust’, most of which employ a vocalized rendering of the untexted lower parts. We feel that our version (for its faults as a live recording) is a example of using Brown’s advice by employing our “intelligence and musicality” to communicate the text and rhythmic subtlety in a more transparent and accessible manner. After all, it’s a song that was meant to be heard and understood, rather than an oddment that belongs in a museum.
For those who would like to try their own interpretation, a printed facsimile of the Mellon Chansonnier with transcriptions is available: The Mellon Chansonnier by Leeman L. Perkins and Howard Garey, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1979 ISBN 0300014163 (0-300-01416-3)