Skip to content

Saturday morning quotes 5.38: Boccaccio

“…Dioneo picked up a lute and Fiammetta a viola, and they began softly playing a dance tune…the Queen began to dance a carola with the other ladies and two of the young men; and when that was over, they all began to sing gay and carefree canzonetts. In this manner they continued until the Queen felt that it was time to retire…”

Il Decamerone, Prima giornata

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313 – 1375) is best known today as the author of Il Decamerone (The Decameron).  Without delving too deeply into his biographical information and sidestepping for the moment the significant thread of symbolism that runs throughout his work, we cut to the chase and examine Boccaccio’s treatment of music in his collection of stories.

Our quotations are drawn from two articles: Howard Mayer Brown, “Fantasia on a Theme by Boccaccio”, Early Music, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Jul., 1977), pp. 324-339; and Marco Cerocchi, “Boccaccio’s Decameron as a Primary Literary Source for the Musical Movement of Ars Nova in Italy”, Italica, Vol. 84, No. 4 (Winter, 2007), pp. 679-690.

Written in the Italian vernacular, Boccaccio’s Il Decamerone presents what was for the time a unique framework; a collection of 100 stories as related by a brigata of young men and women who have fled Florence to escape the ravages of the plague. Self-made music was integral to daily life at the time in worship and as entertainment. Cerocchi gives a bit of background that provides a context for music of Boccaccio’s time:

“Within his treatise entitled Ars Nova (“The New Art”, 1320), Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), one of the great intellectuals of his time and a friend of Petrarch, laid the ground work for this new practice. By making use of binary tempo segmentation within his own compositions, de Vitry’s ideas were in opposition with medieval norms. Previously, only time segmentations in three units, intended to represent the Holy Trinity, was considered “perfect” by the Holy See and, therefore, permitted for use in liturgical chants.”

“Targeted arguments were made in opposition to the type of multiple voice polyphony that characterized Ars Nova. It was alleged that such an elaborated style would distract parishioners from, rather than focus them on, the religious rituals that were being performed. Under this musical scheme, different and independent melodic lines are sung simultaneously, and it was thought that such a confluence of sounds would affect the comprehension of the words being sung, and consequently, the meaning of the sacred scriptures. Because of the staunch resistance offered the Papal Curia in the form of this argument, the use of such polyphony was disallowed in the sacred works of the time, effectively confining its application to secular songs. The latter benefited greatly as a result, allowing the popularity of such profane music to overshadow that of sacred compositions during the fourteenth century.”

– Cerocchi, p. 680

While this description seems overly simplified, it is an accurate assessment based upon the surviving evidence without speculating as to the nature of music that may never been written down at all.  Needless to say, the musicians of the brigata most likely sang and played monophonic songs and dance tunes.   Moving on to the nature of music in Il Decamerone, Cerocchi describes the scene:

“Boccaccio’s Decameron is the first work written in prose to bear the hallmarks of the new attitude toward music promoted by the Ars Nova.  In it, a merry “brigata” [group] of three young men and seven women takes refuge within a villa near Florence, in order to escape the plague that ravaged the city in 1348.  Music assumes a pivotal role throughout the course of their daily activities, offering the reader a glimpse into people’s perception of this art form during Boccaccio’s time.  Songs and instrumental works provide a buffer from the suffering that is occurring elsewhere and allow the characters to pass their time in a rather blissful and lighthearted manner…”

– Cerocchi, p. 681

“Throughout the short stories, Boccaccio makes extensive use of music’s earthly qualities as a means of effectively separating his “merry group” from the tortuous events which are unfolding just beyond the borders of their self-created sanctuary. These ten individuals engage in frequent musically oriented activities, usually accompanied by dancing.  As a result, the pain and anguish, which might otherwise torment these young survivors of the plague, are effectively kept at bay. The author uses music, much as a physician might a medicinal compound: as a means of alleviating suffering. Beyond its capacity to provide a safe haven for his characters, music is employed as a means of delineating for the reader, the sharp contrast that exists between the reality of these ten people and the torment experienced by those outside of their fellowship.  It is not hard to imagine the bleakness of Florence, which exists just beyond their Villa’s boundaries, ravaged by plague and poignantly devoid of music.”

– Cerocchi, p. 683

Howard Mayer Brown made a closer examination of musical references in Boccaccio’s text, surviving musical sources, and what we know of music as a social medium to determine just what sort of personalities are described and what sort of music the brigata may have played.

“ Quite aside from its literary distinction, the Decameron supplies us with valuable information about the musical practices of the trecento, since the band of young Florentines began and ended each day singing songs and dancing, and some of their stories allude to music. The Decameron, along with other literary works that include descriptions of contemporary life, and paintings, miniatures and other pictures that show us how the world looked to 14th-century artists, are especially helpful in answering two kinds of question—how did music sound in the 14th century, and what place did it have in society—that are otherwise difficult to answer, and that need to be asked as urgently as those dealing with style, genre and compositional technique that seem to pre-occupy musicologists almost to the exclusion of everything else.”

– Brown, p. 325-326

“…In some of the stories the degree of refinement in a character is measured partly by his musical abilities.  There is, for example, the uncouth son of a Cypriot nobleman, whose story is recounted on the fifth day (story 1). Upon falling in love, he cultivates the art of being a gentleman, abandoning his coarse, rustic accent in favour of a more seemly and civilized manner of speech; he learns to ride and make war, and he even becomes an accomplished singer and musician. In another story (eighth day, story 9), Simone, newly arrived in Florence to set up a practice after having received his degree in medicine from the University of Bologna, brags to his new friends about how educated he is. He can tell stories, he says, and even sing. But his singing wins him faint praise. ‘With a cacophonous voice like that’, replies his friend, ‘you could charm the vultures out of the trees.’”

– Brown, p. 330

“In short, the Decameron leads us to sharpen our perceptions of the social uses of music in the trecento, and helps us to evaluate the surviving music against a background broader than merely the history of manuscripts containing polyphony…Boccaccio does not tell us precisely who his young Florentines were, but we can assume, I think, that they were the sons and daughters of rich merchants and bankers, connected by family marriages, bonds of friendship, and class ties. They cultivated music as a social grace. Some of them played instruments and most of them sang. Sophisticated single-line melodies setting refined and elegant amorous lyrics sufficed for their musical needs, along with a repertory of dance tunes now largely lost.”

– Brown, p. 337

Saturday morning quotes 5.37: Danse macabre


Media vita in morte sumus
(In the midst of life we are in death).

– attributed to Notker I of Saint Gall, died 912 AD.

The Danse macabre as representational art seems to have had its origins in what Barbara W. Tuchman called the calamitous 14th century, a time when the plague and constant war ravaged Europe.  Death was portrayed as a grinning and purposeful skeleton who summons people from all walks of life as they dance to their respective graves.  The foreboding theme as seen in surviving paintings, sculpture, woodcuts, stained glass and illuminations of manuscript books was initially standardized to represent the figures of a pope, emperor, king, child, and and a commoner, reinforcing a penitential lesson that all might understand—the notion of Death as the great leveler who touches all at his whim, and a grim reminder to live life today with an eye on the hereafter.

“The origins of the danse macabre, or Dance of Death, are still obscure, but the popularity of this theme in the late Middle Ages and beyond is undeniable.  From the first half of the 15th century, it spread rapidly through European art, literature and drama.”

“The term danse macabre implies both dancing and music, and these were originally crucial ingredients.  Of course, there is a firm link between music and death that dates back to Antiquity.  Music often played a role in funeral rites, and musical instruments have been found in ancient tombs, presumably for use or entertainment in the afterlife.  Tales were also told of creatures who used music to lure the living to their deaths, from the sirens whom Odysseus successfully resisted, to the more modern legends of the Pied Piper and the Lorelei.”

“…Perhaps the most cynical picture of contemporary life can be found in Holbein’s woodcut series, which was designed in the mid-1520s during the artist’s stay in Basel, a city that once housed two famous danse macabre murals…Holbein does not present the theme as a continuous chain of dancers, but as a series of independent scenes in which Death surprises one victim after another; sometimes quite subtly, but often in a very violent manner…The nun is another target of Holbein’s irony: kneeling in her cell before a small altar, she ogles the handsome young man playing a lute while seated on her bed.  Her thoughts are clearly fixed on earthly pleasures, and she is blind to the fact that Death is about to snuff her candle.”

– Sophie Oosterwijk, “Of Corpses, Constables and Kings: The Danse Macabre in Late Medieval and Renaissance Culture”, The Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 157 (2004), 61-90.

“I don’t know much about history, and I wouldn’t give a nickel for all the history in the world. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

– Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916

Since the close of the Victorian age, western culture has shifted focus away from family and familiar ritual and instead on attainment and acquisition, and we seem to have lost sight of the importance of rituals that help us accept and celebrate death and dying. Rather than accepting the inevitability of death, we are shocked and grief-stricken when touched by it.  The line that connects cause and effect is clearly drawn: There is little encouragement to embrace the inevitability of death today because our 21st-century consumer culture could not possibly be sustained if the population were mindfully focused on right livelihood and the hereafter.

The Danse macabre and Memento mori themes lived on through Elizabethan melancholy and the lachrymose but artful music of John Dowland. But the theme also found its way into traditional folk music and ballad-singing traditions.  A Conversation With Death is hauntingly sung by Lloyd Chandler (1896-1978), a Free Will Baptist preacher from Madison County, North Carolina, whose singing was captured on the the recording High Atmosphere, an important anthology of ballads and banjo tunes from Virginia and North Carolina collected by John Cohen in 1965.  A beautiful contrast to Chandler’s ballad is heard in the singing of Bessie Jones (1902-1984) whose stunning version, derived from African roots, is titled O Death.  Then there is John Fahey‘s 1964 recording, The Dance of Death and Other Plantation Favorites, which seems to be an ironic mashup of medieval macabre and American folk culture, themed and thumbed to an insistent alternating bass.

Death addressing All:
I call all and everyone to this dance:
pope, emperor, and all creatures
poor, rich, big, or small.
Step forward, mourning won’t help now!
Remember though at all times
to bring good deeds with you
and to repent your sins
for you must dance to my pipe.

– from Elina Gertsman, “The Dance of Death in Reval (Tallinn): The Preacher and His Audience”, Gesta, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2003), pp. 143-159.

Lloyd Chandler, A Conversation with Death

Oh what is this I cannot see
With icy hands gets a hold on me
Oh I am Death, none can excel
I open the doors of heaven and hell

O Death, O Death how can it be
That I must come and go with thee
O Death, O Death how can it be
I’m unprepared for eternity

Yes, I have come for to get your soul
To leave your body and leave it cold
To drop the flesh from off your frame
The earth and worm both have their claim

O Death, O Death if this be true
Please give me time to reason with you
From time to time you heard and saw
I’ll close your eyes, I’ll lock your jaw

I’ll lock your jaw so you can’t talk
I’ll fix your feet so you can’t walk
I’ll close your eyes so you can’t see
This very hour come and go with me

O Death, O Death consider my age
And do not take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hand

The old, the young, the rich, the poor
Alike with me will have to go
No age, no wealth, no silver nor gold
Nothing satisfies me but your poor soul

O Death, O Death please let me see
If Christ has turned his back on me
When you were called and asked to bow
You wouldn’t take heed and it’s too late now

O Death, O Death please give me time
To fix my heart and change my mind
Your heart is fixed, your mind is bound
I have that shackles to drag you down

Too late, too late, to all farewell
Your soul is doomed, you’re summonsed to hell
As long as God in heaven shall dwell
Your soul your soul shall scream in hell.

– from “A Conversation with Death”, Journal of Folklore Research, Volume 41, Number 2, May-August 2004
pp. 125-126.

Saturday morning quotes 5.36: I got Rhythm

Taking a retrospective look at the development of musical notation and the various means of indicating rhythm, it becomes abundantly clear why so many performances of historical music seem so bland.  If we cleave to our modern understanding of rhythmic notation and rely solely upon accepted dynamic markings to inject life into the music, we will never even come close to approximating music as it was originally heard.

It is generally accepted that musical notation was developed by Guido d’Arezzo (circa 1025) as a means of keeping track of an ever expanding archive of liturgical chant.  Prior to Guido’s innovation, neumatic notations had been in use but they offered more of a graphical representation of the rising and falling of phrases and gave a less specific indication of actual pitches.  But Guido’s notation still lacked concrete rhythmic information, causing much speculation on the part of modern musicians as to how to perform medieval monophonic song and Gregorian chant.  To this day, we hear leaden performances of chant that lack shape and vitality because singers don’t seem to understand that rhythm is derived directly from the texts.

“As to the problem of musical rhythm, it springs from the fact that most, though by no means all, of the above repertoires reach us in notations which do not symbolize or imply rhythm, though each syllable of the text normally coordinates with one note or one figure of two or more notes. But occasionally a syllable, particularly one concluding a verse, carries several figures- a melisma or what we today call a cadenza. Therefore many editors and performers of such melodies insist that no definite rhythm was intended by the composers. When coordinating these melodies with their texts, this approach produces a similarly free-flowing, non-metric rhythm for the poetry, which thus becomes prose. The performer who accepts this idea has complete freedom to create the rhythm and to create it differently in each stanza and at each presentation.”

“This position is, however, based on a consideration of only part of the evidence, namely that of the musical notation, and this evidence is a wholly negative one, viz. the absence of rhythmic symbols in most instances. It is therefore not convincing, as it neglects a consideration of the poetry. The fact is, moreover, that the notation of most repertoires of late medieval monophony in no way differs from that of the comtemporaneous repertoires of polyphonic songs- the conductus, motets, and cantilenae- all of which are, without a doubt and despite their non-rhythmic appearance, strictly metric-rhythmic compositions.”

“Indeed, several manuscripts include both trouvere and polyphonic songs side by side and sometimes intermingled in the same premensural notation. Therefore the argument that the premensural notation of monophonic songs must be regarded as representing a free-rhythmic flow, while the same notation in polyphonic music implies strict meter and regular rhythm, is hardly convincing.”

– Hans Tischler, “The Performance of Medieval Songs.”, Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 43 (1989), p. 226.

Many specialist performers, and those who may direct a schola cantorum for the purpose of singing Gregorian chant, seem to think that since the notes are square, the music should be lifeless, detached, even and square as well.  But if we read and heed the meaning of the texts—and observe their poetical meter—we begin to understand that those who may have sung the same music in the 12th century were once living, breathing human beings who, unlike graphical representations of the time, had dimension.

“As the 12th century progressed, the growing vitality of the Classical poetic meters paralleled the rise of regular rhythm in music and that of a notation to symbolize it, which was needed to coordinate the voice parts in the developing art of polyphonic composition. These developments went hand in hand with the acceptance in the West of the Arabic numerals and algebra and with the general enthusiasm for the geometric Gothic architecture. The verse meters are reflected in the dance and tavern songs of the goliards, culminating with the Archpoet who died in 1167, as well as in the courtly poetry of the troubadours, whose verses established a tradition which was continued by the trouveres. It is rather unthinkable that the new number-inspired spirit of the period should not have affected these poet-musicians, some of whom are known to have composed polyphonic works as well as monophonic songs or to have set texts to pre-existing clausulae, turning them into motets.”

“These three historical considerations, the influence of Classical and Muslim poetry and the rise of the new mathematics and polyphonic notation, strongly suggest that meter plays an important role in medieval poetry.”

– Hans Tischler, p. 228

Speaking of the dance and tavern songs, there is much to be gained by understanding the important role of dancing in the lives of our distant ancestors—and its unspoken yet pervasive influence on other music.  When we think of dancing today, it is either related to showy performances by the stars du jour, or an entertaining extra-curricular activity that a person may indulge in by conscious choice.   In the past, social dance was a ubiquitous and important part of life for those not constrained by certain vows.  When recreating music of the past, it is vital to understand that dance rhythms were so ingrained that there was little need to mention the fact.  But this seems to escape many modern editors and performers.

“Transcribing medieval notations of dance music-or indeed notations of any unfamiliar dance music-meaningfully into twentieth-century symbols needs more than just cracking the notational codes; one must also attempt to crack the choreometric codes enshrined in music and/or texts, whether dance functional or not, and something of the behavioural codes of which dance habits were, and still are, a significant component.”

– Joan Rimmer, “Medieval Instrumental Dance Music.”, Music & Letters, Vol. 72, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), p. 63

In the lute world, we see both editors of the music and players of the instrument attempting to “crack the notational code”.  But dwelling on the notated music with little understanding of rhythmic vitality leads to bland interpretations that are very likely uncharacteristic of the music of the distant past.  Dwelling on the notation is akin to unduly cherishing the written recipe but caring less for the resulting food.  And everyone knows that the best cooks have little need for written recipes.

“If technical evidence about dance from the twelfth century onwards is taken into account, it seems clear that, while some highly learned and literate people were personally and intimately acquainted with contemporary social dances, others were less so; but it was the latter who were more likely to put their opinions into written form. Sir Jack Westrup remarked that ‘elegant description is not the same as definition, but it is not always easy to separate the two’.  One may add that, in any historical field, some attempt to define the nature of past describers is desirable, and that relevant tools of analysis are essential. Where physical techniques of any kind are involved, some degree of realistic acquaintance with them is equally essential.”

– Joan Rimmer, p. 68



Saturday morning quotes 5.35: Perspective

After reading publicity materials from yet another young baroque band, proudly trumpeting their flamboyant and extrovert performances—employing baroque music as a medium for social change—we pause briefly to reset the badly sprung taste meter. Pity poor baroque music, thrust into an unflattering and entirely unsuitable role. It was never meant to act as an agent for social change. Baroque music originally served a function: a diversion and a welcome relief from the war, disease, pain, misery, bad teeth, worse smells and general lack of youtube videos that characterized the 17th -18th centuries. Or, as in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, music was primarily for liturgical use and the lion’s share of his instrumental music was composed for didactic purposes and dedicated to Soli Deo gloria.

Let’s step back a moment and attempt to gain a tiny bit of perspective.  Now take one step further and carefully consider your motivation for playing historical music.  And finally, let’s remember just how far out of context we can take historical music before it utterly fails the HIP test and becomes yet another tawdry spectacle of contemporary popular entertainment.

“…What we call historical performance is the sound of now, not then. It derives its authenticity not from its historical verisimilitude, but from its being for better or worse a true mirror of late-20th-century taste…So forget history. What Early Music has been doing is busily remaking the music of the past in the image of the present (necessary because we unfortunately have so little use for the actual music of the present), only calling the present by some other name.”

Richard Taruskin,“The Spin Doctors of Early Music,” New York Times, July 29, 1990

“…I think most historians would doubt that medieval Europe was in the thrall of a half-dozen professional touring ensembles, each consisting of a handful of attractive, literate and well-nourished men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, with all their teeth intact.”

– Benjamin Bagby, “What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

“…The particular skill of the British early-music singer can prevent a full appreciation of the demands of the music and inhibit forms of expression yet to be explored. I suggest too that modern a cappella performance may tell us more about modern cultural conditions than about the original performance.”

Donald Greig, “Sight-Readings: Notes on “A cappella” Performance Practice,” Early Music, Vol. 23, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 124-148

“For performances of historical music to be convincing in the present – for them to create an aura of authenticity, historical or otherwise, for both performers and audiences – the sounds and styles used must be perceived as timeless.”

– Elizabeth Upton, “Concepts of Authenticity in Early Music and Popular Music Communities”, Ethnomusicology Review, Volume 17 (2012)

“…Few audiences share the emotional or theological associations that period audiences felt toward specific texts, chorales, or plainchant melodies. This is an example of another broad argument for impossibility, involving reception, which says that composers wrote for audiences whose experiences not only of music but also of much that music refers to differed from those of our time.”

“One [motive for performing historical music] is competition for attention and status in a field that is increasingly crowded. If great performers have already fully explored the mainstream style and repertory, one way to make one’s mark is to stake out new and unconquered musical territory either in repertory or in performance style.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed.”

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in Musical Performance

A theme emerges from the observations quoted above: Performance of early music today has very little to do with recreating historical sounds and embracing them on their own merits, and everything to do with adapting the music to suit a modern performing mode that meets modern audience expectations. But to extend the discussion a bit further, throughout this commentary we read about performing medieval and baroque music for modern audiences—and absolutely nothing about performing music of the 16th century.

Music of the 16th century is something of an ignored “middle child” relative to that of the more easily re-invented Medieval period, or the more straightforward, elaborate and extrovert Baroque period. When the uninformed listener thinks of the Renaissance, images of tights and ruffs, Queens-a-leaping, bells, whistles and things that go buzz in the night, all spring to mind. This sad state of affairs is entirely due to fanciful imagery projected by Hollywood, but it is also reinforced by the “Renaissance Fayre” events and their adherents who mingle costumes, dancing, and modern world-music styles together to form a commercially viable hybrid experience. Sadly, this media image overshadows and obscures the quiet dignity and the depth and subtlety of music composed by such figures as Josquin des Prez, Francisco Guererro, and Francesco Canova da Milano.

The plain truth is that the best 16th-century music is both intimate and intricate and does not particularly lend itself to extrovert modes of performance that one sees in modern theatrical staging of medieval and baroque music. Performers simply cannot aim for the lowest common denominator when attracting an appreciative audience to a nuanced repertory that possesses depth and substance. Instead, performers must develop a strength and sureness of presentation that invites the willing listener into a quiet sound world where subtlety and detail reign—and where there are no exaggerated gestures or loud crashbang antics for the performer to hide behind, and not

“…where the nature of everie word is precisely exprest in the Note, like the old exploided action in Comedies, when if they did pronounce Memini [I remember], they would point to the hinder part of their heads, if Video [I see], put their finger in their eye. But such childish observing of words is altogether ridiculous…”

Thomas Campion, “To the Reader”,  A Book of Ayres, Philip Rosseter / Thomas Campion, 1601.

The other plain truth is that today’s audiences desperately need to be immersed in a rare moment of quiet beauty.  And they desire honest performances as a respite from the daily bombardment of flashing images, news-noise and more noise some call music, and from indulging in this ubiquitous mind-numbing, thumb-straining smart-aleck phone addiction.  And if you want to be all arty about it, giving them more noisy quasi-baroque hip-hop performances is nothing more than pandering to conventional popular taste.  While you’re at it, take a look at the sort of hype-laden advertising language you employ to promote your shows: the same sort of over-the-top adspeak that convinced us we needed radium watch dials, that smoking was good for you, that DDT is great for controlling head lice, to supersize your fast food from McDonalds, and that greed is good.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we dropped the hype and simply described the music we play as “our”music, which we love and happen to perform really well. If it’s convincing, people will notice, because as Taruskin said, we have “little use for the actual music of the present” and it’s no wonder.  So why should we bother adapting our performances of historical music to suit modern tastes?


Saturday morning quotes 5.34: Influences

“What are your influences?”

– Jimmy Rabbitte from the The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (film, 1991)

Whether we like to accept the fact or not it is nearly impossible for a musician to avoid being influenced by examples.  In musical genres like rock, it is not only typical but essential for a band to list their sonic models so fans and prospective band mates can easily judge whether to audition, or to bother listening at all.  The quote above is from the must-see film, The Commitments, which sometimes amusingly, sometimes poignantly traces the evolution of a band from its inception through its inevitable disintegration.  When the erstwhile manager and protagonist of the story, Jimmy Rabbitte, places an advertisement and invites all and sundry to audition, they are met at the door and asked to state their influences before even allowed entry.

In early music, one tends to be influenced by the insights of scholars at least as much as by performers—moreso in the case of the present writer.  My (RA) influences can be be easily discerned simply by reading through some five year’s worth of weekly blog posts.  But the writings of Margaret Bent, Bonnie Blackburn, Howard Mayer Brown, Edward Doughtie, David Fallows, Edward Lowinsky, Reinhard Strohm, John Ward, Rob C. Wegman and Christoph Wolff have preoccupied much of my time over the last several years.  A musicologist whose writing had an enormous influence on my understanding of music for voice and lute is Daniel Heartz, whose introduction to Preludes, Chansons, and Dances for Lute Published by Pierre Attaingnant (1529 -1530), Société de Musique d’Autrefois, Neuilly-Sur-Seine, 1964, I have read time and again.  After fifty years since publication, there is no better introduction to the chansons and dance forms one encounters in the music of 16th-century France.

Happily, there are rare cases when an insightful scholar and consummate performer are one and the same person.

“…In today’s world of medieval music one can also encounter the concert experience as pretentious pseudo-liturgy; as ironic, edgy cabaret; as ponderous mystery play or cute, costumed courtly entertainment; as ecstatic ethnic percussion session; as extravagantly-orchestrated symphonic poem; as dutiful list of dry musical examples; as SCA free-for-all, etc. For some of these performance modes, technical ability (to play an instrument well or sing in tune with a consistent production) is not considered essential. Medieval song, having no living traditions except the ones we create for it, thrives even in the harshest of environments and adapts easily to the disguises performers require it to inhabit. No other ‚historical’ music is thus fated to absorb such intense projections and fantasies from its modern performers.”

– Benjamin Bagby, “What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

What we hear tends to seep into our subconscious and, while it’s easy to acknowledge one’s models in any other broad genre of recorded music, influences in early music are a bit tricky since the music itself is re-creative rather than original.  If we are influenced by recorded examples, we are merely copying the musical personalities of (mostly) living, breathing performers and colleagues.

However, if you play the lute, you like hearing the sounds of the lute.  While I mostly listen to old recordings of jazz from the 1930s and 40s and have nearly sworn off listening to recordings of early music altogether, the many recordings of Hopkinson Smith tend to keep cropping up at home.  Two other lutenists deserve praise and much more exposure: Eugène Ferré has a masterful way of combining a warm tone and sensitive phrasing with a clear rendering of polyphonic music, and his recording, Jean-Paul Paladin : Tablature De Luth, Arcana, 1994, is nothing less than wonderful.  Luciano Contini is another musician whose music deserves wider distribution.  His playing of Bach’s Prelude (fugue and allegro) pour la luth o cembalo BWV 998 is a masterpiece in calm, sensitive, insightful performance on the lute.  You can hear the fugue here and judge for yourself.


Saturday morning quotes 5.33: Get real

Our commitment to intimate music of the 16th century tends to baffle our musical friends and colleagues.  Of course there are more effective ways to reach modern audiences who have been conditioned to respond to loud music and flashy staging. To modern audiences, the acceptable standard performance involves belting out a noisy number in front of a large band; engaging in bodily gyrations before an elaborate backdrop with a distracting light show.  To us, that means Monteverdi.

We know many keyboardists, organists and string players who should (and sometimes do) understand that loud 16th-century music was typically performed only outdoors, or in massive cathedrals on important feast days.  A fine line separates pandering to modern tastes and simply doing what is necessary to attract an audience, and we respect the intelligent financial choices of our friends and colleagues. But intellectual honesty demands that we draw the line when performance practice is deliberately misinterpreted, hijacked, and used to justify a modern aesthetic.  Essentially, this describes the orchestrated early music phenomenon that advanced what was known as the a cappella heresy—a movement to perform any and all early vocal music with voices alone. This approach became the norm despite the disturbing lack of evidence to support the practice and despite clear evidence to the contrary demonstrating instrumental participation in polyphonic music.

Of course, we love vocal polyphony and indulge on a regular basis.  But it is clear that vocal polyphony developed in tandem with music for solo voice and lute, and much of the published part music may have even started out life in the more intimate format. As we learn from the writing of Howard Mayer Brown, there is a universe of information that must be discovered, digested and internalized before one can understand and deliver truly sensitive interpretations of sixteenth-century music, our area of concentration.  A particularly useful article is Howard Mayer Brown, “‘Ut Musica Poesis’: Music and Poetry in France in the Late Sixteenth Century”, Early Music History, Vol. 13 (1994), pp. 1-63.

“…If we are ever to understand the complex interplay of music, poetry, ideas and politics we need to set aside aesthetic criteria, however important they normally are to us, in the effort to comprehend better the entire range of musical activity in sixteenth-century France, as well as its effects and purposes.”

This enlightening article is chock-full of information vital to a sensitive musical interpretation of sixteenth-century music for voice and lute.  Characteristically thorough, Brown’s article has seven detailed appendices attached, including a listing of all the musical settings of Ronsard‘s poetry published between 1550 and 1566.  Regarding the more obvious development of (published) vocal polyphony and the less obvious standard practice of  (mostly unpublished) music for solo voice and lute, Brown referred to the innovations of the French Pléiade through the writing of Pontus de Tyard (c. 1521 – 1605).

“[Tyard] strongly advocates monophonic music, single lines of melody that enhance rather than destroy the words, over the polyphony of his day that produces, according to Tyard, merely a great noise without moral value (‘un grand bruit, duquel vousne sentez aucune vive efficace’) – a polyphony, in short, that does not allow the words to produce their proper effect. In this connection, Tyard makes what is perhaps his clearest statement about the aim of music: ‘l’intention de Musique semble estre de donner tel air a la parole que tout escoutant se sente passionni, et se laisse tirer a l’affection du Poete’ (the intention of music appears to be to give melody to words so that all the listeners will be moved and will understand the affect of the poet).”

“Music obeys cosmic laws, but ultimately in the service of a persuasive rhetoric that moves people at the same time as it relates them directly to a universal world order. Poetry imitates nature, but music imitates poetry. It is surely a commonplace that French musicians and intellectuals have scarcely ever been as interested as some of their European counterparts in a completely abstract music, divorced from words or dance movements. Tyard seems to underscore that attitude in implying, too, that the cultivation of polyphony (and hence perhaps by extension also of purely abstract instrumental music) was an activity less praiseworthy and less deserving of serious consideration than the creation of a music associated with poetry.”

“The fact that the compositions were said to be measured on the lyre, whereas they were in truth published as polyphonic four-part pieces, reminds us that sixteenth-century music as it appears on the printed page is not always what it seems. It is but another example of music presumably intended in the first place as solo song but actually issued in a neutral polyphonic version which had to be adapted for performance, most probably in more than one equally acceptable way.”

Vocal polyphony is wonderful to hear and fulfilling to sing.  But let’s be honest: it does not convey texts as clearly as a solo voice with the lute playing the lower parts.  Like the application of accidentals in early music, it was not necessary to state that this was the standard performance practice because everyone knew it to be so.  But it is possible for a vocal ensemble to sing with sensitivity to texts and there are some specialist groups like the Ensemble Clément Janequin who nearly always include a lute in their performances, indicating their adherence to historical practice in a manner that only enhances the virtuoso quality of their ensemble singing.  For the rest, get real and find a lutenist.


Saturday morning quotes 5.32: Attention span

As another calendar year crashes to a close, we offer a few thoughts on what we see as a major affliction affecting all conscious or unwitting participants in the internet culture.  We mourn the demise of the attention span.  Although we have written on this topic over the past few years, some of our readers may not recall the finer details.  This self-quoted passage serves to provide a bit of contextual perspective:

“Performing old music for modern audiences involves another important adaptive approach to address a pervasive issue – the question of attention span.  How do we effectively engage a listener for the duration of a quiet and subtle song or lute solo that lasts 7 – 10 minutes?  We have to give this question serious consideration especially in view of the cold fact that our lives today seem to be driven by electronic devices that operate at speeds much faster than a caring, contemplative human cares to process a thought.”

“Advantages of living in our electronic age are abundant. We can multitask to our heart’s delight, embracing a universe of ideas and cascades of random information without having to encumber ourselves with the tiresome steps of considering whether the data are relevant, or even true.  Since Google is always at our fingertips, we no longer need to be bothered with the anachronistic process of committing information to memory, let alone converting knowledge into wisdom.”

An unhappy side-effect of the erosion of attention span is a collective diminishing of empathy.  We see this daily in public places where individuals are so absorbed with what is on that miniature plastic screen that they are incapable of understanding that they are among others and that basic human decency and courtesy, however outmoded, are required in order to fulfill the terms of our social contract.

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions…If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.”

– Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Empathy requires time for introspective thought, and introspection requires an attention span.  If we spend most of our lives in a private bubble concentrating on our phones, there will be no introspection, no empathy, no attention span.

“What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise—and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

– Nicholas Carr, “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”, Wired Magazine 05.24.10

Modern thought process leaves little time for music that has any degree of intellectual content or subtlety, an unfortunate situation for musicians committed to sharing quiet, introspective or spiritually-moving music with audiences.  However, we see a growing number of individuals willing to enter the realm “where subtlety and elegance trump flash and flamboyance, and content, rather than effect, is primary”, providing welcome encouragement in our efforts to dig deeper into the repertory.

As we explore the music of Jacob Obrecht, we appreciate the thoughtful analysis of Rob C. Wegman.  Discussing Obrecht’s Missa Maria zart, thought to be among the longest mass settings in the repertory, Wegman articulates his conclusions after analyzing the long duos Obrecht inserts in the Gloria and Credo.

“Reading through these sections, it is difficult to avoid the impression that they just go ‘on and on’;  no amount of device-spotting can take that impression away.  For their length seems somehow disproportionate to their content: can two-part writing sustain interest for such a length of time, can a composer afford to do without textural variety for so long?”

“The catch here, of course, is in the words ‘content’ and ‘interest’, for these reflect our own expectations.  Listen to this music for a full hour: our expectations may not have been fulfilled, but the mass does create a special experience, an experience that somehow transforms our perception of musical time.  That is what the score seems to tell us: be still and listen, ask no questions, expect no answers.  Listen.”

– Rob C. Wegman, Born for the Muses: The Life and Masses of Jacob Obrecht, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1994, p. 323.

If you have had an attention span sufficient to reach the bottom of the page, your reward is a download of our recording of the song that was the basis for Obrecht’s mass setting.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 61 other followers