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Saturday morning quote #35: Inventing music II

January 21, 2012

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.  

The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (p. 138).

This is our second installment of commentary on The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson.  I should point out that the book has been reviewed by more thorough, objective and informed writers including Peter Phillips (The Musical Times, Vol. 145, No. 1886 (Spring, 2004), pp. 106-109) and Martin Picker (Notes, Second Series, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Mar., 2004), pp. 662-665).

The brief commentary here has more to do with a very personal reaction to some of Leech-Wilkinson’s ‘revelations’ concerning the evolution and promotion of the British early music a cappella performance style that has for several years set a standard of excellence in performing vocal music of the medieval and renaissance periods.

The a cappella style naturally displaced the involvement of instruments in much of the music, which is by and large a good thing.  At least in the performance of secular chansons, plucked strings – lutes and harps – are let off the hook, since there is so much written and pictorial evidence demonstrating their participation.  But one is a little uncomfortable with the facts revealed and the tone with which they are presented as we read how dedicated a cappella scholars, supporters and reviewers advanced an agenda which effectively drummed some notable pioneer performers of early music out of a job (more on this in next week’s post).

“The evidence for all-vocal performance removed at a stroke all the problems…and all one has to do (it might seem) is to book some good singers and put the notes in front of them.”  MIMM, p. 126

Leech-Wilkinson quotes Christopher Page from Early Music (August, 1993)

“…English singers performing a cappella are currently able to give exceptional performances of medieval and Renaissance polyphony from England and the Franco-Flemish area because the ability of the best English singers to achieve a purity and precision instilled by the discipline of repeated a cappella singing in the choral institutions…”

Leech-Wilkinson points out that Franco-Flemish music of the medieval period was in fact sung by Franco-Flemish singers who lived and worked in a very different cloistered environment.  Interpreting and performing this music today necessarily requires quite a bit of speculation.  But this reality check arises from the observation regarding today’s  “…shared background of most English early music singers and most English scholars and critics…”

“Compared to continental critics, the English seem to require more adherence to period evidence (because English critics are generally scholars and continental critics are not) and are likely to expect that evidence to be realised with the values promoted by their shared musical and educational background, like English singers and choirmasters admiring precision and purity of tone.”  MIMM, p. 127

Fortunately, a dose of clarity is offered by one of the very singers who is quite active in several a cappella ensembles. Donald Greig wrote:

“…[T]he 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.”

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

Leech-Wilkinson, a specialist in the music of Guillaume de Machaut, sees Andrew Parrott’s recording of the Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame with the Taverner Consort (EMI 47979, 1984) as a turning-point in the a cappella style, a recording that characterizes the approach to performance of medieval polyphony over the past few decades. While it was a bold step for its time and was a departure from the usual mixed-voices-and-instruments approach, the performance obviously represents an evolving artistic vision. The ensemble singing is not what one would call smoothly synchronized and integrated, and interpretation of the plainchant (broken link to recording) is wooden, to put it kindly.

Of course, we all (hopefully) improve over the years, but one does not derive satisfaction from the very unmusical, up-down, paired-note interpretation of chant on the part of so many of our revered a cappella groups. When we read historical accounts of the power of the word as enhanced by singing the neumes, we have to think that chant must have been sung more musically, and was more phrase-oriented than most recorded interpretations would have us believe. This becomes obvious if one takes the time and effort to study, for instance, how 15th- and 16th-century composers incorporated chant tunes into motets. By working backwards, we begin to understand the implied phrasing of the chant, a far cry from the stiff up-down renderings we still hear too often today.

It may not be fair to reference a performance from nearly thirty years on, but a very effective example of chant from Machaut’s Mass may be heard here – a direct comparison with the chant linked above -and polyphony here.  You be the judge.

UPDATE 090813:

We apologize for the broken links to some of the videos.  Some have been restored and some are simply gone forever.  Such is the nature of the electronic realm.

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