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Saturday morning quote #37: Inventing attitude

February 4, 2012

This is the final installment of a very personal view on the text, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson.  We have bothered to offer commentary on this book in reaction to an underlying theme woven throughout the text, an air of establishing just who’s who and what’s what.  This is not necessarily a bad thing but the author does tend to back up his opinions through the practice of reviewing commercial recordings of modern interpretations of medieval music for the journal, Early Music.

There are other more thorough reviews of MIMM and we won’t examine every detail.  Suffice it to say that Leech-Wilkinson presents a survey of the rediscovery of old music, beginning in the nineteenth century and highlighting the contributions of eminent historians and musicologists including Hugo Riemann, the Stainers, Johannes Wolf, Guido Adler and Arnold Schering.  In addition to remarks on the fact that most of these pioneers were Germans, Leech-Wilkinson aptly points out that their overall approach to interpretation of medieval music reflected the conventions of their own time.  However, it is less useful and ungenerous to point out the multitude of faulty premises in this early but important research.

Throughout the pages of MIMM, Leech-Wilkinson relentlessly advances the position that a cappella singing was the most common mode of performance for medieval vocal music, even though underlaid text is more often than not simply absent from all but one singing part in most manuscript sources.  The issue has been discussed ad nauseam for many years in the pages of Early Music but, for all the insightful evidence presented in support of this ‘a cappella heresy’ the entire approach seems to have been based upon a negative: The use of instruments is wrong and therefore vocalization of untexted parts, no matter how ill-executed, is right.

The approach to vocalization – essentially finding compatible vowel sounds and shaping the line wordlessly – versus instrumental realization of untexted parts was effectively advanced by Christopher Page and presented in what is now a rather extensive catalogue of recorded performances by his ensemble, Gothic Voices.  Vocalization is not a new concept, present in many musical traditions. For the most part, the recordings of Gothic Voices present a convincing alternative to mixed voices and instruments, an approach we hear in many recordings where voices are combined with sometimes oddly-chosen wind, reed, and bowed instruments that simply do not blend smoothly.  And there are many recorded performances where the sometimes very complex rhythms of the music were not well synchronized.  But we must understand that this approach is just another theory and we really have no idea how this music was performed in its day.

American musicologist Howard Mayer Brown (April 13, 1930 – February 20, 1993) was an exponent of the mixed voices and instruments approach, and he held a view that seems to have ruffled the feathers of Leech-Wilkinson.  Brown was an important figure in the lute revival, and his work on cataloging the 16th century printed sources of instrumental music [Instrumental Music Printed before 1600: A Bibliography (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1965)] is a standard reference for those of us interested in the lute and its music.  Brown studied with Otto Gombosi and worked with John Ward, and the combined work of these three prised open the door on  the sources of lute music.  Although Brown was respected in his field, Leech-Wilkinson seems to hold barely disguised contempt for him, stating:

Brown was a professor of musicology at the University of Chicago, but had spent two not entirely happy years (1972-4) as King Edward Professor at King’s College, London, and seems to have returned to the States with some distaste for British musicology.  (MIMM, p. 147-148)

This description is somewhat at odds with that found in Brown’s obituary by Iain Fenlon in the Independent, Tuesday 16 March 1993.  Obviously there was more to this than a mere collegial difference of opinion.  Brown labeled the all-vocal performance concept the ‘a cappella heresy’, and much written discussion ensued, notably in the pages of Early Music and the chapter titled ‘The English a cappella heresy,’ penned by Christopher Page and found in Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music.

For what it’s worth, all seem to agree that the lute plays an acknowledged role in this repertory, at least in the secular music of the 15th century.  The lute is frequently depicted along with singers in paintings, illuminated capitals, and engravings of the period.  There is also the significant surviving evidence of arranging the lower parts of chansons, as well as entire three- and four-part sacred and secular pieces, intabulated for the lute as found in late 15th century manuscript sources and in the very first printed music for the lute, Spinacino’s Intabolatura de lauto libro primo and Intabolatura de lauto libro secondo (1507).  This publication in fact contains intabulated works by many of the best-known composers from the late 15th century.

While we would wish him to be a bit kinder to his scholarly forebears and colleagues, to his credit, Leech-Wilkinson points out in the last of his four chapters of MIMM  that there is an enormous uncertainty as to how the music was played and and even how it sounded.  But while his presentation may seem on the surface to be detached and objective, it is most certainly not.  Running through the entire text is a barely concealed opinion and a theme of what is wrong and what is right, presented in the spirit of an opinionated reviewer rather than that of an objective scholar.   His scholarly credentials are not in question and again, to his great credit, he is certainly a specialist in recorded interpretations of early music.  Leech-Wilkinson is to be commended for his work in establishing a database of early recorded examples of music accessible through the Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (with the delightful acronym, CHARM).  The searchable recorded examples (see update below) offer many examples of just how far we have come since the beginnings of the early music revival.

In closing, we print once more the quote that should warn us as to the ulterior and indeed commercial motives of some reviewers:

“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)

While we have no personal axe to grind, we would simply hope that scholars recuse themselves from reviewing recordings if they possess an overt ideological and commercial bias.

UPDATE: 092313

The link to Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (CHARM)  is broken and the King’s College website has redirected to a proprietary site associated with Leech-Wilkinson, which can be accessed here.

  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    What an eye opening insight into the past. Explains some of the strange currents swirling around in those days. I deliberately avoided nearly all requests to “perform” Medieval music, as I hadn’t the scholarship, background, or training to blithely barge in where so much uninformed conjectural nonsense- and I must say mostly from the instrumentalists- was going on. “Renaissance Faire” style Medieval music at its worst. Not always just at the Renaissance Faire, either- but in the concert hall.

    But these revelations sound so- “political”, as in the currant modes that we are experiencing these days.

    What about Project Ars Nova? I remember really liking some of their mixed voice and instrumental performances. How were they regarded, and treated- and what are your opinions of their work?

  2. Thanks, Dan. Yes, I avoided getting too involved in medieval music for similar reasons. While I enjoy some of those 1970s – 80s performances for what they were, I think some of the music was treated inappropriately. It seemed perhaps like dressing up someone with the incredible depth and sophistication of DuFay in tie-dyes and paisley prints, devaluing the worth of the music. On the other hand, taking interpretations too far into the seriousness of today’s choral singing style might be a little much as well. No one wants to hear a singer doing math as they are singing according to the dictates of a temperament (and paying little attention to the other singers) while making exaggerated vowel sounds and completely ignoring the sensitivity of the text.

    Funny you should mention Project Ars Nova. I have enjoyed some of their interpretations as well, especially when John Fleagle was alive and performing with them. He was another natural singer who gave you the text instead of a bravura display of his vocal training. You know we approve of that approach and we both really enjoy their recording of music from Cypress. It turns out Leech-Wilkinson liked them too, and he mentions them by name as successful in their mixing voices and instruments:

    “A happier, but also striking example is that of the Ensemble Project Ars Nova, whose practices changed markedly during the later 1980s and early 1990s, gradually including more vocal performances and with the ensemble getting increasingly tight…” (MIMM, p. 139).

    As I mentioned above, it’s difficult to discount the historical accuracy of combining lutes and harps with voices for medieval (secular) repertory, since there is so much iconography to back it up. We have been delving more into 15th century repertory (surprise) and the music by DuFay and Dunstable that we performed for our Christmas and Epiphany concerts received the most favorable comments.


  3. Nick O'Sullivan permalink

    When I first heard about this book I assumed its premise would be that all performances of medieval music are to some extent a modern invention, so I was quite disappointed to find its raison d’etre was to promote a very narrow range of “acceptable” performances.

    There may well be no surviving evidence of the participation of instruments in medieval polyphony, however, we can’t know if the surviving sources accurately reflect the totality of performance practices of polyphony at that time.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Saturday morning quotes 2.6: 15th century music « Unquiet Thoughts
  2. Saturday morning quotes 2.17: Hyperreality « Unquiet Thoughts
  3. Saturday morning quotes 2.20: Harping on the lute « Unquiet Thoughts
  4. Saturday morning quotes 2.38: Early Music « Unquiet Thoughts

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