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Saturday morning quotes 3.10: Insomnia

July 19, 2013


“[Pooh] couldn’t sleep. The more he tried to sleep the more he couldn’t. He tried counting Sheep, which is sometimes a good way of getting to sleep, and, as that was no good, he tried counting Heffalumps. And that was worse. Because every Heffalump that he counted was making straight for a pot of Pooh’s honey, and eating it all.”

– A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Hot summer nights induce insomnia.  For some of us it can be sheer torture, tossing, turning, sweating and abrading frayed nerve endings.  For some of us, it’s simply bonus time to whittle away at that enormous pile of projects on the to-do list.  Today’s 24/7 secular society offers many technological distractions and one can find any number of ways to bore oneself to sleep.  But what did our ancestors do in the absence of sleep-inducing YouTube videos?

During what we call the medieval period, the modern concept of a good night’s sleep was probably nonexistent. There was little separation between secular life and spiritual practice, and our European ancestors saw a day that was divided into twelve canonical hours and a night that was divided into intervals of vigilae, or watches.  Sleeping through the night was less common than we would like to think, and people often spent a wakeful interval by lying quietly, praying or studying.  The toll of a bell would announce the hours of of the night watch, rather a problem in itself for the light sleeper.

Nevertheless, that feeling of physical exhaustion coupled with a runaway thought process lends itself to a certain unshakeable sensation, captured effectively in texts and music of songs old and newish.  We’re here to discuss one of the very old ones, ‘Ne je ne dors ne je ne veille’ by Guillaume Du Fay (c.1397 – 1474). We also share with our readers a bit of the process that causes us to lose sleep while we prepare our interpretation of what may sound like a simple little song.  And for those stalwart souls able to stay with this essay, your reward is the debut of a video showing the results – with a link to the audio track for those so inclined.

The anonymous text to Du Fay’s rondeau appears without music in a few literary sources, Antoine Vérard’s Le jardin de plaisance et fleur de rethoricque nouvellement…(Paris, 1501), and British Library MS Lansdowne 380.  The latter source was the subject of a thorough study that describes a great deal about the original use of such manuscript collections, “An Introduction to British Library MS Lansdowne 380″‎, by Kathleen Sewright, Notes, Volume 65, Number 4, June 2009, pp. 633-736.

Ne je ne dors, ne je ne veille,
Tant ay fort la puce en l’oreille,
C’est du mains que de souspirer:
Car contraint suis de desirer
Que mort contre moy se resveille.

Desir ne veult que je sommeille,
L’oeil ouvert ennui me conseille,
Que je transisse de pleurer.

Ne je ne dors…

Je n’ay pas la coulleur vermeille,
C’est par vous, dont je m’esmerveille,
Comment vous povez endurer.

Que pour vous craindre et honnourer,
Je souffre doulleur nonpareille.

Ne je ne dors…

I cannot sleep, nor can I wake,
So strong is my agitation.
All I can do is sigh.
I am forced to desire
That death may rise against me.

Desire will not let me sleep.
Anguish with open eye urges me,
To die with weeping.

I cannot sleep…

I have lost my healthy complexion
This is because of you and I wonder
At how you can allow,
That for the sake of fearing and honoring you
I suffer incomparable grief.

I cannot sleep…

A manuscript source for the musical setting of ‘Ne je ne dors ne je ne veille’ is in the Biblioteca nazionale centrale di Firenze, Magl. XIX, 178. f. 29v.  A brief discussion with a transcription of this and two other pieces can be found (en française) in the old but useful source, Geneviève Thibault, “Quelques chansons de Dufay”, Revue de Musicologie, T. 5, No. 11 (Aug., 1924), pp. 97-102.  One can also find the piece in G. Dufay, Opera Omnia, Tomus VI: Cantiones, ed. H. Besseler (Rome, 1964; “Corpus mensurabilis musicae” I); rev. by D. Fallows (Neuhausen, 1995).

The rondeau setting is presumably a later composition by Du Fay, and is in tempus imperfectum with a C final.  In order to interpret Du Fay’s interesting modal transposition, we referred to a few more contemporary articles and books that describe the historical use of accidentals: Carlo Bosi, “Modal Usage in the Secular Works of Du Fay”, Revue belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap, Vol. 59(2005), pp. 5-42; Karol Berger, Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Infections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge,  1987); and Thomas Brothers, Chromatic Beauty in the Late Medieval Chanson: an Interpretation of Manuscript Accidentals, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge, 1997).

Brothers’ study, a detailed discussion of musica ficta causa pulchritudinis (for the sake of beauty), identifies the historical use of accidentals to enhance expressive possibilities as pitch inflections, and also in context of their use as a compositional device to expand the limitations of the hexachord.  Du Fay’s use of pitch alterations in ‘Ne je ne dors ne je ne veille’ goes beyond the typical choices one makes in performance, and represents what amounts to modulation, to put it in modern terms.  But why not see for yourself:

Of course, we are reconstituting musical information written down more than 500 years ago, and there is a strong case for using our theoretical training that tells us we should strive to maintain ‘modal purity’.  But an equally strong case can be made for investigating and purposefully using the simple tools we know were used then and are still available now, tools that almost magically convert dry written symbols on a page to beautiful sounds that convey human emotion.  And, if you have read through this far, we hope we have made a strong case demonstrating that a great deal of hard work goes into creating a thoroughly researched and a mindfully-performed, relaxed rendition of what sounds like a simple song.  Let us know what you think.

You can hear – and download – the audio here.

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