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Saturday morning quotes 4.49: Inspired Birds

April 18, 2015

When the snow finally melts away and the forest begins its eventual but cautious return to life, in our world the birds engage heartily with their work as the true heralds of Spring.  We have an interesting relationship with the surprising variety of birds in our forest home in that they appear to return our appreciation of (most) of their songs by listening as closely to our music as we do to theirs. Before the age of Spotify and when we were still able to feed ourselves on our musician’s pittance, our bird feeder was always kept well stocked and was a popular spot for chickadees, finches golden and purple, song sparrows, titmice, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and many others.  Our favorites were the thrushes, which kept their distance and only sang in the gentle early morning hours or mournfully just before twilight.

A few years back, we had a daily rehearsal routine that allowed us to face a tall cylindrical bird feeder just outside a window that offered a pleasant and inspiring view of the forest hillside.  We were rehearsing our arrangement of a piece by Josquin des Prez (c.1450 – 1521) with a text that requires a flexible, plaintive, engaged and emotional delivery, but also demands complete control in order to maintain the strict canon between the singing part and the tenor line, with the lute playing all three lower parts.  After finally having achieved the desired musical result, we glanced up to see the entire bird feeder—as well as the length of the window sill— lined wing-to-wing with one of the most attentive audiences we have ever had.  And they were quietly listening to our music instead of their usual routine of chatter while voraciously tucking into the buffet of bird seed.

The piece we were playing was “Comment peult avoir joye,” a four-part chanson that was set by Josquin, probably circa 1480, but published in Petrucci’s Harmonice Musices Odhecaton, Canti B (1502).  The tune is also known in German sources as “Wohlauf, Gesell, von hinnen,” and was the basis for two Mass settings by Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 – 1517), one in 4 parts and one in six 6 parts, in which the strict canonic imitation appears throughout. The piece is also found in Francesco Spinacino’s, Intabulatura de Lauto / Libro secondo (1507, f. 19v) as “Coment peult auoir Joye,” in which all four parts are arranged for solo lute, a challenging version that is very sensitively recorded by Jacob Heringman.

But the one of the more interesting related settings is the Missa Coment peult avoir joye attributed to Pierrequin de Therache, and mentioned in the archives of the Cathedral of Cambrai. This Mass also featured an abundance of strict canonic imitation, creating something of a challenge for the choir, as pointed out in the article by Craig Wright, “Performance Practices at the Cathedral of Cambrai 1475-1550”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jul., 1978), pp. 295-328.  Wright cites the following archival document:

December 9, 1517. From the music books should be deleted the Mass written on the song Comment poeult avoir joye [and] it should no longer be sung in this church. [Doc. 3g]

Wright speculates that the Mass may have been withdrawn because of an increasingly intolerant attitude towards the use and incorporation of secular tunes as the basis for liturgical music.  But 1517 was several years before the Councils of Trent (1545 – 1563), and there survive several wonderful Masses crafted by some of the finest 16th-century composers in the interim, using secular themes. Wright offers the alternative and very realistic suggestion that the piece was simply too difficult for the choirs to manage. It turns out that the choristers were not uniformly capable,

December 9, 1535. The vicars of the left side of the choir should be admonished to observe and be attentive to the harmony of the singers of the right side. [Doc. 2c]

Nor were they particularly well-behaved. Wright explains both the logistics and the antics:

Cambrai was divided in two equal parts and each half installed in either the right or left side of the choir of the church. An entry in the capitulary acts of February 4, 1473, shows that on only three days of the year did the singers come together to perform in the middle of the aisle: Maundy Thursday, Holy Saturday, and Pentecost…On all other days, they sang from either side, each half grouped around its own lectern, and performing from its own music book. A bizarre confirmation of the existing space between the two sides comes from an entry of September 9, 1493, that reprimands the lesser vicars for throwing meat and bones from one side of the choir to the other during the divine service (Doc. lb).

This is why we must  keep a watchful eye on those lesser vicars in our choir lofts.

Our recording of Josquin’s “Comment peult avoir joye” for solo voice and lute is featured on our CD La Rota Fortuna: Chansons & lute solos in honor of Francesco Spinacino, fl. 1507.  We invite you to listen and imagine what may have inspired the birds outside our window to still themselves and attend to the music of Josquin.  Perhaps they were keen to learn a new tune.

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  1. Regarding music and birds, many years ago I was listening to a recording of Gregorian chant by the monks of Solesme, and noticed that my cat was sitting attentively in front of one of the speakers. When I joined her, I heard what she had heard, faint bird songs in the background of the recording. The chant must have attracted the birds, and their counterpoint was faithfully recorded! My present cat avoids visitors, and ignores my solo music making, but when I have musician friends join me, he always comes around and visits us.

    • Both birds and cats seem to appreciate rare moments of calm, serene music when humans take the time and enter into the spirit. We heard from Thomas Schall last year that his cat appreciated Donna’s recording of solo chant, as mentioned in this blog post

      Regarding our comment about Spotify, our last statement listing income from digital downloads and streams showed, among the many tens of thousands of plays, one single event on one day last month that featured 160 Spotify streams of Veni, emanuel, for which we received a whopping nineteen cents.

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