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Saturday morning quotes 5.36: I got Rhythm

January 23, 2016

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



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