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Saturday morning quotes 6.15: Emotional power

August 27, 2016

CommeFemme-clipOur primary motivation for continuing this weekly series is to readjust received ideas, clarify misconceptions, and dispel stereotypes that have been handed down concerning the emotional power of historical music.  We need not delve into who may have created the manifold misconceptions or to what purpose, but we are firm in the belief that when musicians inform themselves and make an effort to imbue their performances of historical music with an appropriate level of historically-informed sentiment, an appreciative listening audience will respond to the immediacy of the music just as they respond to the directness of more modern music.

Music of the 15th century has been given a bad rap.  A cursory survey of available performances reveal either a bevy of jaunty costumed performers cavorting with whistles and drums, or Violetta-like performers, or listless waifs in castles evoking a thin, detached and bloodless style that may very well intend to convey elegance, but instead only induces barely stifled yawns and fidgety feet that ultimately aim for the door.

We think there is another way that acknowledges the visual remnants of the period but really begins with a familiarity with the sources, and not just from a visual point of view but with an understanding of the poetry and its forms, the intellectual depth and rhythmic shape of the music, and with a well-informed sense of the historical context.  This demands a  complete and focused immersion but, fortunately, we have help available through the work of eminent scholars who have devoted a lifetime of research to the subject.

We quote from Alejandro Enrique Planchart, “Du Fay and the Style of Molinet”, Early Music, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 61-72

“The language and rhetorical gambits of the great majority of the poems set to music are by and large those of the high art of the tradition of courtly love: serious and sentimental expressions of love and unswerving devotion, even when complaining about suffering at the hands of the beloved. A good example of this tradition is Antoine Busnoys’s A vous sans aultre. The text is a perfect example of decorous love poetry, but the song’s enormous power derives largely from the music, with the three voices sinuously intertwining around each other. Were two people behaving in public like the lines of this song surely the local constabulary would suggest that they go somewhere more private.”

Of course not every piece from the period is quite so racy and composers like Ockeghem were adept at creating satisfyingly artful yet eminently more subtle music that lends itself to a declamatory style of rendering the meaning of the poetry, as in Planchart’s characterization of  “Ma bouche rit” by Ockeghem.

“The lines do not do anything that could be regarded as expressive of the text either in 15th-century or later terms, but rather allow for an exquisitely clear declamation of the text, whose grammatical and poetic structure is subtly supported by the music.”

An example of this declamatory style is Ockeghem’s “Quant de vous seul je pers la veue”, which can be heard here, from our ten-year old recording La Rota Fortuna: Chansons & lute solos in honor of Francesco Spinacino, fl. 1507.  Ockeghem disguises strict imitation between the cantus and tenor with a beautifully composed melodic line, and the poetry is very effectively rendered by the calm setting in tempus imperfectum diminutum.

Planchart also describes the evocative chanson attributed to Binchois, Comme femme desconfortee.

“Another exception is the outright lament, not the measured lament of Nymphes des bois, but the outpouring of raw grief one finds in Du Fay’s Las, que fera or even more extraordinarily in Comme femme desconfortee, which if it is by Binchois, is his most powerful work and unique in his canon.”

“The poem is a woman’s lament over the death of her lover couched in terms far bleaker than those of Las, que feray or any other such lament I have seen from the period. The final line of the refrain, ‘Desire la mort main et soir’, is set by the composer in a startling manner, which suggests that he read it not just as a desire for release but almost a last step before suicide. The phrase is preceded by the longest pause within the song and starts at the lowest pitch of any of the phrase openings. Further, it starts over two entirely motionless voices and at the words ‘la mort’ all voices move in rhythmic unison, but ‘mort’ is followed in the cantus by a semibreve rest, even though there is no punctuation in the text and nothing is happening in the other voices.”

“This is a unique moment in the song and, I should add, in the entire repertory of the time. It is a moment of heart-stopping grief for the persona of the poem, and on the part of the composer, who like most men of his time surely held to Catholic orthodoxy, an awareness that the persona has stopped at the very edge of the abyss of eternal damnation.”

Josquin used the intact but seriously augmented tenor line of Comme femme as the cantus firmus in his five-part Stabat Mater dolorosa, which will be the centerpiece of our annual September concert to commemorate the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, and includes evocative music of the late 15th century by Agricola, Binchois, DuFay, Josquin and Ockeghem.

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