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Saturday morning quotes 7.50: 15th-century chansons

August 8, 2020

Medieval lute and singers2Today’s post revisits the performance of fifteenth-century chansons, a form particularly suited to Mignarda’s format of solo voice and lute.  As depicted above, chansons from the period were mainly composed in three parts; usually a shapely and melodic cantus line supported by a tuneful tenor line (often a cantus firmus), with the addition of a contratenor that interweaves among the two primary parts.  Most surviving examples assign text only to the cantus line, but occasionally the other lines bear a text as well.  Logic dictates that the untexted lines were likely rendered instrumentally, and we can be certain from many surviving paintings, tapestries and prose descriptions from the period that the lute frequently lute took one or more of the lines.

We have discussed in great length how the late 20th-century early music revival absconded with this beguiling and intimate music and imprinted a distinctly modern format that assigned all parts to voices, whether or not those parts were originally given a text in the manuscript sources.  This new format, labelled the “a cappella heresy” by Howard Mayer Brown, was advanced aggressively in the pages of the journal, Early Music, with the help of a very large marketing budget and with certain attitudinal reviewers who were on a mission to advance a potentially lucrative concept, not to mention academic research grants, recording contracts and steady work for a cadre of non-specialist singers.

“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.”

– Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, Performance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002, p. 138.

By way of example:

“The Medieval Ensemble of London perform all the pieces with great care and musicianship.  If anything, the singers are perhaps a little too mellifluous, owing more to the English cathedral tradition than seems appropriate for music from medieval Italy; yet when the music is so beautifully sung it is difficult to complain.”

“Another more serious problem concerns their use of instruments.  Like most early music groups the Medieval Ensemble is based on a nucleus of instrumental performers, and consequently it is not surprising that when performing songs they should wish to use instruments for at least the untexted lower parts.  Indeed, without further thought it would seem to be the obvious solution.  But as Christopher Page has pointed out, ‘it has yet to be demonstrated that instruments participated in the performance of any music during the Middle Ages other than dances and intabulations’.”

– Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, review of Matteo da Perugia: Secular works, Medieval Ensemble of London, Florilegium DSLO 577, Early Music, Vol. 9, No. 2, April 1981, pp. 271-272.

This questionable premise and contrived argument was disingenuous in the extreme.  For instance, we could say that, because there is no DNA evidence, nor indeed secure documentation confirming and verifying that J.S. Bach utilized footwear covering his pedal extremities, we are forced to assume that he played the organ barefoot, and was forced to retire when he developed heel spurs.  While the abstract argument may be defensible, it is obvious to the practitioner that this is an absurd premise. After a few decades of ripening and desiccation, the dust has finally settled on the “a cappella heresy”, and former exponents of all-vocal performances of medieval music, including Christopher Page, have come to terms with the historical and artistic problems inherent in their distinctly 20th-century approach.

“For myself, I can say it was so difficult to obtain good clean performances of Du Fay songs with voices only, to say nothing of tuning problems, that I turned with relief to harps, lutes and voices during some later recording sessions.  I can well understand why many have done so since, and I am sure they will continue to perform them that way.”

– Christopher Page, introductory remarks to Essays on Renaissance Music in Honour of David Fallows: Bon jour, bon mois et bonne estrenne, Edited by Fabrice Fitch and Jacobijn Kiel, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Music. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2011 (ppg. 7-8).

Finally, we can calmly review the objective historical evidence and, with no objective other than getting to the heart of the music, we can re-create convincing performances of the repertory.  The aforementioned Howard Mayer Brown, a specialist in 15th-century chansons and the role of the lute in this music, provided cogent and helpful guidance.

“Fifteenth-century composers apparently conceived their music without regard for certain important elements that have since become an integral part of the compositional process.  Thus, they left to the imagination of performers the tasks of fitting each syllable of poetry to the music, of adding accidentals, and of creating a specific sonority by selecting appropriate combinations of voice and instruments.”

“How the composer’s intentions were realized in actual sound would have depended on the intelligence and musicality of the performerson how well they understood the “meaning” of the musicto a much greater extent than today, and any one version of a piece would have varied according to the forces available and the acoustical environment in which the performance took place.”

“Our task, then, is not to discover how any one individual chanson was performed on a specific occasion.  Rather, we must attempt to uncover the basic principles and conventions that guided fifteenth-century performers themselves in making their choices.  We must, in other words, investigate the limits of freedom within which the earlier musicians operated.”

– Howard Mayer Brown, “Instruments and Voices in the Fifteenth-Century Chanson,” Current Thought in Musicology, Edited by John W. Grubbs, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1976, p. 90.

Mignarda has a particular affinity for music of the late 15th century, with its distillation of sensitive poetry, clever use of canon and imitation among the individual musical lines, and transparency of texture.  We have selected a compact Concert Set of favorites for our first official monthly program, which we intend to make available by subscription.  We previewed the concept a few weeks ago, and we are still working out the many kinks that are impediments to offering access by subscription.

We have discovered that each hosting platform has a way of insinuating itself between us and you, our readers, friends and colleagues, and we find the intrusion unacceptable.  We are fully aware of the value we offer through this blog, but we are accustomed to maintaining a direct link to our audience, particularly now when something that approximates human contact is so important.    For  now, we are making our Concert Sets available to all, but we ask that you please scroll to the top of the page and consider making a donation to help working musicians continue to offer solace in these difficult times.  Click here for this month’s Concert Set.

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