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Saturday morning quotes 8.20: Context v. Content

July 10, 2021

As dedicated performers of historical music, we occasionally mention the importance of contextual details that inform our understanding of song texts and their music, and we are firm in the belief that these details lead to engaged interpretations of musical treasures that have for centuries occupied a silent library shelf. But we want to emphasize that not for a moment do we place context above the musical and literary content of a song.

The case for content

“Can anyone imagine, say, the discovery of a likely model for a play by Shakespeare or Jonson resulting in a discussion devoted entirely to peripheral matters such as date of composition and first performance, method and venue of production, actors, patrons, audience and so on, without a single word being exchanged on the question of content?”

“Ah, but hasn’t musicology usually focused on historical, cultural and textual matters? I fear it has, increasingly so: to the sad extent that, for all the vitality of the early music scene, what we do in a scholarly way seems intellectually suspect to many observers outside music, and the way we go about performing earns (and frequently deserves) the contempt of musicians. ”

– Philip Brett, “Facing the music,” Early Music, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 347-350

The case for context

“But contextual factors do figure prominently in many other arguments against the possibility of authenticity. For example, one type of argument points to differences between modern and period experience in such realms as economics, politics, religion, and science; it argues (sometimes plausibly, sometimes not) that such factors affect how we play and hear music. Another contextual barrier to true historical re-creation is that our contexts of performance and listening—CDs, radios, and concert halls—are usually quite different from those of the past, such as feasts, church services, and salons. Such contexts affect the nature of performance; one plays differently for one’s private edification in a music room than for critics in Carnegie Hall…Also, the advent of recordings increased audiences’ demands for technical perfection, as well as performers’ concerns with literalness, rhythmic precision, ensemble, and accuracy…; it may be impossible for artists raised in the era of recordings to ever be as comfortable with the approximate as their historical forebears were.”

“Some of today’s most distinguished historical performers agree that their own work will someday appear to reflect the tastes of our time rather than of the historical eras being reconstructed. Perhaps the very concern with historical verisimilitude will appear a peculiarity of our time. On the other hand, some of the historical performers’ work might well be considered to have improved the performance of some repertoire, and some may even come to be regarded as historically accurate.”

– Bernard D. Sherman, “Authenticity in musical performance,” The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael J. Kelly, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

We juxtapose content of historical music and the context of its performance (both original and modern) with an example we particularly enjoy, “Quoy? faut-il donc qu’Amour vainqueur” by the première songwriter of early 17th-century France, Pierre Guédron.

Pierre Guédron (c. 1565 – 1620) was a close contemporary of the famous composer of English ayres, John Dowland, and, like every prominent musician born in the 16th century, Guédron began his early career as a singer. Employed in the chapel of the Cardinal of Lorraine, later transferred to the chapelle royale, and finally in 1604 promoted to the position of maître en la musique de la chambre de sa majesté, Guédron is best known as a primary exponent of secular airs de cour, mainly songs extracted from lavishly staged entertainments called ballets de cour.

Guédron’s airs received wide distribution even before they were published in the popular series of airs de cour for voice and lute (presumably) arranged and anthologized by Gabriel Bataille and printed by Pierre & Robert (II) Ballard, familial successors to cousins Le Roy & Ballard, who founded the long-lived publishing house.  A few of Guédron’s airs appeared arranged for voice and lute in the large anthology Thesaurus Harmonicus by Jean-Baptiste Besard, 1603, and a handful were included in Robert Dowland’s 1610 Musicall Banquet

“Quoy? faut-il donc qu’Amour vainqueur”, pictured at the top of this page, is an air composed on an attractive chaconne, or a repeating harmonic progression. A little background on the form:

“Most chaconnes are in triple metre, with occasional exceptions. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with Passacaglia. Many composers drew a distinction between the chaconne and the passacaglia, the nature of which depended on local tradition and to some extent on individual preference. The only common denominator among the chaconnes and passacaglias is that they are built up of an arbitrary number of comparatively brief units, usually of two, four, eight, or 16 bars, each terminating with a cadence that leads without a break into the next unit.”

“The chaconne appears to have originated in Spanish popular culture during the last years of the 16th century, most likely in the New World. No examples are extant from this period, but references by Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Quevedo, and other writers indicate that the chacona was a dance-song associated with servants, slaves, and Amerindians.”

“The playful, volatile Italian chaconne became in France a more controlled, stately dance, suggestive of pomp and circumstance; whereas the Italian pieces often proceed capriciously, in the vein of a spontaneous improvisation, the French ones exhibit a well-planned, orderly structure. The repetition of units, often with alternating half and full cadences, and the recurrence of earlier units, sometimes with variations superimposed, became important structural techniques.”

– Alexander Silbiger, “Chaconne,” Grove Music Online.

Guédron’s original setting of the air was likely composed for four voices in an accessible homophonic style. The song text describes an amorous journey through various stages of anxiety and bliss associated with nascent love, with Cupid personified as tour guide. The song—in triple time despite the time signature of the unbarred music in the original print— was probably extracted from a staged ballet de cour, and the underpinning of the chaconne signals that there was quite likely a choreographed dance in the original performance. The voice-lute version of “Quoy? faut-il donc qu’Amour vainqueur” printed in Bataille’s 1615 book has the voice pitched rather high but displays very comfortable fingering for the lute.  As was usual for the times, the voice was most assuredly transposed (probably down) to fit the pitch of the lute, with a parenthetical cue note supplied at the beginning of the lute part to facilitate this commonly accepted procedure. 

Since we recognize the 1615 printed version as an arrangement of Guédron’s vocal original, we took matters in hand and transposed the lute part to a pitch that features the voice in its most communicative range.  The repeating chaconne accompaniment happily responds to this transposition, which is nothing more than common-sense musicianship that we are quite certain was the norm when the music was new—a fact that is reinforced by surviving historical transpositions of similar repertory.

Given that communicating the text convincingly and appealingly was (and is) the primary purpose of any given song, we honor both content and the context of “Quoy? faut-il donc qu’Amour vainqueur” and we share this piece as an example to others who may wish to discover the rich content of this historical medium—and hopefully approach the music in a manner that observes the contextual practices of then and now. Our recording of “Quoy? faut-il donc qu’Amour vainqueur” will appear on Mignarda’s new album to be released in September 2021.

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