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Saturday morning quotes 8.24 Doulce Mémoire album release

September 4, 2021

Events of the past 18 months have put a universal damper on concert activities for musicians of all types, and early music specialists, with our narrow and mostly mature audiences, have been particularly hard-hit by limited performance opportunities, a situation made more difficult by a general confused message from leadership with rules that appear to change hourly. Many performers have turned to creating video productions of concerts, taking live performance several steps in a different direction from the concert experience we know and love. Not satisfied with the always imperfect environment of a live concert, and impatient with the static view of the performers typically offered to the audience, performers with deep pockets are going full Hollywood to present fanciful interpretations of old music that are yet another remove from reality, complete with fanciful visual effects. As usual, we choose a different path.

“Shakespeare will never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as that of the colossal chisel of Phidias, or trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these. Not possibly will the soul all rich, all eloquent, with thousand-cloven tongue, deign to repeat itself; but if you can hear what these patriarchs say, surely you can reply to them in the same pitch of voice; for the ear and the tongue are two organs of one nature. Abide in the simple and noble regions of thy life, obey thy heart, and thou shalt reproduce the Foreworld again.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), Self-Reliance, 1841

Like many other industrious souls, we reacted to the lockdown and loss of performing opportunities by directing our efforts towards projects that were awaiting the proper time and focus: We chose to put our energy into completing several recording projects that have been languishing on the shelf for some time. Despite the ever-rising cost of recording and the uniformly diminishing revenues from streaming (in the year 2020 Spotify paid artists an average of $0.0032 per stream), today we release the fourth in our in tempus pestis series of albums with Doulce Mémoire.

Our very first full-length CD, Divine Amarillis, featured a collection of French airs de cour, and over the years we have occasionally revisited and expanded upon our catalogue of this wonderful repertory. Those familiar with early music apply the term air de cour to the ample series published between 1608 and 1632; fifteen volumes of Airs de différents autheurs avec la tablature de luth that presented popular airs extracted from courtly entertainments arranged for solo voice accompanied by the lute. But the term first appeared much earlier in a publication by Adrian Le Roy, Airs de cour miz sur le luth, published in 1571.

Adrian Le Roy (c.1520 – 1598) was well-connected at court and had familiar conference with preeminent poets like Ronsard and celebrated composers including Lassus. Using his connections to good advantage, Le Roy procured a royal patent to publish music beginning in 1551, in partnership with his cousin Robert Ballard (c.1527 – 1588), producing a large output of high-quality music editions over the span of fifty years. At court, Le Roy was in a position to have an unusually influential role in promoting music and determining popular taste: performing certain music for Charles IX at times resulted in a royal command to publish what delighted the ears of the king.

Le Roy’s music for solo lute demonstrates the direct influence of Albert de Rippe (c. 1500 – 1551), displaying much rhythmic vitality and ample use of arpeggiation technique applied in a manner that implies a polyphonic interpretation. What eventually became a characteristic French style of lute-playing employed a subtle interpretive technique that highlights and accentuates the strands of polyphony in a way particular to the character and resources of the lute. This arpeggiated style was later called style brisé, a term concocted by 20th-century musicologists to describe broken chordal technique, but the term has no historical precedent.

History is selective, and Le Roy’s important role in establishing what was to become an immensely popular musical form is little acknowledged today, and most modern recordings of this repertory present the later series of airs published by the descendants of Le Roy and Ballard. Hoping to redress this imbalance, Doulce Mémoire probes the earlier examples of airs de cour by Le Roy before moving chronologically and stylistically to the more familiar airs by composers Boësset, Guédron, and Moulinié.

You might well ask: what relevance does a chanson first published in 1537 have in a program of proto-baroque airs de cour? The lasting popularity of “Doulce Mémoire” is demonstrated by the appearance of an instrumental arrangement of the piece found nearly a century after its earliest mention, in an English manuscript collection of music for viols written in the hand of William Lawes (1602 – 1645).

Doulce Mémoire”, the title track of this album, opens the gate to a sampling of early airs de cour by Adrian Le Roy and moves forward chronologically and stylistically to music of a few decades later—to what is essentially music of the early baroque. The recording is aptly named to celebrate the sweet memories of 18 years as a duo dedicated to music for voice and lute, and we share the results of our work with this album now and look forward to sharing others that are still in preparation.

Interpretation

In performing 16th-century French music it is difficult to overlook the degree to which dance forms combine so perfectly with poetry to form the backbone of this appealing repertory. The dominance of dance forms should be no surprise to the cognoscenti who understand that the magic in much of historical music arises from shapely phrasing, a firm bass, and a steady pulse.

In many of the airs on our recording, the essential pulse and intricate dance rhythms must support poetry that describes anxiety and despair, and so must be interpreted without crossing the line and cancelling the emotional content of the piece. If the pulse is overly languid, the essential energy of speech rhythm is lost. If the pulse is overly quick, it trivializes the meaning of the words. In any song based upon a dance tune, rhythmic vitality is an essential underpinning and the expected steady pulse only adds substance to the emotional depth of the poetry.

We have taken particular care in presenting the music in an intimate atmosphere that honors original domestic performance parameters of our chosen repertory. Over the past few years we have produced four CDs of mostly sacred repertory recorded live in spacious churches, and that music seems appropriate in its proper context. But historical repertory that was always sung in intimate spaces deserves a more intimate sound. In the studio, we were able to record in a naturally live space with a close microphone placement for both voice and lute, conveying the warmth of texts and music, but close microphone placement is an act of bravery that exposes each breath and every movement of the fingers.

There is a very good reason most early music recordings involving voice and lute have an overly-spacious “cathedral” sound despite the character and intent of the music—it is mostly to insulate the performers from the inevitable exposure of their human imperfections when magnified under what amounts to an aural microscope. But despite the hazards we feel that close microphone placement in a naturally live space conveys the actual warmth of sound heard in a small chamber, bringing the listener closer to the original historical experience of the music.

We are seeing an abundance of (pandemic?) lute videos of late that are obviously recorded in bedrooms and kitchens, as is probably historically-appropriate and proper, but the recorded sound is usually as reverberant as though it were recorded inside the Taj Mahal. That is not what the lute sounds like. One is reminded of an old Gramophone review of a certain prolific lutenist where the sound was described as a “psycho-acoustic nightmare—close up and far away at the same time.” We are well aware that we are pushing back at the modern conventions of the “early music sound” but, as usual, we are trend-setters and we feel it is time the excess is tempered a bit if we are to successfully introduce early music to a young and discerning audience who is more savvy than you might think. While we respect as a conscious choice the interpretations by our peers following the modern conventions of today’s early music aesthetic, after studying the sources and absorbing the context of the original music we are secure in the understanding that our interpretations are historically-appropriate.

It is a well-established fact that the vocal quality of singers circa 1600 was nothing like that of our modern singers typically indulging in bel canto style, affecting what is actually a Victorian approach to vocal projection and diction. The historical sources are very clear on the matter: outside of the cathedral or the theater, a natural voice was preferred by and expected from singers circa 1600, and the flexibility of a natural voice facilitates examples of historical ornamentation, as demonstrated in our rendering of an air by Antoine Boësset (1586 – 1643).

Boësset’s “N’espérez plus mes yeux” is an air that lives on in popularity today among early music performers, probably due to its simple form and melancholy character. In 1636, Marin Mersenne (1588 – 1648) included the air in his book, Harmonie Universelle, as an example of how different singers might improvise ornamented divisions to a popular song. It is from this source we draw the ornamented second and third verses of the air for our recording. Beginning with Boësset’s air for voice and lute published by Ballard in 1643, Mersenne supplied a species of ornaments he labeled port de voix (not just the appoggiatura as known in 18th century terminology) as composed by Etienne Moulinié and Henry Le Bailly, (c. 1580 – 1637), to which we add a few of our own.

Our new album Doulce Mémoire presents a unique point of view on French music that was current during a time of great upheaval and dramatic change. This was a time of the French wars of religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre; this was a time when musique mesurée was supplanting the polyphonic chanson and, inspired by Italian trends in music, creating a new type of solo song with lute accompaniment.

A particular feature of our album is a newly-recorded version of Mignonne allons voir si la rose, where we illustrate conventional 16th-century performance practice in harmonizing an orphan melody. We chose to include an updated version as the first track in honor of our award-winning first CD released 15 years ago.

We include a video below with a pastiche of a few of our favorites, and we offer expanded album notes with all song texts & English translations, available on our website. We hope the music offers a bit of solace in these distracted times.

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