Antiquary, A curious Critick in old Coins, Stones and Inscriptions, in Worm-eaten Records and ancient Manuscripts; also one that affects and blindly doats, on Relicks, Ruins, old Customs, Phrases and Fashions.
– B.E. Gent [gentleman], A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699)
In a sense, those of us who are seriously involved in performing early music are antiquarians, poring over worm-eaten scores—or modern facsimiles—and blindly doting on relics and fragments from which spring speculative theories pointing toward old ways of stringing, holding, and playing the lute. Or inventing modern means to describe the old ways of singing domestic music; originally music meant to be heard in small rooms by persons with nice ears who dwelt in a sound world that existed prior to the age of the ubiquitous produced vocal sounds. Or in the face of scant information, inventing what we think were the old ways.
[Antiquary:] a man strangely thrifty of Time past, and an enemy indeed to this maw, whence he fetches out many things when they are now all rotten and stinking. Hee is one that hath that unnaturall disease to bee enamour’d of old age and wrinckles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen doe Cheese) the better for being mouldy and worme-eaten.
– John Earle, Micro-Cosmographie: or A Peece of the World Discovered (1660)
William Mahrt, in his book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (Church Music Association of America, Richmond, 2012), uses the term antiquarianism to describe an approach to studying the evolution of the liturgy that presumes to have isolated the earliest and therefore purest form, and strives to embrace that form of the liturgy in a way that bypasses all that may have intervened along the way from then until now.
[Antiquarianism] sees the larger part of tradition as an undesirable development, and romantically points to sometime in the distant past when an ideal state had been reached; it proposes to junk late accretions, and restore primitive practices. Characteristically, its ideal time is a time very early in history for which there is little concrete information; what data there are allow for great freedom in restoring the ancient practice. When the origin of a rite is known, the rite is to be reduced to its original form, or excised.
– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6
For those of us immersed in discovering and reviving honest and convincing ways to interpret early music, Mahrt’s descriptive words hit rather close to home. In fact, the antiquarian argument seems like a direct parallel to the musicological justifications used to advance what became known as the “a cappella heresy,” an approach to early music sparked mainly by modern commercial interests (CD sales, research grants, publications, concert series). The approach presumed that most music prior to 1500 was performed with voices alone, despite the lack of explicit evidence. With a modern vocal disposition. And despite ample evidence to the contrary indicating that lutes and harps were frequent participants in music-making of all sorts.
The “a cappella heresy” has been effectively put to rest, and even Christopher Page now writes that it was impossible to attain the sounds of the past his modern mind was imagining.
“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).
The “a cappella heresy” now represents its own quaint bit of the history of how commercial interests defined performance of early music in the late 20th century. Except here in the colonies among those who succumbed to the marketing blitz that characterized the new order of early music, from which we still occasionally hear anti-instrumental rumblings and grumblings.
Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.
– B.E. Gent, 1699
Historical music necessarily must be viewed through a lens that cannot be wiped clean, and that acknowledges the the tint and taint of all that has occurred between then and now. What truly matters today is having a convincing grasp of the emotional content and a willingness to embrace that content and make it live and breathe.
We leave you with another quotation appropriated from Mahrt’s discussion of historical precedents in the liturgy and applied to early music scholarship in general.
Certain elements of the present reform have been influenced by such antiquarianism. The result of this misuse of history has been to remove history from consideration, since those who were only a while ago calling for changes on the basis of “historical precedents” have succeeded in seriously breaking the tradition, and now feel free to discard the whole notion of historical precedent to create something relevant only to the present. The “antiquarianism” of such a position is clearly a ruse.
– William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 6-7
Well, if I be served such another trick,
I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give
them to a dog for a new-year’s gift…
– Falstaff, Merry Wives of Windsor, III:v
We would like to propose a hearty toast to celebrate the backside of Anno Domini 2014, a year in which we seem to have been subjected to every trick in the book, and then some. One doesn’t like to complain, so instead we’ll write a bit about the tradition of the New Year’s Gift.
Our tradition of celebrating the new year as a logical change of calendar date is rather a newish trend. Formerly, the new year followed the church calendar and was celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25th or Lady Day). In Elizabethan times, the new year was an opportunity for the lesser sort of individual to offer gifts to the upper crust, in hopes of a kinder and more lenient overlord. It was also an opportunity for courtiers to outdo one another in presenting lavish gifts to Bess Herself. Instead of celebrating the new year as we do today, the calendar date of January 1st was just another of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
For our part, we are sick and tired of the old year and, to celebrate the hope of better times ahead, we offer our lute-playing friends two versions of a New Year’s Gift by Anthony Holborne.
As another year grinds to a halt, we stop to reflect on some of the more prominent themes that have emerged in our lives and throughout another year of (at least) weekly publication of this column. Of course, the business of performing the more refined sort of early music for a 21st-century audience is the major topic, but we always probe beneath the surface for a better understanding of what we are up against—and why.
“We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards…”
– President Barack Obama
We were recently reminded of the above quotation from President Obama in the context of a vitally important op-ed piece by the New York Times editorial board, published Monday December 22, 2014.
As for the need to look backwards, we respectfully disagree with the President.
As participants in a deliberately simpler lifestyle and as polite and cultured individuals, looking backwards is our life’s work. And looking backwards is an absolute necessity as we research, assimilate, and share with our friends and colleagues magnificent but forgotten gems of historical music.
Looking backwards offers many points of reference for the music itself, and also for its meaning, use and its context. In our work, we encounter contextual evidence that reveals the significance of historical music as meaningful in many ways, and points to a slower-paced and more thoughtful existence—an existence that allowed time for individuals to stop, observe and contemplate their lives and their roles as members of a larger interdependent community.
Why is our culture so obsessed with looking forward? We ask ourselves this question as we see important reminders of a cultured civilization fading from our collective memory. Universal preoccupation with unreal images on tiny plastic screens is not necessarily an explanation, but is a telling symptom. Attention spans are at an all-time low as people wander into traffic with eyes and thumbs on their phones, forsaking the real for the imaginary. E.B. White warned us back in 1938, when television began redefining our lives—with the main focus on the commercial break:
“[Television]…will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.”
– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.
We believe in living a life focused on the primary, and we believe that performing music that matters helps others by providing an enriching rather than a distracting experience.
“Musica est mentis medicina moestae [Music is medicine for a sad mind], a roaring-meg against melancholy, to rear and revive the languishing soul…”
– Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, p. 334)
We take great care to concentrate on the effect of our music, and Mignarda’s performances, live and on our recordings, never simply feature off-the-shelf repertory, but are the result of thorough research and careful preparation, paying particular attention to placing vocals in a range that communicates the text. Sometimes this involves downward transposition, a refinement which, as revealed through reading the sources, is an absolutely accurate element of historical performance practice.
Regarding the appearance of high clefs in Monteverdi’s Magnificat a7 and the utterly normal convention of downward transposition, Andrew Parrott offered these summary remarks:
“The key to understanding all this is the recognition that the vocal ensemble implied by a work such as the 1610 Magnificat a7 has very little in common with the solo-and-choral set-up we may have come to expect. Seven expert singers are called for, and no more. And of their four basic categories—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—none can safely be assumed to correlate directly with those we currently cultivate. In particular, the lower bass register was exploited more freely than is now common, and the soprano parts conventionally occupied a more middling range, with only rare excursions to the higher registers routinely demanded of today’s female sopranos and boy trebles.”
– Andrew Parrott, “High clefs and down-to-earth transpostion: a brief defence of Monteverdi,” Early Music, Oxford University Press, volume XL, number 1 (February 2012), p. 84.
Old music was always notated where it was most conveniently printed and was never intended to be performed in a range so high as to obscure the meaning of the words. It’s a plain fact that music communicates a text more effectively when voices are pitched where the ear is pleased to receive the sounds. We take this historical convention of downward transposition seriously, and many of our performing scores are available though our series of Mignarda Editions.
And we acknowledge the close of 2014 and leave our readers with a snippet of poetry.
The New-year’s Gift
Let others look for pearl and gold,
Tissues, or tabbies manifold:
One only lock of that sweet hay
Whereon the blessed Baby lay,
Or one poor swaddling-clout, shall be
The richest New-year’s gift to me.
– Robert Herrick (1591 – 1674)
Of the many effective historical settings of the text, O magnum mysterium, Adrian Willaert’s four-voice motet has become quite a favorite. Published in Motetti libro secondo a quattro voci in 1539, Willaert’s setting captures the spirit of the great mystery with angelic grace and gentle reverence. An added attraction is the welcome fact that Willaert was a friend to plucked instruments, having arranged and published the music of Philippe Verdelot’s il primo libro de madrigali for the combination of solo voice and lute.
The connection of lutes and lutenists with the traditions of high culture and with the musical practices of singers and composers is of course made explicit by the fact that Verdelot’s madrigals were intabulated by one of the most distinguished composers of the time, Adrian Willaert, already the chapelmaster at San Marco in Venice when the volume was first published in 1536. Willaert was in fact the only major composer of the sixteenth century to publish a collection of such arrangements, and so his volume also gives us valuable insight into the way learned musicians of the time arranged music for performance, and into the nature of sixteenth-century polyphony, which in performance was not always what it seems from the sets of part books that have come down to us.
– Howard Mayer Brown, “Bossinensis, Willaert and Verdelot: Pitch and the Conventions of Transcribing Music for Lute and Voice in Italy in the Early Sixteenth Century,” Revue de Musicologie, T. 75e, No. 1er (1989), pp. 25-46
Our historically-appropriate arrangement is inspired by Willaert’s gift for deftly weaving together tuneful melodic lines that individually have something pleasing to say as they gently support the cantus. Our interpretation in this live performance features the unique and beguiling combination of solo voice, lute and harp—and full participation of the wonderful acoustic of the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus—as the inspiration to embody the calm reverence of the responsory text without the distraction of competing vocalization applied to the lower parts.
After a surprising number of comments and an abundance of kind words in response to our post for St. Lucy’s Day, we are moved to share a link to another piece we recorded live with an ensemble of solo voice, lute and harp. The combination of instruments is frequently depicted in the hands of angels appearing in sacred iconography dating back many centuries, with very good reason.
Our featured recording is from the Llibre Vermell of Montserrat, a manuscript of pilgrim songs dating from the end of the 14th century. The manuscript is erroneously titled after a 19th-century binding in red velvet, but the library inscription aptly adds the rubric, Llibre dels miracles de montserrat. Inscribed in the actual manuscript is the following text in Latin:
Quia interdum peregrini quando vigilant in ecclesia Beate Marie de Monte Serrato volunt cantare et trepudiare, et etiam in platea de die, et ibi non debeant nisi honestas ac devotas cantilenas cantare, idcirco superius et inferius alique sunt scripte. Et de hoc uti debent honeste et parce, ne perturbent perseverantes in orationibus et devotis contemplationibus.
“Because the pilgrims wish to sing and dance while they keep their watch at night in the church of the Blessed Mary of Montserrat, and also in the light of day; and in the church no songs should be sung unless they are chaste and pious, for that reason these songs that appear here have been written. And these should be used modestly, and take care that no one who keeps watch in prayer and contemplation is disturbed.”
There is a multitude of information readily available describing the manuscript, and there are also many recordings of the music with a wide variety of interpretations. Since the music originated in the Catalonia area of what is now Spain, and the music is simple in character, many groups add percussion and whatnot (as our friend Jose Luis Posada wryly points out about many recordings, it seems like it isn’t Spanish without a drum and a church bell).
O Virgo splendens is a canon in three parts and appears as the first piece of music on 21v-22 of the manuscript, a snippet of which adorns the top of this page. Also inscribed in the manuscript is the descriptive text, Antiphona dulcis armonia dulcissime virginis Mariae de Monte serrato (Antiphon in sweet harmony for the most sweet virgin Mary of Montserrat). Since there is a 12th-century shrine of a Black Madonna in Montserrat, the original pilgrimage site, we were inspired to record O virgo splendens at the Shrine Church of St. Stanislaus, where there also stands a Black Madonna.
Our recording, available here, tends toward the meditative and atmospheric, and includes Frederick Lautzenheiser on harp. Our next regular Saturday post, will feature Adrian Willaert’s setting of the Christmas motet, O magnum mysterium, with the same cast of characters.
– John Donne (1572 – 1631), “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucie’s Day, being the shortest day”
If the image at the top of this page looks slightly familiar, it’s because one year and one day ago we used the same image to commemorate the Feast of Saint Lucy of Syracuse, (circa 283–304), which falls on December 13th, formerly the longest night of the year according to the old Julian calendar. We refer you to last year’s post, where we made the connection between St. Lucy and Lucy Harrington, the Countess of Bedford (1580 – 1627), patroness to Elizabethan luminaries including John Donne, Samuel Daniel, Ben Jonson, John Florio and John Dowland, who dedicated his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) to the Countess, which meaningfully opens with a mini-masque of songs on the subject of lightness, darkness and tears (see Anthony Rooley, “New Light on John Dowland’s Songs of Darkness,” Early Music 11.1 (Jan. 1983): p.6).
For today’s installment of our Advent calendar, we feature a motet specific to St. Lucy’s Day, In tua patientia, in a setting by Adrian Willaert ( c.1490 – 1562). Willaert, who Pietro Aretino called sforzo di natura (miracle of nature) in Il marescalco (1539), was a prolific composer and a highly respected teacher. As maestro di cappella at the Basilica of St. Mark’s in Venice from 1527 until 1562, Willaert required all of his musicians to study counterpoint, and famously dismissed an unnamed singer who refused to learn this important framework of rules essential to understanding music. Let that be a lesson to the profusion of indifferent choristers we see today.
Willaert was a friend to the lute, having intabulated Philippe Verdelot’s Il primo libro de madrigali for solo voice and lute, and published the arrangements as Intavolatura de li madrigali di Verdelotto (1536). Our source for In tua patientia is Famosissimi Adriani Willaert, chori divi Marci illustrissimae Republicae Venetiarum Magistri, musica quatuor vocum, Liber Primus (1539).
Willaert’s four-voice sacred motets with their long intertwining threads of melodic ideas offer a perfectly sublime indulgence for the beguiling combination of solo voice, lute and harp, as can be heard in our unique arrangement of In tua patientia, newly released as a live recording.
“When I read a book I am like someone strolling across a level lawn, thinking how jolly it all is, and when I am suddenly confronted with a [footnote] it is as though I had stepped on the teeth of a rake and had the handle spring up and hit me on the bridge of the nose.”
– Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881 – 1975), Over Seventy: An Autobiography with Digressions, Herbert Jenkins, London, 1957.
One of the hallmarks of early music is the tiresome trend of thorough documentation provided by academics in a self-conscious attempt to cram a given piece of music into a convenient category—a programmed response to a compulsive need to demonstrate that the music is better than it sounds. My first experience performing with an early music ensemble left me scarred and skeptical of the music’s intrinsic value after having to endure the director of the ensemble drone on at the podium for seven minutes as he described a (fairly insipid) piece of music that, when played, lasted about a minute. Footnotes are mainly a vehicle for demonstrating the writer’s familiarity with the subject matter, and we are at times guilty of indulging in profuse citations. But only when it serves to cushion the music, allowing it to descend upon the ears in a gentler manner.
In our second installment of an adapted weekly Advent calendar, we feature a bit of background on one of our favorite bits of seasonal music.
One of the best-loved carols of the season is “Ther is no rose of swych vertu,” a beautifully stark and simple piece of polyphony that alternates in three- and two parts. The source of the piece is the Trinity Carol Roll, now preserved in the archives of Trinity College, Cambridge (MS O.3.58), and it appears as a vellum roll that includes the earliest surviving examples of English polyphonic carols. One can view a facsimile of “Ther is no rose of swych vertu” from images of the original manuscript here.
Text and tune of the original carol have been fodder for a multitude of contemporary arrangements including this one from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols (the professional harpist’s seasonal bread and butter), charmingly performed by a fresh-faced Canadian choir.
Our simple and transparent performance of Ther is no rose of swych vertu is included on our recording Duo Seraphim: Lute songs and solos for Advent and Christmastide, and is arranged for the historically-appropriate combination of solo voice and lute. We provide this link so you might enjoy the music for its effect – not for the footnotes.