Performing medieval song

What can modern performance tell us about medieval music? The answer: quite a lot, but not in the ways we might expect.

Musicologists have been arguing on and off for several decades about how music sounded in the Middle Ages, and how we should perform medieval music today. In the second half of the twentieth century, performers of early music grew increasingly interested in what musicologists call ‘historically informed performance’. HIP, as it is often informally called, is an umbrella term for performance practices that try to reconstruct (or, even, recreate) the way that music sounded in the past.

Much excellent scholarship and performances is being carried out today in the field of HIP, yielding rich and interesting insights into the musical past. But since the 1990s, some musicologists have voiced their scepticism about HIP. The basic problem shared by performers and musicologists is the ephemerality of sound: we can never really know how music sounded in the past because the sound of medieval music has not persisted to the modern day. We have notated manuscripts for medieval music, historical instruments, and written accounts of musical performances from the past, but all of these sources require a modern person, a mediator, to create sound from them. There can be no direct access to past sounds: there are always several layers of mediation. This problem forms the starting point for Richard Taruskin’s provocative claim that historical performance ‘is in fact the most modern style around’ (Taruskin, ‘The pastness of the present’, p. 102).

All of this leaves modern performers and scholars on very shaky ground indeed. Of course, there is nothing wrong with performing medieval music however we want. Performers are beholden to no one and certainly do not need to feel obliged to follow the supposed intentions of a long-dead composer or the imagined experience of past listeners. However, if modern performances of medieval music have little to do with the way that music sounded in the past, modern performance cannot be used as a reliable basis for the study of medieval music. For this reason, historical musicologists have tended to use written documents as the foundation for their work.

The modern performance of medieval music does have its uses, though. Apart from the fact that modern audiences might gain pleasure from listening to performances of medieval music, the act of performance can stimulate new questions and discussion. As Christopher Page puts it, ‘innovative or challenging performances can… disturb a wide range of preconceptions that we may unwittingly hold about the interest and scope of a repertory’ (Page, Discarding Images, p. xx). With the aim of stimulating fresh discussion about medieval music, a group of musicologists gathered in June 2019 to investigate some thirteenth- and fourteenth-century songs and motets by experimenting with different approaches to performance. The workshop culminated in a public lecture-recital in New College antechapel. (The full performance can be viewed here.)

For all of the songs that we discussed, the written sources leave many aspects of performance to be decided by the performer. In the following song, for example, the manuscript tells us the pitches of the melody and the order in which to sing them. We’re also shown the words for the first verse, and which syllables go with which notes.

performing medieval songs blog

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Français 846. (A facsimile of the whole source can be found here.)

But performers are faced with a host of other questions. What rhythm does this melody have? Should the rhythm follow a fixed pattern of alternating long and short notes (what theorists described as rhythmic modes) or should the rhythm be freer and related to the emphasis patterns of the text? The source also tells us nothing about the number of singers who should sing this. Was this song intended for a solo voice (the text is in the first person) or could we imagine more than one singer performing this melody? Was there some kind of accompaniment, either by other singers or by instruments such as the vielle or gittern? What should such an accompaniment consist of, should it stay the same for every verse, and how might the accompaniment be used to reflect the meaning of the song’s poetry? The presence or absence of an accompaniment might also affect whether certain notes need to be raised or lowered (what performers colloquially and sometimes inaccurately refer to as ‘ficta’). All of these questions offer opportunities for investigating medieval song, to challenge our assumptions about these repertories and to think afresh about how they might have been conceived and received.

Blondel de Nesle, Mes cuer me fait conmencier (RS 1269)

Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach introduces Mes cuer me fait conmencier.

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Most trouvère love songs have only one poetic voice, who sings in the first person. Most performances of trouvère love songs therefore involve a single singer, who might perform unaccompanied or with the accompaniment of a string instrument. Mes cuer me fait conmencier is unusual because the song speaks back to the poet in the third stanza. Should there be more than one singer in this song, given that there is more than one poetic voice? Things get more complicated in the fourth stanza, where the tone of the poetry becomes moralising and proverbial. Is this the poet’s voice, or the song’s? Or perhaps this is the true voice of the poet, and the previous stanzas were the poet ventriloquising a lover and a song?

To think about these different possibilities, we tried out two ways of performing the song. In the first version, Dr Matthew P. Thomson sings the words of the poet to accompaniment on the fiddle by Jacob Mariani. Thomson sings an English translation of the song, provided by Professor Elizabeth Eva Leach. When Thomson sends the song to the Lady, Mariani continues to play his accompaniment, as if surprised that the song is over so soon. Thomson looks angrily at Mariani, asking him (as the representation of the song) why he has not gone to the Lady yet. Mariani sings the song’s response to Thomson and then stops playing. Thomson sings the rest of the verse without accompaniment. The effect of this stanza is one of fragmentation. At the start of the song, there was a coherent musical unit consisting of poet-singer with accompaniment. We suspend our disbelief at the start of the song, since the poet speaks in the first-person singular, referring only to himself and not to a second performer. But as soon as the poet turns to his song, this illusion is fractured. The invisible presence of the accompanist becomes visible as Mariani sings and then stops playing. There is a sudden shift in the sound of the song in this third stanza, mirroring the sudden multiplication of poetic voices.

In the second version of Mes cuer me fait conmencier, Thomson sings the original Old French lyrics without instrumental accompaniment. Thomson sings the entire song himself, and to represent the different poetic voices, stages a conversation with himself. In the video below, you can see this as Thomson moves from one side (labelled ‘lover’s voice’) to the other (labelled ‘song’s voice’). Thomson sings the final stanza, where the moral message of the song is explained, in the voice of the song. I think what is particularly interesting about this performance is the way that the rhythm of the song is interrupted. I don’t mean whether notes are sung long or short—in both versions of the song, every syllable has the same duration. In the first version, Mariani replies without any delay. Compare that to Thomson’s performance in the second version: whenever Thomson takes on a different voice, there is a delay, a break in the flow of the song. Even though there is not the dramatic change of performer or instrumentation, there is a fragmentation of the melody.

You can find versions of the song in manuscripts M, T, C and P.

Gautier de Coinci, Pour mon chief reconforter (RS 885)

Dr Meghan P. Quinlan introduces Gautier de Coinci’s Pour mon chief reconforter here.

In our discussion of Gautier’s song we considered several aspects. Each stanza ends with a refrain in which the Blessed Virgin Mary is addressed directly. We decided that it might work well for the refrain to be sung by everyone present, not just the solo singer. This means that for listeners, the very long song (nine stanzas!) is periodically broken up by singing. In the video below, we all sang the refrain from written copies, but I think that after two or three times of hearing the refrain, we probably could have learned it well enough to join in at the end of each stanza. In between each version of the refrain, we listened to Gautier’s poetry, which is colourful in its use of metaphors and allegories. The refrain became a moment of gathering together, a return to something familiar as new layers of meaning and knowledge were added stanza by stanza. It was tempting to imagine that this is how the song could have been performed in the Middle Ages. We know that silent listening to music only became a widespread phenomenon in nineteenth-century concert culture; it is possible that medieval listeners joined in, called out or spoke during musical performances like Pour mon chief reconforter. In this performance, Quinlan sings the melody with a flexible triple-time meter, alternating between long and short units for each syllable. Jacob Mariani accompanies the song on the gittern, introducing each stanza with a short snippet of the melody.

Gautier liked to make his devotional songs from the melodies of pre-existent songs in a process known as contrafacture (literally ‘making (facere) against (contra)’). Two songs share their melody with Pour mon chief. The first is the anonymous conductus, Sol sub nube latuit. Conductus are Latin songs that were composed as early as the twelfth century. They can be monophonic (a single melodic line), or polyphonic, as in Sol sub nube latuit in the video below. Dr Anne Adele Levitsky sings the melody shared with Pour mon chief, while Quinlan sings in discant (note-against-note). The sources for Sol sub nube latuit do not specify the relative rhythmic values of pitches. Quinlan and Levitsky decided to realise the notation in a triple meter by alternating between long and short durations, deviating from this pattern where the text stress demanded it.

The third song in this melody group is Thibaut de Blaison’s Chanter et renvoisier sueil. In this performance, I sing the song in a conventional manner, without accompaniment and in free declamatory rhythm. This reflects the notation of the sources for the song, which gives information about the pitches of the melody, but not its rhythm. However, if Sol sub nube latuit was sung with a particular rhythm, does this mean that Chanter et renvoisier sueil should be too? The songs share a melody, and any singer who knew Sol sub nube latuit might find it difficult to imagine Chanter et renvoisier without rhythm. These questions can only be speculative however, as none of the sources for these songs indicates the rhythmic duration of pitches.

You can find the manuscript source for Pour mon chief here, manuscript versions of Sol sub nube in W1 and F (f. 354v), and versions of Chanter et renvoisier in K, N, O, P, V and X.

Gherardello da Firenze, Per non far lieto

Dr Mikhail Lopatin introduces Per non far lieto.

As Lopatin explains, Per non far lieto is an unusual ballata. Most ballatas are transmitted in songbooks with more than one voice, but for Per non far lieto the manuscript presents a single voice. Does this mean that the ballata was only ever performed monophonically, or was a second line added to it? Could a second line have been improvised to fit the surviving texted vocal line? These questions are unanswerable, but have a significant effect on the raising or lowering of certain pitches in the melody. In the fourteenth century, there were rules that governed the procedures for making two or more pitches sound together. Consonance was preferred, while dissonance could only be used in certain circumstances. Furthermore, points of harmonic closure had to be approached by particular intervals, which Sarah Fuller describes as the procedure of the ‘directed progression’ (Fuller, ‘On sonority in fourteenth-century polyphony’, p. 51). During our discussion of this song, we considered how a second line might be constructed for Per non far. We looked closely at the surviving melody, asking what tonal tendencies it seemed to suggest. We had a lively discussion about which notes might need to be altered in performance; the version performed by Lachlan Hughes (voice) and Jacob Mariani (lute) is just one possible solution (see video above).

Adam de la Halle Fi, mari, de vostre amour

Dr Catherine A. Bradley introduces Adam de la Halle’s rondeau Fi, mari, de vostre amour and its related motet.

As Bradley explains, the motet quotes one of the lines of Fi, mari in two places: this is relatively easy to see by comparing scores of the two pieces, since the text Fi, mari opens both the rondeau and the motet. In our discussions about these pieces, we asked whether the quotation went deeper than this. When we heard the motet and the rondeau being performed, certain sonic parallels between the pieces emerged. Listening to performances of the motet and rondeau provoked us to investigate in greater depth the way that the motet composer seemed to be referencing Adam’s rondeau. We considered the extent to which the motet composer quoted from the other lines in the rondeau, and whether they had also drawn inspiration from the harmonic language of the rondeau. We also asked ourselves how audible the quotation of the Fi, mari refrain was in the motet: while the quotation was clearly visible on the page, in the sonic context it became more difficult to identify. In the performance of the two pieces in the video above, I sing the rondeau melody on its own first, and am then joined by Dr Matthew P. Thomson and Lachlan Hughes for Adam’s full polyphonic setting. We then sing the motet. The source for Fi, mari can be found here; the source for Dame bele/Fi, mari/NUS N’IERT JA JOLIS can be viewed here and here.

The importance of performance

Throughout this workshop on the performance of medieval song, it was clear that the act of performing the repertories that we study made us think about them in different ways. By experimenting with different performance options, we had to challenge our assumptions about how these repertories work. Performance did not allow us to get under the skin of medieval musicians, whose experience of music we can never fully recover. But performing these songs did enable us to start thinking about the affective knowledge that medieval musicians might have experienced when singing or playing music. This workshop has shown the importance of performance in studying the music and literature of the Middle Ages. There is much that we do not and cannot know about medieval song, but performing such music enables us to look afresh at these rich and fascinating repertoires.

I extend special thanks to all of those who enabled this event: TORCH and the Ludwig Fund for their generous financial support; Nancy Jane-Rucker, Misha Brazier-Tope and Michael Burden for their assistance in organising the event; and the team at TORCH for help with publicity.


Further reading

Fuller, Sarah. ‘On sonority in fourteenth-century polyphony: some preliminary reflections’. Journal of Music Theory 20/1 (1986): 35–70.

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

McGee, Timothy. Medieval and Renaissance Music: A Performer’s Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Page, Christopher. ‘Around the performance of a thirteenth-century motet’. Early Music 28/3 (2000): 343–357.

———. Discarding Images: Reflections on Medieval Culture. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

Taruskin, Richard. ‘The pastness of the present and the presence of the past’. In Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. 90–154.

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