Performing medieval music. Part 3: The medieval style

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the third of three articles on this topic for medieval music, aiming to be practical guides with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article discussed historical instrument combinations and the second how to create polyphonic accompaniments for music written monophonically. This third and last article discusses a wide variety of questions of style: the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) notation of the troubadours; the role of the voice and instruments; ornamentation; questions of intelligibility, language and sung translations; musical preludes and postludes; and the effect of the various functions of music on the way it is performed.

This article features a video of Martin Carthy singing a traditional English song on the basis that his free style, with the voice leading and guitar following, each verse phrased differently, so free that it is mensurally unwritable, may have something important to tell us about the historical performance of troubadour songs.

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Performing medieval music. Part 2: Turning monophony into polyphony

Harp, vielle and citole in the Peterborough Psalter, England, 1300-1350.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the second of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

The first article focussed on historical instrument combinations, using the illustrations of two 13th century manuscripts as representative examples. This second article distinguishes the difference between modern and medieval harmony, and the main body of the article looks at styles of medieval accompaniment by referencing historical models. For simplicity and clarity, the same passage of music is used as the basis for exploring a variety of accompaniments. Arrangements of the first section of Cantiga de Santa Maria 10 illustrate heterophony, parallel harmonies, fifthing, the gymel, the importance of medieval modes, drones and drone-like accompaniments, the type of organum derided by a cleric as “minstrelish little notes”, the rota and ground bass, and the motet.

For each method, there is a sound clip of a short musical performance, composed in historically informed style by Ian Pittaway, performed by Kathryn Wheeler on recorder and vielle, and by Ian Pittaway on harp, gittern and oud. There are also links to 16 illustrative videos, beginning with participants at Ian Pittaway’s workshop, Turning monophony into polyphony, putting the techniques in this article into practice. Finally, the question of what to do if there isn’t a tune is addressed.

The key message of this article is: once informed, be creative.

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Performing medieval music. Part 1: Instrumentation

Double recorder (then called a pipe or flute), gittern and three singers in Saint Martin is knighted by Simone Martini, 1280-1344.

The most fundamental question of all in playing early music today is: how can the music be played to reflect historical practice? This is the first of three articles looking at historically-informed ways of performing medieval music, aiming to be a practical guide, with plenty of musical examples and illustrations, and a bibliography for those who wish to delve further.

This first article discusses the use of instruments and instrument combinations in medieval music. The illustrations in two manuscripts are used as typical representative examples: the 13th century Iberian Cantigas de Santa Maria and the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter. The second article gives practical methods for making arrangements of medieval monophonic music according to historical principles, with an example to illustrate each method; and the third article discusses questions of style, including the performance of the non-mensural (non-rhythmic) music of the troubadours, ornamentation, and the medieval voice. Read more

Surprising songs of sentient statues: the Virgin, Venus, and Jason and the Argonauts (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 6/6)

Three statues which live and move in their stories: the Virgin Mary and Jesus (c. 1260–80, made in Paris), Talos (bronze giant in the Greek tale, Jason and the Argonauts) and Venus (2nd century AD Roman copy of a Greek original).

In the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary by King Alfonso X and his court, 1257–83, there is a large group of songs featuring statues of Mary which talk, move, give protection, heal, and enact terrible acts of violence.

This article, the last in a series of six exploring the Cantigas, describes these surprising songs of sentient statues, placing them in the context of medieval beliefs about holy effigies and the long history of mythical moving images, including the goddess Venus, the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Pinocchio, and some current controversies.   

We begin with a performance of Cantiga 42 on voice and vielle (medieval fiddle), in which a jealous Mary, inhabiting her statue, sends a man running terrified from his bed on his wedding night.

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“Infidels”, “traitors” and “that ugly bearded crew”: fear and loathing in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 5/6)

A devil takes a Jew to hell in an illustration from CSM 34.

King Alfonso X, chief author of the 13th century songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary), is presented in modern literature as a wise, tolerant king who took steps to create a multicultural court of Christians, Jews and Moors, and a liberal kingdom of learning. Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? This article examines the evidence within the Cantigas and the king’s law codes, seen within the wider context of contemporaneous European culture.

This is the fifth of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, composed between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs.

We begin with an instrumental version of CSM 344: The miraculous night of peace, played on medieval harp. This Cantiga which tells the story of the Virgin preventing violence between two groups of soldiers, one Christian and the other Moorish.

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The animated chop of meat (and other miraculous marvels): pilgrimage songs in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 4/6)

The miraculous chop of meat is hung at Mary’s altar – a miniature decorating Cantiga 159.

What do an animated chop of meat, a man who wouldn’t hang, a talking sheep, a flying chair, a life-saving chemise, and a shoe that heals by being rubbed on the face have in common? They all appear in the pilgrimage songs of the 13th century Iberian songbook, Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary). This is arguably the most important collection of medieval music, and certainly one of the largest, with 420 songs, illustrated with vibrant illuminations of the songs and court musicians. This is the fourth in a series of six articles about the Cantigas.

In these songs there are constant references to pilgrimage, reflecting its importance in medieval Christianity generally. Pilgrimage represents the utter dependence of believers on divine favour for their physical health, their emotional dependence on divine approval, and their dependence on heaven’s judgement for their eternal fate. Holy relics, which proliferated in the period prior to the Cantigas, play a talisman-like role and bring all three themes together.

This article explores the many pilgrimage themes in the Cantigas, beginning with a live performance of Cantiga 159, featuring an animated pork chop.

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Edi beo þu heuene quene: a love song by any name

The Virgin of Toulouse, Notre Dame de Grasse (Our Lady of Grace), 1451-1500, now in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, France.Edi beo þu heuene quene is a 13th century English song in praise of the Virgin Mary, written in Middle English. It expresses familiarity in relationship with Mary and even romantic attachment; and the two part harmony sounds remarkably sweet and modern. This article explores why this is so, placing this beautiful song in its three contexts – lyrical, musical and historical – with a video of the song sung by The Night Watch, accompanied by gittern and citole.

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The Virgin’s vengeance and Regina’s rewards: the surprising character of Mary in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 3/6)

An artist paints a church wall in CSM 74, Mary and child on the left and the devil on the right.

The Cantigas de Santa Maria is arguably one of the most important collections of medieval songs, and certainly one of the largest. Composed between 1257 and 1283 by the Iberian King Alfonso X and his courtiers, they are largely versifications in song of the miracle stories of the Virgin Mary circulating in 13th century Europe. After exploring the impact of the troubadours on the Catholic Church’s cult of the Virgin in the first article, and the profound influence of the troubadours and the church on Alfonso’s Cantigas in the second article, this third article examines the character of the Virgin as represented in the manuscripts’ miracle stories and praise songs. Via Fatal Attraction, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, characters in Batman, George Orwell’s 1984, bestiaries, psychotherapy and the Symbionese Liberation Army, we discover that the chief characteristics of the Virgin are jealousy, vengeance and the demand for obeisance. How does such a problematic role model affect the kingship of Alfonso? And how does this influence the content of the songs?

We begin with a video of Cantiga 173: The blessings of Maria ~ or ~ The kidney stone Cantiga, sung in English with medieval harp and fiddle.

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“I wish from this day forth to be her troubadour”: the composition of the Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM article 2/6)

King Alfonso instructs his musicians and dancers to praise the Virgin and Child, an illustration for Cantiga de Santa Maria 120.

This is the second of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and his assistants between 1257 and 1283. In the first article, we traced the development of troubadour courtly love from the late 11th century to the end of the 13th century. The Roman Catholic Church’s response to the influence of what they perceived as troubadour immorality was to promote the Virgin Mary as the central figure of Christian chaste devotion. This was the faith that Alfonso X of Castile inherited.

Alfonso’s love of music meant that he was keen to have troubadours in his court, while also criticising them and describing himself as one. This second article explains why. First, an outline of Alfonso’s literary life before the Cantigas, illustrating that he was already steeped in troubadour literary forms prior to declaring himself Mary’s troubadour; then an exploration of Alfonso’s absorbing and adapting of courtly love themes for his religious and political ends in his songs of the Virgin.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 363, the song-story of a troubadour in trouble and in prison, who only escapes by dedicating himself to the Virgin.

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“Why do you not praise her?”: the Virgin Mary and the troubadours (Cantigas de Santa Maria article 1/6)

Troubadour Jaufré Rudel dying in the arms of the countess of Tripoli, from a 13th century French manuscript (BnF ms. 854, folio 121v).

This is the first of six articles about the Cantigas de Santa Maria, Songs of Holy Mary, composed by the King of Castile, Alfonso X, and unnamed assistants between 1257 and 1283. Most medieval music enthusiasts will be familiar with the manuscripts’ many depictions of medieval musicians and their instruments, and with some of its 420 songs. These six articles focus on the influences behind the compositions and the contents of the songs, and will be followed by two stand-alone articles about the historical principles upon which a medieval musical arrangement may be made, focussing primarily on the Cantigas.

In order to understand the background to the Cantigas de Santa Maria, we must first appreciate a medieval musical movement which may at first appear unrelated, but which is fundamental to both the music and theology of Alfonso’s compositions: the troubadour tradition. In this article, we see that troubadour influence not only spread well beyond its home in Occitania (southern France), it had a profound effect upon the Catholic faith Alfonso inherited. The Catholic response to troubadour songs, which the church perceived as spiritually corrupt, was to develop a new Mariology, a major shift at the heart of Catholic worship. It was within this context that Alfonso composed the Cantigas de Santa Maria.

We begin with a performance (in English) of Cantiga 260, which praises the Virgin in terms that exactly mirror troubadour courtly love, while also criticising troubadours for not praising her.

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The rebec: a short history from court to street

The rebec is a medieval gut-strung bowed instrument with 3 strings, its body carved from a solid piece of wood. Its sound has a nasal quality, unlike the more full-sounding modern violin, which shares some of the rebec’s characteristics: strings played with a bow, a fretless neck, a curved bridge to allow strings to be bowed singly, and a soundboard carved to have a gentle upward curve. Like so many medieval musical instruments, the origins of the rebec are in Arabia and north Africa, the region of so much cultural exchange, trade and crusading in the middle ages. Perhaps surprisingly, it was still being played beyond the renaissance and to the end of the baroque period in western Europe, by now having fallen from grace from a regal courtly instrument to one of lowly street entertainment. In south-east Europe, a relative of the rebec continues to be played to this day, playing vigorous and exciting traditional music.

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The Psilvery Psound of the Psaltery: a brief history

Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.
Psaltery played by a cat in a Belgian Book of Hours, c. 1470.

There is something quite enchanting about the silvery sound of the psaltery. Its name probably originates in religious use, as an accompaniment to singing songs from the psalms, known as psalmody and sung from a psalter, thus the psaltery. The word is from the Old English psealm or salm and Old French psaume or saume, derived from Church Latin psalmus, which itself comes ultimately from the Greek psalmos, a song sung to a harp, and psallein, to pluck on a stringed instrument. Appearing in Europe from the 11th century, the psaltery’s wire strings rang out in religious and secular contexts until around 1500, with a little evidence of a pocket of survival for a few decades after that. Its regular appearance in manuscript iconography, church iconography and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are evidence of its wide use and appeal. Its influence and evolution is surprisingly widespread, giving rise to the hammer dulcimer, the harpsichord family and ultimately the piano.

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The oud: a short guide to a long history

Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, 1260–80.
Ouds from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1257–83.

The Arabian oud, or al ‘ud, is probably best known in the west for being the predecessor of the European lute; but it does have an independent life of its own in the history of early music, rooted in medieval cultural exchange between east and west. We know, for example, that ouds played an important part in the musical life of the royal court of Castile (in modern Spain) in the 13th century and, by extension, almost certainly Iberian musical life in general. But was the oud fretted, unfretted, or both? How did western musicians come to play an eastern instrument? And did the oud really originate in desiccated human remains?

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Medieval music: a quick guide to the middle ages

medievaldancers110r_0The middle ages covers a period of a thousand years – and yet much of its music-making is a mystery to us. We’re not completely in the dark, though, so the aim of this article is to give a broad beginner’s guide to the principles of secular medieval music. When were the middle ages? How do we know what the music sounded like? What were the earliest surviving songs? What was its dance music like? Why does medieval music sound so different to today’s? How did medieval musicians harmonise?

This article features 3 illustrative videos of medieval music and several links to further articles (click on blue text).

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