Coventry Carol: the power of a song

Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.
Angelo Visconti, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1860-1861, Italy.

Coventry Carol sings the loss of slaughtered infants in a play depicting Herod’s massacre of the innocents. These mystery plays were religious community events, telling Bible stories in the vernacular with humour and pathos, from the creation right through to judgement day. They were performed annually by the local trade or craft guilds, a tradition that began in the middle ages. The mystery plays were threatened in 1548, along with the banning of the Feast of Corpus Christi that was the occasion of their performance, in a royal and ecclesiastical bid to rid England of all vestiges of Catholicism.

The play that carried Coventry Carol has only been preserved through acts of good timing and good luck, surviving the general loss of many period artefacts, royal suppression of its staging, and a devastating fire that destroyed the original document.

My first hearing of it was an act of theatre that changed my life. This was way back in 1984, but even now a shiver runs down my spine each time I think of it. The experience showed me the door to early music, a door which John Renbourn later opened; and it taught me what, at its best, a song can be.

This article was first published on 19th July 2015, now updated to include an interview with the author, Ian Pittaway, in an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music, and his performance of the song for the programme with Andy Casserley in the early music duo, The Night Watch. A video of the recording of the song for Soul Music is included in this article. The Coventry Carol edition of Soul Music will be broadcast on Christmas Day 2019.

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The first dancing master’s manual: Domenico da Piacenza and the art of dance

Early music and dance enthusiasts will be familiar with the work of authors such as John Playford, who published the series of dance instruction books called The (English) Dancing Master from 1651 onwards, and with Jehan Tabourot, who in 1588 wrote instructions for the dances of his youth under the anagrammatic pen name, Thoinot Arbeau, published in France as Orchésographie in 1589. There is evidence of earlier dancing masters – dance instructors – from the medieval period, but the first to write surviving choreography were in the renaissance of 15th century Italy, and the earliest of these was Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1390/1400–1476/7). This article briefly outlines Domenico’s dance manual of c. 1450, the social context of his dances, his wide influence, and some ways in which his choreography and music notation can be interpreted using one example, La giloxia (The jealousy), a video of which begins this article.    

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Foweles in þe frith (birds in the wood): mystery and beauty in a 13th century song

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156 B, folio 4r, 15th century. (As with all pictures, click to see larger in a new window.)

The 13th century song, Foweles in þe frith, is among the earliest that survive in the English language. The manuscript has two complete polyphonic voices but only one verse, and so the meaning of its nature imagery and lament for the “beste of bon and blod” has been much debated.

This article places Foweles in þe frith in the context of other surviving secular songs in English; then decodes and deciphers its words and debates its various interpretations: is it a lover’s lament; sorrow for a lost animal; or a song of religious metaphor?

The melody was written by the scribe in notation usually presumed to be non-mensural (non-rhythmic). I argue that the music shows rhythm, clearly written on the page according to medieval musical principles, performed in the video which begins the article.

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Bird on a briar (bryd one brere): constructing the missing voice

bryd one brerebird on a briar – is the earliest surviving English secular love song with a complete lyric, dated c. 1290–1320. The music was written on the back of a papal bull with a poor pen, so interpreting the notation is problematic in parts. A previous article (available here) addressed interpretation of the music and the poetic meaning of the words.

This article addresses a second problem of interpretation: the song was clearly intended for two voices, but the primary voice is missing, leaving us only with the second voice, the polyphonic accompaniment. Using the principles of medieval English polyphony, author Ian Pittaway has constructed three possible versions of the lead voice, based on the gymel, contrary motion, and the mixolydian mode. While we cannot know if any one of these constructions was the intention of the composer, the exercise serves as an illustration of the principles of English polyphony at the turn of the 14th century and an attempt to sing the song in the originally intended manner. All three two-voice versions of bird on a briar are sung in a multi-tracked illustrative video by Ian Pittaway.    

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The English estampie: interpreting a medieval dance tune

One of the earliest surviving pieces of English dance music has survived with the 13th–14th century manuscript, Douce 139, now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is exciting in its musical drive and complexity, but interpretation has its problems. The scribe appears to have changed his mind partway through on several issues of notation, leaving us to make judgements about intention. The music is untitled, and is often named Estampie or English Dance in modern sources.

This article works through the puzzles in order to gain some performable answers. What is an estampie? Is the Douce 139 piece an estampie? How can the musical problems left by the scribe’s imperfect notation be reconciled? Drawing on music theorist, Johannes de Grocheio, writing in c. 1300, this article looks for solutions, with a video of one possible interpretation on citole.

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Mirie it is while sumer ilast: decoding the earliest surviving secular song in English (revised and updated)

LaboursOfThe Months.January.1475Mirie it is while sumer ilast, dated to the first half of the 13th century, is the earliest surviving secular song that is both English and in the English language, preserved only by the good luck of being written on a piece of paper kept with an unrelated book. We have the music and a single verse. This may be a fragment, but its wonderful melody and poignant lyric embody in microcosm the medieval struggle to get through the winter, nature’s most cruel and barren season.

This article examines the original manuscript, showing that the now-standard version of the song performed by early music revival players is not a true representation of the text and music, but the music itself poses many problems of interpretation. We begin with a translation of the Middle English words into modern English, continuing with a short survey of the social background and a step by step reconstruction of the music. Originally published in February 2016, this is a completely revised account, with a reworked rendering of the melody and a new performance video of Mirie, arranged for voice and medieval harp.  Read more

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 harmony and medieval polyphony, 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 movement, 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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The medieval portative organ: an interview with Cristina Alís Raurich

Cristina Alís Raurich is a historical musician and researcher who specialises in keyboards of the middle ages and early renaissance: portative organ, positive organ, clavicimbalum, and clavicytherium. Not only is Cristina a musician of consummate skill, her love for her instruments and specialism is obvious and infectious: rarely have I seen anyone play and talk about music with such transparent joy. This I discovered when we met at the second Medieval Music in the Dales, held at Bolton Castle, Wensleydale, England, in 2017, where she gave a presentation on the history of the portative organ; performed in the duo, Sonus Hyspaniae, on portative organ and percussion, with Raúl Lacilla on musa (medieval bagpipe) and frestel (medieval Pan pipe); and kindly agreed to the following interview for Early Music Muse.

Cristina performs internationally solo and with medieval music groups Magister Petrus, La Douce Semblance, Le Souvenir, Carmina Harmonica, Sonus Hyspaniae and Hamelin Consort; and gives courses and master classes on medieval music and medieval keyboards around Europe. She is assistant director and faculty member of Medieval Music Besalú, the international course on medieval music performance in Besalú, Catalonia, a teacher at the Centre International de Musiques Médiévales de Montpellier, France, and currently a doctoral student at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

In this interview, Cristina discusses how she discovered medieval keyboards; her research into the portative organ and her commissioning of the only 13th century reconstruction; its playing techniques within the framework of medieval musical styles; its performance context in the middle ages; and performance presentation to a modern audience.

This article includes three videos of Cristina playing: table organ, clavicytherium, and portative organ.

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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 love song 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 their 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 love poetry, while also criticising troubadours for not praising her.

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Kalenda maya, the troubadours, and the lessons of traditional music

BnFms854f.75vRaimbautdeVaqueiras
Raimbaut de Vaqueiras as depicted in a 14th century French manuscript (BnF ms. 854, f. 75v).

Kalenda maya is a 12th century song by troubadour, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, one of the Occitanian (later southern French) poets and singers who developed the musical tradition of fin’amor, refined or perfect love. Via Roman fertility festivals and Irish fiddle tunes, this article discusses the lyrical content of the song and the problems of interpreting the notation of Kalenda maya, penned when written music was still developing in medieval Europe. Can there be a definitive version when there are textual variants of the same song or melody? How credible are renditions of Kalenda maya that impose a musical rhythm not present on the original page?

Raimbaut de Vaqueiras based the melody of Kalenda maya on an estampie dance tune he heard at court in Italy. Using principles written in 1300, I attempted to reverse engineer the sung estampie back into the tune it originally was. The reasons this proved impossible tell us something important about medieval music and the continuance of the spirit in which it was played.

With a video of two interpretations of the melody played on gittern.

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A brief history of farting in early music and literature

TheVowsOfThePeacock.c1350.This may seem like surprising material. Indeed, this article started out as a bit of silliness based on a few farty fragments, but soon became a serious study when I uncovered the surprising historical meanings behind flatulence in the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. A 17th century music society sang gleefully about it (for which there is a music video in this article); Thomas D’Urfey published several songs about it; and a buck does it in the earliest surviving piece of English secular polyphony. Plus there’s Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Edward de Vere’s bottom burp in front of Queen Elizabeth, and farting musical marginalia. So rest your cheeks, wind down, and let rip with a brief history of farting.

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Sumer is icumen in / Perspice Christicola: silencing the cuckoo

Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well sing you, cuckoo …

It seems like an unlikely coupling, two songs written in a 13th century manuscript to the same music: one about the sights and sounds of summer, with its singing cuckoo, growing seeds, bleating ewe and farting buck; the other a devotional song, with God sending Christ to destruction in order to free captives and crown them in heaven. Do the Middle English Sumer is icumen in and the Latin Perspice Christicola really belong together? Evidence of scribal interference suggests they make an uneasy pair.

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