March 5, 2013

Medieval England

A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 8

Worcester fragmentsWorcester Fragments”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra

There’s not much extant music from the 14th century or earlier that’s specifically English. Under the Anglo-Saxons in the 10th and 11th centuries, a repertory of tropes for Gregorian chants was developed, with examples surviving today in manuscripts from Winchester and Canterbury. Among the changes brought by the Norman conquest of 1066 was the replacement of senior clergy by Normans, who imported their own liturgical traditions and introduced what is now called the Sarum rite. This rite was melodically similar (though not identical) to the Roman rite and included certain unique prayers as well as locally significant additions to the calendar. Thanks to the Normans and their successors the Plantagenets (who came to power in 1154 with the accession of Henry II), England was now closely linked to France, politically and culturally. We saw in Chapter 2 that Anonymous IV, the key source of information on Léonin and Pérotin, was an Englishman, and in fact the earliest surviving version of the Magnus liber organi of Notre Dame is one produced for the Augustinians of St. Andrews, Scotland. English composers seem not to have been especially interested in abstract theories of music compared with their French counterparts, however, and a distinctive English musical voice began to develop during the 13th century, one significant feature of which was a preference for thirds and sixths that may reflect an earlier Scandinavian influence. Unfortunately, the Reformation of the 16th century resulted in the destruction of many manuscripts, and the only records of English polyphony in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries survive in fragments. The “Worcester fragments” are individual leaves from manuscripts used in Worcester Cathedral; they survived only because they had been recycled for book-binding, and in the 20th century they were gathered together to represent what scholars believe to have been a very rich repertoire of polyphony.

Miri it isMiri it is”. The Dufay Collective. Chandos

The cupboard is rather bare, too, when it comes to secular music. We’ve already seen that Henry II’s son, Richard I, was a trouvère, and later nobles and the merchant classes were interested in courtly song as was the case in France, but there’s no English equivalent of the large body of troubadour and trouvère music possessed by the French. A few examples of Anglo-Norman songs with music exist, as well as some Latin songs similar to those found in the Carmina burana. As for songs written in Middle English, there are very few of these – around a couple of dozen from before the early 14th century, most of them sacred. (It should be noted here that Anglo-Norman was the official court language until an act of parliament in 1362, which helped pave the way for the development of a distinctive English culture, as exemplified by the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries). One secular song in Middle English is probably the best-known of all medieval music: “Sumer is icumen in”, found in a mid-13th century manuscript. This is a round (or rota) whose text is sung in four voices accompanied by a two-voice repeated phrase that itself is a round – a complexity that appears to be unique for its time but may well reflect a common practice of polyphonic singing that wasn’t otherwise written down.

Deo gracias Anglia!Deo gracias Anglia!”. Alamire/David Skinner. Obsidian

Rather better represented as a particularly English genre is the polyphonic carol. At first – in the 12th century – carols (or caroles, as they were called in France) were monophonic dance songs with solo and choral sections. By the 15th century, from which time we finally have some examples of carols, the form had evolved into a two- or three-voice composition that wasn’t intended for dancing, though the alternating stanzarefrain structure remained (the refrain was known as the “burden” and technically speaking wasn’t the same as what we would now call a chorus). Today we associate carols with Christmas, but medieval carols were associated with various times of the liturgical year, when they were sung as processional music. Moreover, some of them weren’t religious; one of the best-known carols is the so-called Agincourt Carol, which describes Henry V’s victory at the battle of that name in 1415. Alamire’s recording presents the full contents of the oldest extant source of polyphonic carols, the Trinity Carol Roll. Here, instrumentalists have been brought in for additional variety, which perhaps enhances the impression that carols are folk music – though they’re more correctly described as art music composed in a popular style.

Old Hall manuscriptThe Old Hall Manuscript”. Hilliard Ensemble. Virgin

The best source of examples of what music was being written by English composers in the late 14th and early 15th centuries is the so-called Old Hall Manuscript. This was compiled for Thomas, the Duke of Clarence and second son of King Henry IV, around 1410-15, with some later additions probably up to about 1420. The manuscript contains 147 pieces of sacred music, arranged thematically: first settings of the Gloria, then antiphons and sequences, followed by settings of the Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, with some isorhythmic motets at the end (there are no Kyries because in England the Kyrie was sung as plainchant with tropes). Of great benefit to music historians is that about two-thirds of the music is attributed to named composers – 24 names in all, including two pieces by “Roy Henry”, which (translating from French) is presumably Henry IV or Henry V. Within each group of pieces, there’s a further arrangement, with settings in the older “descant” style appearing first, notated in score, followed by more modern pieces notated in separate parts; overall, the manuscript shows quite a wide variety of musical styles. The descant (or discant) style often makes use of a plainchant melody, usually in the middle voice (the tenor), harmonized note for note by the other voices. Among the newer works we find the cantilena style, where the melodic focus shifts to the upper (treble) voice, with two supporting voices that are usually less ornate and sometimes instrumental; another foreign influence is the caccia style used by Pycard to produce Gloria settings in canonic form. In terms of quantity of works, the most significant composer to be found in the Old Hall Manuscript is Leonel Power (died 1445), who was employed at the Duke of Clarence’s household chapel and may have been involved in the manuscript’s preparation. Enough of Power’s music is extant to allow scholars to divide it into earlier and later periods; the pieces in the older part of Old Hall include English discant, isorhythmic Mass movements, and works in the Ars Nova style, whereas the later music shows more consonance and less rhythmic complexity.

DunstableDunstable: “Sweet Harmony: Masses and Motets”. Tonus Peregrinus. Naxos

Before we go further, we must briefly return to the history of the Church. Although the Avignon papacy had declined in the first years of the 15th century, the great schism continued, and by 1409 there were now three rival popes. Europe had had enough, and 1414 saw the beginning of the four-year Council of Constance, which finally ended the schism. Some 18,000 clerics attended over the course of the council, as did seventeen hundred instrumental musicians, according to the chronicler Ulrich von Richenthal. Of significance for our story here is the arrival in 1416 of two English bishops and their parties, whose celebration of mass created quite an impression among continental musicians with what Ulrich described as “angelic sweet singing” of a style of music they hadn’t heard before. English music’s reputation in Europe took a further great boost thanks to the fortuitous arrival in Paris a few years later of John Dunstable (c.1390-1453). Dunstable – whose name is also spelled Dunstaple – was in the employ of John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, who following the death of his brother King Henry V in 1422 became Regent for the young Henry VI and spent most of the rest of the decade in Paris maintaining England’s hold on its French possessions. Around fifty of Dunstable’s works survive, and the majority of them are found only in continental manuscripts. The French were drawn to those distinctively English aspects of Dunstable and his contemporaries’ music – the flowing rhythms and, especially, the lack of dissonance. Whereas Ars Nova harmonies contained plenty of dissonances, English composers, as we’ve seen above, had a liking for the consonance provided by major thirds and sixths, and Dunstable was particularly disposed to avoiding dissonance in his music. This approach was so admired that in 1440 the poet Martin le Franc remarked, in an aside in his allegorical poem Le Champion des Dames, that the composers of the time followed the example of Dunstable and “la contenance Angloise” rather than that of their earlier compatriots. A few decades later, the composer Tinctoris described Dunstable and the English composers as essentially the source of what was good in modern music. In the next chapter, we’ll hear what le Franc and Tinctoris were talking about…

Selected tracks from the above albums are available in a mix at

Previous posts in this series:
Part 1. Gregorian chant (8tracks mix)
Part 2. From chant to polyphony (8tracks mix)
Part 3. Troubadours and trouvères (8tracks mix)
Part 4. Troubadour influences (8tracks mix)
Part 5. The 13th-century motet (8tracks mix)
Part 6. Ars nova (8tracks mix)
Part 7. Trecento Italy (8tracks mix)

Filed under A History of Classical Music, Classical