A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 9
“Joye: Les plaintes de Gilles de Bins dit Binchois”. Graindelavoix/Björn Schmelzer. Glossa (link)
Although the dukes of Burgundy were nominally vassals of the French king, in the late 14th and 15th centuries they grew in power thanks to useful marriages and land acquisitions, taking advantage also of France’s difficulties during the Hundred Years War. When Philip the Good became duke in 1419 he inherited not just part of northeastern France but also Flanders and its important commercial centers; over the course of his reign, he added much of the rest of the Low Countries and brought Burgundy to the height of its power. Philip was a great patron of the arts: he appointed the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to his court, and his chapel of musicians was among the finest in Europe. Because Philip lived mostly in his northern possessions rather than in Dijon, most of his musicians came from Flanders and the Low Countries. One such musician was Gilles de Bins, known as Gilles Binchois, born probably in Mons around 1400, who joined Philip’s chapel in the 1420s, remaining there until 1453 (he died in 1460). He’s best known today for his secular French chansons; the dukes of Burgundy were carrying on the medieval courtly tradition, and Binchois’s chansons are on the continuum stretching back through Machaut to the trouvères. Binchois seems to have been particularly keen on composing by conventional rules: most of his chansons are in rondeau form, with four- or five-line stanzas and two-line refrains, most have lines of eight syllables, and almost all are in triple metre. What made Binchois stand out among his contemporaries were his graceful melodies, combined with a lack of rhythmic complexity. This simple and elegant music seems to lend itself to melancholic expression, as exemplified by Graindelavoix’s collection of plaintes, or laments. It seems odd to title such an album “Joye”—which comes from Johannes Ockeghem’s description of Binchois as “the father of joy” in his lament on the death of Binchois, included on the disc—but Björn Schmelzer explains that the “joy” in question is a more profound emotion that relates to “singing out one’s sadness”: a 15th-century form of the blues, if you like.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 8
“Worcester 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.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 7
Jacopo da Bologna: Italian Madrigals of the 14th Century. Ensemble PAN. Ars Musici
We’ve seen already in this history that Dante Alighieri (c1265-1321) was a great admirer of the troubadours, and this opinion held true among the Italian aristocracy generally. Troubadours and joglars, including those fleeing the Albigensian crusade in the early part of the 13th century, had been welcome at the Italian courts, and the local musicians who succeeded them not only imitated their musical style but also continued to set verses in Occitan. Aside from the spiritual laude there was no tradition of Italian song in the vernacular. Around 1306, Dante wrote his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, in which he cited the troubadours as well as classical poets as exemplars in his attempt to devise rules for the creation of vernacular poetry. He also suggested that poetry and music should be distinct – that profound poems of the high style shouldn’t be set to music because this would distract from the text, whereas pastoral, descriptive poetry would be ideal for those who wished to compose great music. It’s not until the 1330s that we see the flowering of vernacular Italian art song, in the form of a genre called the madrigale (which may be translated as meaning “in the mother tongue”), practiced most notably by Jacopo da Bologna, Giovanni da Cascia, and Maestro Piero in the northern cities of Verona and Milan in the 1340s and 1350s. In its formal structure, the madrigal comprised several three-line stanzas, each of them with the same music, with a short ritornello to conclude, this being one or two lines with new music and a different meter; madrigals invariably had a rustic subject, inspired by the bucolic images of classical poets such as Virgil. Unlike vernacular songs elsewhere, the madrigal was a polyphonic form from its inception, although it’s not certain whether it evolved from monophonic songs with accompaniment or had its origin in 12th-century conductus, which it in some way resembles. One notable musical feature of the madrigal is the presence of long melismas at the very start and very end, but not in between so that the text could easily be understood. Related to the madrigal was the caccia, written for two equal voices in canon, often with an accompanying instrumental part; although the caccia had the same poetic structure as a madrigal, musically it was quite different.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 6
“Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova”. Orlando Consort. Amon Ra (link)
In the 1320s, two Paris-trained mathematicians who were also musicians published similarly titled treatises that pointed to a new direction for composition: Jehan des Murs’s Ars novae musicae and Philippe de Vitry’s Ars nova. The essence of this “new art” – Ars nova has become the name given to the general compositional style of the 14th century in France – was a move beyond the idea of “perfection” associated with the number three. Where the Franconian system divided the perfect long into three breves and divided breves into semibreves worth one- or two-thirds of a breve, Vitry and Jehan argued that it was fine to have an imperfect long comprising two breves of equal length, or a breve divided into two equal semibreves, and a semibreve divided into two shorter notes (the minimum note length, or “minim”). Moreover, a composer could mix-and-match between the use of two or three subdivisions, so that a long might be split into three breves but the breve might comprise just two semibreves. The first compositions demonstrating these ideas are some by Vitry that appeared in a 1316 edition of the Roman de Fauvel, a satirical poem attacking the moral state of France at the time; this particular edition included some 169 musical items, both old and new, providing a kind of soundtrack to accompany events in the story. By freeing the rules of composition from the ideology of “perfection”, the Ars nova opened up a wide range of possibilities for rhythms, not least of which was duple time (one-two one-two) – not that duple time didn’t exist in music until then, but now there was a formal system for writing, and composing, in it. With shorter note values being used, the music could move at a faster pace, and the tenor part of a motet became relatively longer, such that it ceased to provide a recognisable melodic component and instead formed a structural foundation for the polyphony. This structure is reflected in a feature of the Ars nova motet called isorhythm, the use of repeated statements of one rhythmic pattern that didn’t necessarily correspond to melodic patterns. Initially, isorhythm was used only in the tenor, but it soon spread to the upper voices also, giving greater organization to the composition as a whole.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 5
“Motetus”. Clemencic Consort/René Clemencic. Stradivarius (link)
Over the course of the 13th century, the main polyphonic forms, organum and conductus, declined in popularity to be replaced by a new form, the motet (this name being a diminutive form of mot, the French for ‘word’). To understand how the motet came about we must look back at a particular aspect of the polyphony developed by Leonin and the Notre Dame school: the clausula. This was a segment of organum in which a short piece of text, usually just a word or two, was sung melismatically using many notes while the tenor voice slowly sang the text once. Musicians began to replace the melismas with new texts that had some relevance to the words of the organum and that were sung syllabically. Clausulas were regarded as separate modules that could be inserted into an organum as needed, but this independence meant that over time they began to be sung on their own as a composition called a motet (which, you may remember, is what happened with the sequence in Gregorian chant). The new text and its music was referred to as the duplum or motetus, and there could also be another, separate but topically related, text on top of that, called the triplum, and there could even be a quadruplum. As the Clemencic Consort demonstrates on its album, new motet texts weren’t necessarily in Latin: while the tenor text remained a Latin phrase, the duplum (and triplum, if there was one) could be in French. And once the language switched to the vernacular, it shouldn’t be surprising that the topics should change to more secular concerns, and the lyrics resemble the poetry of the trouvères.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 4
“Rosa de las Rosas: Cantigas de Santa Maria”. Música Antigua/Eduardo Paniagua. Pneuma (link)
Troubadours fleeing Provence in the aftermath of the Albigensian crusade would have found welcome at the court of King Alfonso X of Castile and Léon in northwestern Iberia. Alfonso, known as El Sabio or ‘the Wise’, gathered together Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars and artists during his reign from 1252 to 1284. He introduced various social and legal reforms and encouraged the work of astronomers and astrologers, but his great contribution to music was his commissioning – and possible co-authoring – of a vast collection of songs called the Cantigas de Santa Maria. Compiled over three decades and now surviving in four manuscripts, the Cantigas comprises some 420 poems pertaining to the Virgin Mary; the songs are grouped in tens, nine of each group being narratives describing miracles attributed to Mary (one song recounts how Alfonso himself was healed), with the tenth being a hymn of praise. The poems are in Galician-Portuguese, the forerunner of modern Portuguese, and the music is related to popular songs of the day as well as troubadour and trouvère melodies. The Cantigas manuscripts come with numerous miniatures depicting musicians playing more than 40 different kinds of instruments, a boon to modern academics and performers seeking inspiration for how the music might have been performed. Given the presence of Arabs and Moors at Alfonso’s court, not to mention some Moorish instruments shown in the miniatures, musicologists have been tempted to speculate on an Arabic influence on the music.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 3
Dante & The Troubadours. Sequentia. Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (link)
The word troubadour is a Frenchified version of trobador, an old Provençal (or Occitan, or langue d’oc) word that derives from trobar, which may be translated as to compose or to find. The first troubadour whose work we know today was Guillaume (1071-ca.1127), count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine. We’ve encountered Aquitaine previously in this history, as home to some of the earliest examples of polyphony; this large region of southern and central France was nominally ruled by the French king but was essentially independent and by the 12th century a home to strong spiritual and artistic communities. This was a feudal society, and like Guillaume most of the troubadours were members of the nobility, although some were commoners whose talents brought them elevated status. High-born or low, the world of the troubadour was an aristocratic one – it was a rich person’s hobby, rather than a profession – and their lyric poems reflect lordly and knightly concerns: service to their master, political topics, self-aggrandisement, war (Guillaume was a leader of the Crusade of 1101, losing his entire army in a massacre before they had reached the Holy Land), but also – and mostly – what we might call courtly love and the troubadours knew as fin’ amors. The troubadours’ love songs usually spoke of a love that was unconsummatable, because the object of the poet’s affection (or worship, really) not only outranked him but was generally married too. Some 2,600 troubadour poems are known today, although music exists for only about one-tenth of these. The melodies bear similarities to those found in the chant repertoire, though some might be related to folk music of the time. As for the poetry, it was virtuoso work, admired for its technical ingenuity such as stanza structure and the relationships of rhymes. The various types of subject matter allowed the existence of numerous genres, such as the canso (a courtly love song), the pastorela (a mock-popular style of song involving a knight and a shepherdess), or the planh (a lament on the death of some important figure). Dante Alighieri discussed the qualities of the troubadours’ poetry in his treatise De vulgari eloquentia, and Sequentia’s album showcases the composers and music that Dante mentioned in his writings. Whatever their artistic merits, though, Dante in the Divine Comedy placed some of them in Hell: they were nobles, after all, and involved in the politics and intrigues of the time.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 2
Hildegard of Bingen: “A feather on the breath of God”. Gothic Voices/Christopher Page. Hyperion (link)
It’s ironic that the first featured composer in this history should be a woman, given the regrettable absence of women from the ranks of the “great”, or even the “reasonably well known”, composers. Hildegard (1098-1179) was a remarkable woman of her time: an abbess and visionary who corresponded with rulers and popes, toured Germany as a preacher, and produced numerous literary works on religion, medicine, and natural history. She has been an inspiration for feminists and the New Age movement, as well as the subject of four attempts at canonization in the two centuries after her death. In the 1150s, Hildegard collected several dozen of her poems in the work Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations), which survives today in two manuscripts that also provide monophonic musical notation. The compositions are mostly antiphons and responsories for the office, as well as some sequences for the mass and a few hymns. Hildegard’s music isn’t based on plainchant and makes use of a small number of melodic patterns that show up in many pieces; it also tends to have a high ambitus (the range of notes in a given piece), which gives it a soaring quality that matches well with the visionary nature of the poems. Hildegard’s fame as a composer is only a recent phenomenon: Gothic Voices’ hugely successful 1982 release was one of the first recordings of her music, though there have been many more since then. Her popularity may give the wrong impression that Hildegard was the only significant composer of her day; the reality of course is that she was just one among many others who weren’t so fortunate as to have their names and biographies preserved for future centuries.
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A History of Classical Music through Recordings: Part 1.
Chant. Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. EMI
In May 1994, something extraordinary happened: a compilation of recordings made a decade or two earlier by a group of monks in a monastery in northern Spain reached #3 on the Billboard album charts, having already been a big hit in other countries. The Gregorian chant sung by these monks and their brethren for well over a millennium is the oldest music in the classical tradition, and it remains alive in Catholic rituals today. Listeners to the Chant album were drawn by the music’s promise to, as the sleeve notes put it, “bathe the weary, worldly, unsuspecting soul in its blessing”. Certainly there’s no denying the soothing effect of those long, rhythm-free melodic lines, but this somewhat misses the point that chant’s original intended audience was as much God Himself as exhausted yuppies or their medieval equivalent. Although Gregorian chant gets its name from Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604 C.E., the music had its origins in earlier centuries. Psalmody was a key feature of Jewish worship, but not of early Christianity, and it wasn’t until the development of monastic life in the fourth century that Christian psalmody appeared, in the monks’ and nuns’ night vigils. Later, psalmodic chanting was reorganized to be spread across the entire day, in a series of seven “offices”, as well as in the daily mass. Chant has a rather arbitrary track listing, so to get a better picture of chant being sung in its proper devotional context we must look elsewhere.
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For a long time I’ve wanted to create some sort of beginner’s guide to classical music, but I was never quite sure how. Part of my hesitation has been uncertainty over where the beginner should start. I came to classical music as a teenager through accessible orchestral works such as Holst’s The Planets and Grieg’s Peer Gynt, but others will testify to the power of Vivaldi, or Pärt, or a particular instrument. The sensible approach seemed to be to develop a long list of recordings and let the beginner pick where to start, rather than say “start here”. The most straightforward approach to such a list would be a roughly chronological one, or at least one divided into the major periods of classical music – Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, and so on. But then, of course, the question is what to put on the list.
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