Archive for September, 2009

Romance of Alexander

Our new header image is a detail from the bottom margin of a page from the Romance of Alexander, a Flemish manuscript from the middle third of the 14th century. It sets the scene of a marriage feast (the topic of the story at this point), in which music and dance plays a central part. On the left is a man playing a bowed stringed instrument (viol?) on his shoulder, while several attendants dance in a line, while holding hands. The men at the front and back of the line seem to be lifting their legs in a dance step. The middle vignette shows a man in the midst of striking two drums, which are being held by a youth—at his own risk, it would seem. At the right, a man plays a portative organ, while six ladies and one man dance in a circle. It’s hard to tell, but perhaps one of the women is in the middle of the circle.

These images are beautifully depicted and intricately detailed, and yet they still leave us with many questions. For instance, why is it no longer fashionable for men to wear mismatched leotards, when it is obviously so stylish?

Romance of Alexander Detail

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Verbum patris humanatur

This 12th-century conductus, Verbus patris humanatur, is the earliest known preserved example of three-part polyphony.* I really wanted to hear what it sounded like, and didn’t have a piano handy, so I thought I would create a quickly notated example just to give the gist. It’s a thirteen-measure solution of the sort that would have been worked out extemporaneously by ear following organal rules. It features contrary motion, and musica ficta in order to avoid that devilish interval, the tritone (in this case, there are F sharps in the upper part to avoid the B naturals in the tenor).

*According to RT, the example previously thought to hold that honor, Congaudeant catholici from the Codex Calixtinus, was actually two separate solutions written into the same manuscript.

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When discussing a musical tradition that is quite foreign to one’s own, it’s only natural to draw comparisons to what is known and understood. Putting the alien into a familiar context can help open up the proverbial windows and get some light in the room. Saying something like “troping is the same as sampling” is of course a crude oversimplification, but at its root, this thought betrays the perception of sameness (that is, familiarity) that can shoot through centuries and cultural differences. Critical comparisons like these can help one to form conceptual bonds with the past or with other cultures.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that many of our discussions on the blog so far have drawn parallels to our present musical landscape. This has been done in the spirit of playfulness and fun, but also to help put the pieces together and make meaning out of traditions that are long gone. I can’t help it – when I think about tropes, hip-hop production is the first thing that comes to mind. A big part of the reason why I think we’ve been drawing so many parallels to today is that music from the Middle Ages often has more in common with predominantly oral, “popular” lineages than it does with canonical Western art music. It makes sense to take a more ethnomusicological approach to this topic, therefore. In many ways, chant and secular music from this era share more with folk music, pop songwriting, and yes, hip-hop, than they do with Beethoven.

As Taruskin reminds us, orality and literacy have always been engaged in a complex pas de deux through the centuries. Even though notational technologies were available from around the 9th-10th centuries, music making remained primarily an oral tradition, and notated music simply attempted to capture what singers already knew. But at a certain point (or rather, many certain points), the pendulum swung towards literacy as the primary means of transmission.

To shift gears slightly, lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of composer anonymity and its role in shaping this repertory. Anonymity is fundamentally a trait of the oral tradition. In folk signing traditions, for instance, complex lineages of who learned a song from whom are often highly valued, but the origins of most songs are murky. In many (perhaps most) cultures around the world, songs are said to have been created by ancestors or the Gods. Some cultures view their song repertory as something that simply always has been. Similarly, most chant cannot be pinned down to a specific composer. Like the composition of the Indian ragas, Gregory was said to have received direct dictation from God. The idea of the “composer” didn’t really come about until the pendulum had swung a little more towards literacy.

For example, Hildegard’s music was elaborate, florid, and not always intuitive. There is little chance that her music would have been remembered and passed on in the same way as plainchant – it’s simply too difficult. Once music surpassed a certain threshold of technical complexity, notation became a much more valuable technology of transmission. Hildegard’s music was in many ways enabled by notation. Likewise, because it was affixed to a thing from the beginning, so too did her name enter the material record.

Oral traditions tend to value continuity more than innovation. One can certainly composer orally, as Taruskin wrote at the beginning of the volume, but is that composer going to be remembered? Indeed, is he going to even want to be remembered? In an oral paradigm, an individual’s unique contribution to the flowing river of music is  just a drop in an unchanging yet constantly moving tradition. No wonder we don’t have the names of many chant composers – they didn’t have the technology to pass their compositions down, of course, but just as important, they didn’t think like composers.

Literacy is one of the defining qualities of Western music (indeed, the defining characteristic according to Taruskin). But literacy also enabled an equally important concept, one that also defines Western music – the composer. We can see the faint stirrings of the composer concept now: fewer and fewer musical examples are anonymous as notation grew more precise and powerful. In a couple hundred years, composers will be well-known throughout their regions and in the employ of kings and churches. A couple hundred years after that, they will be the Gods.

[Addendum:] Continuing with our little tradition of bringing up current music in our discussions of the Middle Ages, the hip-hop practice of hiding one’s true identity through clever monikers is a fascinating phenomenon. All of these masks – many performers go under multiple aliases – fracture the concept of an individual composer/creator. In some ways, could we be returning to an oral, composerless paradigm?

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“Bone amourete”

We almost made it through the week of the trouvére without any actual music!

Bone amourete is a wonderfully elegant little rondeau by the great trouvére Adam de la Halle. (A rondeau, as Mark reminds us in the week’s review, has the poetic formula of [AB] a [A] ab [AB].) Perhaps unlike most of the chant repertory so far discussed, you can really hear the impulse of popular music at work here – the melodic phrase is incredibly simple and easy to remember, there’s a good deal of repetition, and the lyrical subject falls into the courtly love genre. This performance is combined with a separate composition: Bone amourete only runs thirty seconds or so. It it repeated once – the first time through is monophonic, the second polyphonic.

Here’s the poem:

[A] My kind mistress [B] keeps me gay; [a] My sweet companion, [A] My kind mistress, [a] I will sing you [b] my little song: [A] My kind mistress [B] keeps me gay.

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Week 3 in Review

This Week in Blogging: The posts this week continued to focus on drawing connections between medieval music and the 21st century. Plenty of aspects are still around today, including the actual repertoire (minnesang covered by a metal band), the philosophical debates (closed vs. open styles of music/lyric composition), social practices (competitions between performers), and lyrical topics (romantic love). We also were reminded, through Guido, of the importance of the pedagogical craft to technological advances, and thus to history. At the end of the week, we returned (with a knowing wink from Oswald von Wolkenstein) to one of the major threads of this book: moving away from a progress-laden, self-centered, anachronistic view of history. Here are some other notes from this week’s reading:

End of Chapter 3

  • Guido (pp. 99-104) Includes an explanation of the gamut (the full range of the medieval pitch set), the invention of the staff, and the Guidonian hand (with a large image and very practical explanation of the process of hexachord mutation—DO try this at home!).

Chapter 4: Music of Feudalism and Fin’ Amors

  • Troubadours (106): The repertoire of these Aquitainian musicians is the first glimpse we have of secular music, and heavily dominated by the fin’ amors (“refined love”), also known as amour courtoise (“courtly love”). Performance occurred in a range of situations, although the more august the situation, the more the music resembled chant of the church (in modal fingerprints and performance practice).
  • Minstrels (109): A lower caste of musicians, including jongleurs.
  • Rhythm and Meter (114): The notation systems didn’t indication rhythm or meter in this repertoire, but the currently favored approach is the “isosyllabic” one: all syllables of the text are given equal temporal length, no matter if there is one, two, or three notes to a given syllable.
  • Trobar clus and Trobar clar (115): Two opposing poetic approaches, outlined in this post.
  • Trouvères (116): The northern French counterpart of the troubadour, including several famous nobles, among them Richard I (Lionhearted). We learned about other famous (then and now) trouvères Jehan Bretel and Adam de la Halle, who is considered the last of the trouvères. Contemporary with Adam was the spread of the formes fixes, which were codified ways of dealing with and formally embellishing the basic canso (refrain form, aab).
    • rondeau: [AB] a [A] ab [AB]
    • ballade: R aab R
    • virelai: B aab B (more commonly expressed as A bba A)
  • Geographical Diffusion (128)
    • Cantigas de Santa Maria: important collection of vernacular song from regions in present-day Spain
    • lauda: Italian vernacular song
    • minnesang: continuation of the troubadour tradition in German speaking lands. Minnesinger were knightly poet-composer-musicians.
    • meistersinger: members of a guild of musicians who were an extension of minnesinger. They flourished in the 15th-16th centuries.

Chapter 5: Polyphony in Practice and Theory

  • As we begin in this chapter to read about the flourishing of polyphonic writing in monastic centers, universities, and cathedrals (especially at Notre Dame de Paris), we are reminded that it is the story not of the invention of polyphony (it has always been with us in one way or another), but of its practical, theoretical, and technological revolution.

We have an exciting week ahead: more of the musica enchiriadis, as well as Leonin, Perotin, rhythmic modes, mensuration, and (I’m sure) much more!

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Persistence, [like Oswald’s]*, in old ways is often represented by historians as anachronism – in this case, as a pocket of “the Middle Ages” surviving like a fossil into “the Renaissance,” or as resolute “conservatism,” resistance to change. What is anachronistic, however, is the modern linear view of history that produces such an evaluation, and the implicit isolation of artistic practices or styles from the historical conditions that enabled them. (I, 143)


* [Oswald von Wolkenstein was a minnesinger who was born in 1376, years after the monophonic craft of the trouvéres faded away.]

This is a topic that I feel we’ll be returning to often. A historian who focuses solely on technical innovation and teleological progression could easily consider someone like Oswald to be atavistic and somewhat tragicomic. They just don’t seem to get it. Henry Ford is inventing the Model T and poor old Oswald is just coming out of the garage announcing that he’s discovered the wheel. Poor Oswald! (“Hello? Anyone in there? Think, Oswald, think!,” I hear Biff Tannen saying.) In the little comparative taxonomy set up in the previous post, if chant is the amphibian that wiggles onto shore, then Oswald is the coelacanth, a prehistoric fish that mind-bogglingly survived into the present (in very small numbers) with a primitive anatomy.

Oswald isn’t alone in this historical assessment. One of the major complications inherent in the concept of the “eras” (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.) is that it codifies certain style characteristics as typical of a specific time, irrespective of the particular cultural milieu. If a composer is writing music that seems to outdo the style associated with his era, he’s considered progressive, vanguard, and innovative (and thus valuable and important). Music history is scattered with such innovating Geniuses who are ahead of their time: for instance, Gesualdo, Moussorgsky, and Ives. However, on the flip side, some composers in the standard canon wrote music that harkens back to earlier eras (a rococo classicist living in the Sturm und Drang era, for example). Since these unfortunate individuals aren’t current and up-to-date with their musical style, they are subjected to the historical judgment of conservatism. Thus, Sergei Rachmaninoff is an anachronism, writing grand, romantic symphonies and piano concertos well into the jaded, spiky 20th century. Mendelssohn is another who is sometimes labeled this way. And poor, misunderstood Oswald also falls into this category.

No good ethnomusicologist would make this judgment, steeped as the discipline is in the cultural embeddedness of all musical phenomenon. It may seem silly that we have to remind ourselves of this, but stylistic developments were not spontaneously adapted throughout Europe as soon as they came about. Nor should they have been. Indeed, innovative systems of music making were born from cultures, and were thus useful and meaningful in some way to the culture that produced them. Outside of that specific culture, however, the same technique could be irrelevant and unnecessary. Music is used, and if one culture has a use for a technique while the principality down the road (complete with a different language, system of social organization, economy, etc.) does not, then we can’t expect the second culture to adapt the new development wholesale simply because it’s technically innovative. This flawed historical perspective, Taruskin argues, is the anachronism, not the cultural practice so judged.

The fact of the matter is that feudalism, the social system that gave rise to the troubadour/trouvére/minnesang styles, persisted in the German lands long after it faded away in the French kingdoms. Oswald was not a holdover from an earlier era, therefore: he was responding to his culture, which just happened to keep up with feudal conditions after France began the shift towards urbanization. He was plenty relevant to his time (indeed, he was quite popular). As Taruskin puts it: “When things become truly anachronistic, they disappear (as did the Meistersinger guild when it officially disbanded in 1774). As long as they thrive, they are ipso facto – by the very fact – relevant to their time, and it is the historian’s job to understand how.” (I, 143)

History is not a straight line. Indeed, it’s the twists and turns and bifurcations that make history so interesting and so complex. We would all do well to remember that.

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As Taruskin recounts (I, 134-142), Richard Wagner recognized the potential in the stories of the historical minnesinger/meistersinger (German-speaking analogue of the trovères) and appropriated their caché for his operas Die meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser. But Wagner is not the only one to cash in on this potential. In a 21st-century example, In Extremo (a German medieval metal band) performs the popular minnesang “Palästinalied”, by Walther von der Vogelweide. The band is true to Walther’s melody and lyrics, in the original Middle High German (they get to three out of the twelve verses, then repeat the first). As you will see in the video below, they are also true to Wagner’s spirit of artistic liberty through a modern lens, complete with a shredding metal electric guitar solo, tatooed bagpipe players, and pyrotechnic explosions. And guess what? The audience loves it.


I put this video up kind of on a whim, because I was surprised by the ability for music that’s almost a millennium old to be relevant in the 21st century, and this video was so zany that I was simply flabbergasted by the find. But I have since become aware that it is potentially offensive to viewers, due to the song’s subject matter (the crusades), and the context of performance (Germans singing in a creepy—goth? occult?—way about the Holy Lands). Let’s just say that I wouldn’t let my son watch this video. It would be sure to give him nightmares. (He’s only 4 months old, but still.)

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