The earliest singer-songwriters: Medieval music brought into the modern era (Feb. 28)

On Thursday, February 28 at 7pm, the Music Department has the honor of hosting one of the most established early music performing groups, the Orlando Consort, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary. CFA Arts Administration Intern Monica M. Tinyo ’13 spoke with Associate Professor of Music and Chair of the Music Department Jane Alden about the Orlando Consort and pre-modern (western European Medieval) music.  

Monica Tinyo: How do you give pre-modern a longevity; what are the limitations of pre-modern music in a modern era? Although you have original manuscripts, can you be certain how the music was originally presented?

Jane Alden: Whats really frustrating about Medieval [pre-modern] music is that we have no idea how it was performed. It can also be very liberating; we can be very creative in our interpretations. For the earliest Medieval music, the secular music of the troubadours and the trouvères, all we really have is the descriptions in the autobiographies. These biographies are usually more fantastic than documentary. We also have iconographic images of troubadours playing instruments. If they seem to be singing while playing an instrument, we glean from those that the music was accompanied [by instruments]. This is generally the [archeological] process we go through. The problem, however, is how do we know those that aren’t holding instruments to indicate that they are musicians—someone with their mouth open is only gleaned to be a singer if they are also holding an instrument. Can we be certain then that those pieces were accompanied?

Unfortunately, we can’t travel back in time, so we don’t really know anything for certain, [however] I am much more in favor of the liberation of not knowing. In presenting this music now, we are already placing it in the modern era, so we might as well do what we want to make it meaningful to us. I have no problem with playing pre-modern music on modern instruments. For example, I love hearing this music on the piano which historically is completely anachronistic.

Tell me a little about the group we will be hearing on Thursday [the Orlando Consort].

The Orlando Consort

There is a strong a cappella tradition—it is a very blended sound. As part of the British choral tradition, the group prioritizes [a very blended sound] but more so than that, the musicians have been singing together for so long. Their music is all about the interaction of voices.

It is incredibly complex music. If you hear a solitary voice or instrument, you can follow that one melodic line. When you hear a full orchestra, there is a wash of color—you hear the complexity and all these different instruments. In some ways, your brain has to work even harder when it hears four male voices, because they all have the same timbre to some extent, although there are obviously subtleties, but you can actually follow four different lines. In fact, studies show that [four different melodic lines] is the most the brain can recognize. The sound will fill the chapel—with an aural complexity that is very engaging.

[Professor Alden explained that the Orlando Consort has received a commission to do the first complete works of Guillaume de Machaut, an immensely influential French Medieval composer and poet who was very ahead of his time. Although arguably as important as Ludwig van Beethoven, Machaut is not as widely known because because the recording industry is relatively new, and unlike Beethoven, he is a pre-modern musician.]

Machaut was the last of a long tradition of poet-musicans. The Medieval poet-musicans were the earliest singer-songwriters. [Many don’t know that] the contemporary tradition of the singer-songwriter has a history dating back to the twelfth century. If you ask people in French Studies about Machaut, they explain that he was an incredibly important poet, but they could have no idea that he was also a composer. He is so important for literature, but he was also a phenomenally important composer. He was so far ahead of his time. Thinking of a modern day symphony, there are four movements that all come together in organic unity. We have all grown up hearing organic unity in music, and understanding it to be incredibly important (whether it is or not is a different issue). Machaut wrote the first piece that works like that with the movements of the Mass. In the fourteenth century, the idea of something that was through-composed was unheard-of. He linked the music between the musical parts that were separated by texts, which had never been unified before. It was epic for religious music—it was so ahead of his time that no one tried to do it for another hundred years.

The Orlando Consort will present a 200 year tour of Western European music. The first half of the concert will consist of songs from a poem Machaut wrote called “Le Voir Dit,” or “The True Saying,” the (possibly fictional) romance between a Machaut in his late 60s and the 19 year old noble woman, Peronne; the second half of the concert will be devoted to later English and Franco-Flemish music, which can be understood as the logical extension of Machaut [the sacred works of John Dunstaple, Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin des Prez, and Nicolas Gombert].

Orlando Consort
Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 7pm
Memorial Chapel, 221 High Street, Middletown
$12 general public; $9 senior citizens, Wesleyan faculty/staff, non-Wesleyan students; $6 Wesleyan students

Co-sponsored by the Thomas and Catharine McMahon Fund, Department of Romance Languages and Literature, Medieval Studies, College of Letters, Music Department, and the Center for the Arts.

3 thoughts on “The earliest singer-songwriters: Medieval music brought into the modern era (Feb. 28)”

  1. A very, very special event in a most perfect venue. I happily picked up the last Christmas CD so I may enjoy wonderful music bu Orlando during the holiday season.

  2. This group was at the absolute top of their game. Whether as two, three or four voices their performance was electrifying. The combination of a focused first half (on the works of Machaut) and a variety of 15th- and early 16th-century polyphonic favorites in the second half allowed us to appreciate the range and quality of their repertoire.

  3. Outstanding….my first exposure to a Capella tradition with a medieval music back ground. It was marvelous considering the complexity of the music. It was a wonderful treat.

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