The first section of this programme explores the remarkable sonorities of three- and four-part writing during the last decades of the fourteenth century and the first decades of the fifteenth. Laus detur multipharia is a curiosity in many ways, not least because it is a devotional Latin virelai; the setting has a beauty touched by strangeness that characterizes many French songs of the later 1300s—note the hocketing passages and the surprising harmonic shift which occurs at the end of the B section, first heard at the words ‘Veritas monstratur hoRUM’, the latter reminiscent of some Ars subtilior chansons such as Joyeux de cuer by Solage. Pursuing the French song tradition beyond 1400, we find that the substantial legacy of the composer Matteo da Perugia includes the exquisitely decorous Belle sans per, a song whose determinedly busy under-parts and unpredictable sharps recall fourteenth-century textures such as that of Laus detur multipharia, but whose consonant texture looks forward to later works such as Quant la douce jouvencelle. Quant la douce jouvencelle is one of the most beautiful of all early fifteenth-century songs, with the high plainness which composers of the 1420s and 1430s often sought.
We must turn to liturgical music to find the last and most mature response of English composers to the developments of the French Ars Nova. The two pieces from the Old Hall manuscript (tracks 2 and 7) chosen here are among the most inventive and successful compositions of their generation. The former is by Cooke, of whom barely anything is known for certain, while the latter is by an anonymous master of great skill (the exceptional development of the second voice is noteworthy). The two-part sections of these compositions have a rhythmic flexibility which clearly owes much to French chansons of the Machaut and post-Machaut generations, while their four-part sections create full and striking sonorities without losing the rhythmic verve which some composers (including, perhaps, the composer of Laus detur multipharia) could only achieve by allowing other controls to slip. As a final surprise, these two Old Hall movements introduce a fifth part for their final passages, creating either a blaze of sound or an exciting clamour in which the parts seem to fight for supremacy.
The oldest layer of music in the second part of this programme is provided by the conducti—settings of Latin rhythmical verse. The monophonic In Rama sonat gemitus reaches back to the 1160s, for it laments Thomas Becket’s exile from England to France. As far as we may discern, the traditions of monophonic Latin song were much the same in both countries and this song could have been written in either. Polyphonic styles were less influenced by the ‘Channel culture’ that historians have posited for England and France in the thirteenth century; the three-voice setting of Ave Maria, for example, with its chains of triads, is composed in an irredeemably English style. Flos in monte cernitur is one of the tiny handful of conductus texts with an erotic theme; this is a point worth emphasizing for the ‘wine, women and song’ image which medieval Latin lyric has acquired, probably under the influence of the celebrated collection known as the Carmina Burana, is quite false to the conductus repertoire. The texts of Deduc, Syon, uberrimas and Presul nostri temporis, important compositions which appear in the major sources of conducti (including one from Britain), are more representative of conductus poetry; the former attacks the vices of the clergy, and particularly of the Papacy, the ‘head’ from which the canker spreads to the ‘limbs’ of the body politic; the latter (whose poem is almost certainly incomplete) appears to celebrate the achievements of a prelate.
Conducti such as Flos in monte cernitur and Deduc, Syon, uberrimas were eventually eclipsed by a form that was new and all the rage in Northern France from c1220 onwards: the motet. The rise of the motet initiated a change in taste, especially in matters of rhythm, that was to have enormous consequences for the development of medieval song. This can be illustrated from the materials recorded here. Deduc, Syon, uberrimas, for example, is performed in what was certainly its original rhythmic style, that is to say each syllable is declaimed to one perfect long (in terms of modern transcription, a dotted crochet). This kind of ‘isosyllabic’ declamation virtually disappeared with the rise of the motet, for motets employed the constant alternation of long and breve values (crochet and quaver) to be heard in Virgo plena gratie and Je ne puis/ Par un matin/Le premier jor/IUSTUS. The first layers of motets were produced by devising words for the upper part(s) of liturgical polyphonic compositions, or to sections of those compositions. The earliest three-part motets to result from this process were apparently the so-called ‘conductus motets’ such as Virgo plena gratie where both of the upper voices sing the same text. By c1250, however, the motet idea had already been carried to its limit in four-part composition such as Je ne puis/Par un matin/Le premier jor/IUSTUS; even today these pieces come across as audacious and almost aleatory compositions, the combination of three texted parts over the tenor creating tangles of dissonance and a rush of vowel and consonant colour.
The instrumental items, played here on a medieval fiddle, are all estampies. These pieces are often performed today using a battery of instrumental resources, including percussion, in the belief that they are a form of dance music. From the period when the estampies recorded here were written down, however—that is to say c1300—there is evidence that the estampie was especially associated with the solo fiddle, and that the appeal of such pieces lay, in part, in the way they commanded the attention of anyone who wished to follow their intricate form. On paper, these melodies look simple and formulaic; but therein lies the difficulty: there is so much material shared between one section of an estampie and another—or between one estampie and another—that the performer must concentrate hard in order to etch the melody without allowing one section to dissolve into another through the medium of the shared material. According to Johannes de Grocheio, writing c1300: ‘The estampie is a melody having a difficult structure of agreements … on account of its difficulty it causes the mind of anyone who performs it—and of anyone who listens to it—to dwell upon it, and it often diverts the minds of the powerful from perverse reflection.’
Christopher Page © 1994