Hyperion has long been a champion of music from the medieval era and boasts many first recordings in its catalogue, which have combined the highest levels of scholarship with brilliant musicianship, won many awards and opened the ears of a generation of listeners to the repertoire.
In this latest release John Potter, Christopher O’Gorman and Rogers Covey-Crump continue this trail-blazing voyage with a selection from the Conductus genre: the first experiments towards polyphony—the kind of sound we associate with Pérotin. Extensive booklet notes by Mark Everist probe into the intricacies of performance practice as well as analysing the music and poetry in context. This is an important historical document as well as a stunning and committed performance.
Other recommended albums
The conductus has always seemed like the poor relation in the history of music between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. Unlike its well-known siblings, the flamboyant organum and occasionally smutty motets, the conductus has remained in the shadows for much longer than its musical and poetic ambitions deserve. For the conductus is every bit as ambitious as its other family members; whether in terms of the complexity or sophistication of its poetry, or of the technical wizardry of some of its musical techniques, it is a genre to be reckoned with.
Even in terms of simple numbers, the conductus occupies an important place on the medieval musical landscape: there are slightly over 800 Latin poems with music copied between around 1230 and 1320, preserving a repertory composed between the 1180s and 1230s. Of these poems, 675 are set to music, and of these 377 are monophonic; 184 are in two parts; 111 in three parts; 3 in four parts. Three works have a doubtful generic profile, and 122 survive as texts or incipits alone. This is an immense repertory, and one that was spread far and wide. Manuscripts preserving the repertory are found from Scotland to the southern Rhineland, and from Spain to southern Poland.
Perhaps it is a number of uncertainties around the conductus that have resulted in its eclipse by other genres. Certainly there are difficulties with the rhythm of parts of the conductus that have led to a position where until relatively recently there has been no consensus as to how they would have been performed (more below), and even the function of the conductus—what it’s for—has been the subject of debate. Some have taken the term conductus to indicate some sort of processional context for the genre, and while it is just about conceivable that when the medieval procession stopped and made a station, singers might have sung a conductus, the more common idea that the works were sung while processing fits ill with the complexity of both their words and music. Others, for example, have taken the term conductus to have a meaning associated with ‘conduct’, and this fits well with the homiletic and moralizing tone of some of the poems.
The poems that form the basis of the conductus repertory are little known and even less well understood. Unlike classical quantitative verse, there is not necessarily control over the foot, and the poetry is organized according to number of syllables in a line, rhyme and end accent (either paroxytonic or proparoxytonic). There are only a tiny handful of settings of quantitative texts in the entire repertory; this recording includes one of them (Porta salutis), and a very strange piece it is indeed. There is a good case to be made that the type of poetry that appears in the conductus repertory—called rithmus by those who wrote about it—may well have been written especially with song in mind, and this quality may at least in part have conditioned its structure.
The poetry of the conductus reflects a kaleidoscope of preoccupations that range from sacred texts that come close to the liturgical, and in some cases are settings of texts from the liturgy, to exhortations to rulers via condemnations of harlots. Qui servare puberem is a sustained attack on the oldest profession which comes close—if the last four lines of the third stanza have been interpreted correctly—to claiming that succumbing to the lures of prostitution is tantamount to a funeral preceding death itself. The corruption of the Church is a popular theme, represented here by Heu quo progreditur, while Artium dignitas laments the decay of learning. Only slightly less abstract is the poetry of Quo vadis, quo progrederis?, which embodies a dialogue between the body and the soul.
Sacred subjects predominate, however, with no fewer than five conducti on this recording being based on themes from the Incarnation of Christ (Genitus divinitus; Quod promisit ab eterno; Relegentur ab area; Ista dies celebrari; Beate virginis). The Virgin Mary forms the focus of the poetry of the conducti Porta salutis and Stella serena. While some of Stephani sollempnia is clearly written for St Stephen’s day (or some other celebration of the saint) beginning with the text ‘Stephen’s feast day brings joy to the world today’, much of the rest of the poem is simply generic: ‘let us therefore rejoice in the Lord’.
These themes are projected in poetic forms ranging from one to as many as seven or eight stanzas; in the poems of the conducti recorded here, there are never more than three stanzas set to music in a single work. Stella serena and Stephani sollempnia are the only conducti on this recording that set monostanzaic poems, and although Porta salutis strictly speaking consists only of a single stanza, the nature of its poetry sets it apart from the other two monostanzaic pieces. Similarly, the stanzaic structure of Ista dies celebrari is far from clear: the structure given here is not entirely satisfactory, but then neither are any of the other proposals for this otherwise unremarkable text based on the birth of Christ. Ut non ponam is furnished only with three stanzas in the manuscript from which the music is taken.
Multistanzaic poems are treated in one of two ways. Either the same music is repeated for each of the two or three stanzas (Quo vadis, quo progrederis?; Artium dignitas; Qui servare puberem; Ut non ponam; Heu quo progreditur) or the music is through-composed so that each of the three stanzas in set to different music (Genitus divinitus; Quod promisit ab eterno; Relegentur ab area; Beate virginis). While it might be thought that through-composed works are more ambitious, there is a good case to be made—especially given the performances here—for arguing that the subtle variation in otherwise straightforward stanzaic conducti is every bit as complex as the sustained original composition in through-composed works.
If the range of poetic subjects and structures is broad, so too is that of the music. Conducti range from the simplest syllabic setting of a single stanza, where the clarity of the text is at a premium, to elaborate through-composed settings that make use of ambitious melismas of great musical complexity. Even syllabic music exhibits a range of relationships between words and notes. The facsimile of the first page of Genitus divinitus shows music that is largely syllabic (the exceptions are the melismas at the ends of the words ‘nativitas’ and ‘connubio’). For each of the syllables at the beginning of the piece there are anything between one and four notes; the single notes are easy to identify (as on the very first syllable of the word ‘Ge-ni-tus’), but most of the other constellations of notes are in the form of ligatures (groups of notes bound together) or conjuncturae (groups of notes conjoined in a series of descending lozenges). A good example of a completely syllabic piece is Quo vadis, quo progrederis? that begins this recording. As in the case of Genitus divinitus, syllables are set to between one and four notes.
Melismatic sections exploit very different types of music. In elaborate monophonic conducti the extended melismas that are found there are clearly flexibly unmeasured and behave very much like the melismas in plainsong. In polyphonic conducti, melismas—called caudae (tails)—were subject to the discipline of the so-called rhythmic modes in which both or all voice-parts are measured, and which enables the possibility of carefully matched phrases within the cauda and between caudae in the same composition. On the opening page of Genitus divinitus there are two caudae, on the last syllables of ‘nativitas’ and ‘connubio’. Here, the first cauda falls into three phrases of 5, 5 and 6 beats, describing an ABB¹ pattern, while the second presents two phrases of 12 and 16 beats respectively. Even here may be seen a 4:3 relationship in the durations of the second cauda (sesquitertia in Boethian number theory) and intriguingly the second phrase of this cauda is the same length (16 beats) as the whole of the first one. When the entire piece is taken into account, a complex web of temporal relationships arches over the unmeasured syllabic sections of the piece.
Exactly how to interpret and perform the rhythm of the conductus has long been recognized as highly contentious, and one of the barriers to the genre’s appreciation. Caudae, subject as they are to the rhythmic modes, pose no problems beyond the transcription of the rhythmic modes themselves. This is what medieval writers on music called musica sine littera (music without letters [words]), and while different editors will disagree about matters of detail, they will agree on the overall thrust of what the notation means. This is not the case with the notation of the syllabic portions of the conductus—the musica cum littera (music with letters [words]). Over the course of the last 150 years, it has been proposed that these sections—which do the all-important work of projecting the poetic text—should be interpreted in the same way as caudae: in other words, according to the rhythmic modes. The immense difficulty in making the notation look remotely like any of the rhythmic patterns that the rhythmic modes involve has led others to argue for a relaxed interpretation of the notation but still within the context of the rhythmic modes. Some have argued for duple rhythm, while others have suggested that the unmeasured notation probably indicates a non-metrical, rhythmically flexible type of performance.
Arguments in favour of the use of the rhythmic modes are either circular (the music must be metrical because the conductus might have been used as a processional / the music is used as a processional because it is metrically regular) or based on a faulty understanding of the poetic principles underpinning rithmus (the poetry used in the conductus repertory). Rithmus usually tells us little about the accentual control over the line except for the cadence (paroxytonic or proparoxytonic), but editors over the years have claimed to see quantitative feet in the poetry, as if it were Virgil, and have drawn conclusions about which rhythmic mode to use as a result. This has been shown to be false.
So while we can be sure that the caudae of the conducti are to be performed in accordance with the rhythmic modes (as they are on this recording), it is much less clear how the syllabic musica cum littera might be performed. Significant amounts of experimentation of all types of delivery have led to a style of performance that rejects a priori rhythmic systems that are inappropriate or anachronistic, and that places the poetry at the centre of the performance’s stage. This leads to a number of consequences, many of which are audible here. The first thing is not only the clear declamation of the poetry, but a flexibility on the part of the singers to declaim the poetry according to the way they might read and understand it; this is particularly interesting in strophic settings where—notionally—the same music is used for all the stanzas, but where the singer can articulate the poetry in different ways, with the same musical superstructure lightly adjusted in the light of the poetry. This can be heard, for example, by comparing the openings of the first two stanzas of Ut non ponam and contrasting the ways in which the first stanza (‘Ut non ponam os in celum’) and the second (‘Munda manus debet esse’) begin and continue, subtly giving emphasis to different words, and declaiming the text at different speeds depending on meaning. Other, smaller-scale consequences of non-metrical but rhythmically flexible performance are the regular simultaneous presentation of ligatures of four and three notes, three and two notes, and other combinations, which hark back to the music of previous generations.
The four recordings of Qui servare puberem heard here reflect the complex nature of this strange piece. The most elaborate version is in three parts and couples a tenor based on plainsong to two upper voices sharing a single text in the manner of a motet. The two upper voices survive in different manuscripts without the tenor, grouped with two-part conducti, which may have been performed unmeasured (as the works copied next to them would have been) or measured (as its origins in a motet suggest); we record both. We also give a monophonic version, where the piece is not only stripped down to a single line, but in which a number of ornamental additions are made. Qui servare puberem shows clearly how the repertory of the conductus could overlap with other musical genres in this extraordinary period of musical creativity.
Mark Everist © 2012
Other albums in this series