A second volume of music from the Conductus repertory—the least-known genre of medieval music, the ‘poor relation’ of organum and motets—performed by three singers who combine expert knowledge of the music with voices of unearthly beauty. This album contains poems set to music from thirteenth-century England and France. The subjects range from straightforward exhortations to the Virgin Mary to criticisms of the Papal Curia and a depiction of the student riots in Orléans in 1236.
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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 (‘Celorum porta’) that is a pendant to a similar piece included in the first volume of this series (‘Porta salutis’, on Conductus 1, CDA67949). Both pieces stand outside not only the poetic norms for the repertory but also the musical ones. ‘Celorum porta’ is a slightly bowdlerized Leonine hexameter, and the brevity of its text translates directly into a musical setting where musica sine littera predominates. In general, though, 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 subjects treated in the poetry of the conducti on this recording may be grouped into a number of types. Three English pieces, ‘Ave, virga decoris incliti’, ‘Ave, tuos benedic’ and ‘Ave Maria Salus hominum’, as is so often the case, are straightforward addresses to the Virgin Mary, while two—‘Veste nuptiali’ and ‘Excutere de pulvere’—are exhortations, to virtue and repentance respectively. ‘Librum clausum et signatum’ is a dense, carefully wrought text that comes close to the patristic tradition of glossing as it develops the idea of the New Law explaining the Old, while ‘Aurelianis civitas’ describes specific historical events: the student riots in Orléans in 1236. Perhaps most striking is the group of three conducti whose poems criticize the Papal Curia: ‘Bulla fulminante’, ‘Quid ultra tibi facere’ (although the stanzas preserved in the manuscript from which this performance is taken—1, 4 and 8—do not include this detail), and ‘Dic, Christi veritas’. Here we get a genuine sense of ecclesiastical Realpolitik being played out in an artistic domain.
These themes are projected in poetic forms ranging from one to as many as eight stanzas; the poems in the conducti on this recording run the entire gamut from the tiny ‘Celorum porta’ to the eight stanzas (not all recorded here) of ‘Quid ultra tibi facere’. ‘Celorum porta’, ‘Ave, virga decoris’, ‘Ave Maria Salus hominum’ and the two-part version of ‘Ave, tuos benedic’ are the only conducti recorded here that set monostanzaic poems.
Multistanzaic poems are treated in one of two ways. Either the same music is repeated for each of the stanzas (‘Quid ultra tibi facere’, ‘Dic, Christi veritas’, ‘Excutere de pulvere’) or the music is through-composed so that each of the stanzas in set to different music (the three-part version of ‘Ave, tuos benedic’, ‘Librum clausum et signatum’, ‘Aurelianis civitas’, ‘Naturas Deus regulis’). 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 ambitious and clever as the sustained original composition in through-composed works; listen, for example, to the ways in which the word-divisions in the different stanzas of ‘Excutere de pulvere’ subtly change the phrasing 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’ (recorded on Conductus 1) 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-nit-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 ‘Quid ultra tibi facere’. As in the case of ‘Genitus divinitus’, syllables are set to between one and four notes.
Melismatic sections exploit very different types of music; monophonic types differ. 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 rhythmic discipline of the so-called rhythmic modes in which both or all voice-parts are measured, which enables the possibility of carefully matched phrases within the cauda and between caudae in the same composition. Most of the polyphonic conducti on this recording are melismatic and exploit an alternation of syllabic and melismatic passages to create kaleidoscopic structures that bear repeated listening.
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 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. 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.
More than any genre in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries apart from plainsong, the conductus is a pan-European genre and on this recording we look at a small collection of conducti preserved in a highly fragmentary manuscript now in the library of Worcester College, Oxford, that is undoubtedly English. Enough survives of three of the four pieces to allow performance: ‘Ave, virga decoris incliti’, ‘Ave Maria Salus hominum’ and ‘Ave, tuos benedic’. The last of these is especially interesting, as it is also found in the main source for the repertory, the Florence manuscript (the other conducti are found in that manuscript alone), where it is in two voices. Furthermore, the Worcester College manuscript presents all the music of the conducti in a more-or-less unequivocal measured notation; the Florence manuscript—as is normal—gives us the texted sections of the music in an unmeasured format. All this poses the obvious questions: which version is the original, and is ‘Ave, tuos benedic’ English or Continental? Here, we give both versions in order to allow that question to remain—as the evidence suggests—without resolution.
The conductus rarely engages with the complex patterns of borrowing, reworking and intertextual reference that characterize the motet, and—to a lesser extent—organum. However, ‘Dic, Christi veritas’ seems to have spawned a curious mixture of musical and textual responses. A three-part piece originally, it also survives in versions that preserve the two lower parts, the tenor alone and simply the poetry. We record two of these: the original version in three parts and a version from a manuscript in Salamanca (which, however, probably comes from eastern France) and which gives us an elaborate monophonic version replete with ornamentation and elaboration not found—and indeed not possible—in the polyphonic version. There is nothing particularly striking in this: there are plenty of examples of just these procedures across the repertory. What marks ‘Dic, Christi veritas’ out is that the lower voice of its final cauda serves as the basis for two further monodies: ‘Bulla fulminante’ and ‘Veste nuptiali’. Although both are found in an unmeasured notation only, their origins lie in the measured final cauda of ‘Dic, Christi veritas’; the question therefore remains whether their performance should be measured or unmeasured. Since the notation speaks for an unmeasured performance, but the polyphonic background suggests a measured performance, we perform each of them in both versions.
Mark Everist © 2013
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