Musicologie Médiévale

Resources for medieval musicology and liturgy

Some FUNDAMENTAL abuses and changes in the approach towards performance practice

Several performers of medieval music use women's voices where men's voices were certainly or probably intended; others vocalise untexted parts where instruments often seem more appropriate; others use (too) low pitches which results in sombre timbres where medieval sources often rather seem to imply a tendency, a liking for "middle" or high pitches, i. e. rather bright timbres; others sing with a deliberate nasal timbre where medieval sources warn to do just that; other performers use a wide range of different instruments for accompanying (for instance in songs) where medieval sources rather imply a more limited range of instruments (such as harp, vieille); other performers even do not refrain
from mixing their approaches with still living oral traditions (for instance of the orient) which is a hypothetical and in most cases improbable approach and results more in "cross-overs" than in "historically informed" performance practice: These are just some of the most obvious negative or "dubious" points to be observed in the approaches of today's performers. It seems that quite a number of performers are rather searching for "effect" (often resulting in "alienation" effects) than for making early music with the appropriate, the probable performance practice. They probably do this in order to become more "conspicuous" on the "market" of early music. So they often seem more interested in their OWN views than the true or probable meanings of source informations and in "selling" their performances than in a truly serious approach towards performing early music, based on sources. The musicians who make such bad choices in terms of "historically informed" performance practice and style are often good musicians who are able to sing and play well - but their "attitude", their "awareness" does not seem to be that of a musician who wishes to come close to performance practices as implied by historical sources, and their zeal does not go so far as to go for a truly "idiomatic" approach towards style(s).

It is also evident for attentive listeners who compare medieval sources with performances that MANY things which are implied and described in such sources as appropriate performance practice(s) are often NOT being performed. And it is also obvious that we do not have performers who are really specialized on certain repertories (for instance ONLY French Ars nova, or ONLY Ars subtilior etc.) which would be the best prerequisite for developing a truly IDIOMATIC approach towards medieval music.

In my view it would be healthy if some fundamental things in early music, and ESPECIALLY in the revival of medieval music would change: 1.) We NEED a thorough documentation of performance practice informations from all kinds of sources in the form of an online database WITH English translations and notational examples (possibly also audios), so that everyone can inform himself more easily. 2.) Performers need to change their ATTITUDES towards performance practice - historically informed performance practice is NOT something where a performer can "interpret" sources merely
according to one's own "phantasies" and "likings" and the means that an ensemble has (such as the number and types of voices or instruments etc.), it is NOT something where every musician can take as many liberties as he/she wants: GOOD and TRULY informed historical performance practice OBLIGES the performers to take into account as many RELEVANT performance practice source informations as possible for a given repertory and to MAKE MUSICALLY CONVINCING CHOICES in USING them. And that means that a performer cannot simply turn his OWN views into a relevant source information (as really often happens in early music) - it has to be WELL FOUNDED, musically "intelligent" and FITTING - if there is no certainty in applying a certain source information, in finding the true meaning of a source information, then there should at least be PROBABILITY. 3.) We NEED performers who are willing to really specialize on certain repertories in order to attain a higher standard of stylistic refinement: without rehearsing and performing a certain repertory for a long time it seems rather unlikely that musicians can really develop a high degree of "stylistic suppleness" and aptitude, as desired by connaisseurs.

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Replies to This Discussion

Federico Corriente is very strict, but we should keep in mind, that converted Berbers burnt the books of the Mezquita library and the Spanish Inquisition did a lot to destroy the traces of local (Andalusian) culture, the Reconquista was rather usurping the fruits which had been created during a interconfessional translation project at Toledo (now some colleagues speak about Pierre le Vénérable's polemics against the Quran, as if he had translated it into Latin). 

Please note that the Sephardic population was very educated, many of them were fluent in all the languages and so brilliant, that some Sephardic poets were very prominent at the Taifa Courts, but Arabic was not only a poetic language, it was the language of science, thanks to the Seljuks who invented the hospital. Maimonides wrote his medical treatises in this language and he described chirurgy on the human brain. Alfonso el Sabio was probably called like this, because he knew about the superiority of the Andalusian civilisation, where experts with different religious backgrounds could create something together, which could not be created elsewhere. Poetry was definitely an important part of it (otherwise no Troubadours)...

You might be also interested in the newest publication by Manuel Ferreira:

Ferreira, Manuel Pedro. "Rhythmic paradigms in the Cantigas de Santa Maria: French versus Arabic precedent." PMM 24 (2015): 1–24. doi:10.1017/S0961137115000017.

Beside all the valuable commentaries I've read, I think it is important to keep the focus in the nature of music since it is a performing art. Music is, obviously, not a fixed object that con be preserved and exactly reproduced, it works differently in different contexts: i.e. performers, listeners, infections and actitudes of both, etc... So we have to be aware of the limits and implications of the reconstructions, since, as all we as performers know, our aesthetic paradigms are not, and will never be, the same of the medieval performers and listeners. Is precisely this circumstance what makes attracting for me the early music performance.

Christoph, thanks for sharing your ideas. Unfortunately I have to disagree with the tenor of your post. Firstly you posit a lot of "has and need to's" for performers of medieval repertoires. On a very basic level musicians don't need to do any of this. Their primary obligation is to make a convincing performance for an audience, which is something that can be done also without being historically informed.  (It is not something I would personally do or enjoy, but that's another question.)

Secondly, it seems to reflect the attitude that we actually know things about medieval performance we actually don't, for instance the use of instruments were used for untexted parts (or parts of parts), or some kind of correspondence between written pitch in notation and performance.

Apart from these 'known unknowns' - to quote Donald Rumsfeld - there are so many 'unknown unknowns' that to say that any particular performance or performance-style, for instance one using ornamentation from a living singing tradition, is 'inapropriate' or 'historically incorrect' is grossly overestimating the state of our knowledge about these historical practices.

For me the great thing about performing medieval music is that it constantly challenges one intellectually and esthetically, exactly because so few things are really certain. The use of the term 'abuse' for performance choices we don't agree with is something we should avoid both as scholars and performers...

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