Recorded September 1982, Lurs, Notre-Dame des Anges. Originally released in 1983.
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The Fourteenth Century
The 14th century was an age of "modern music". So, in a sense, is every age; but like ourselves today, people in the 14th century were aware that things were new.
Musicians were conscious of creating a new art. For this period as a whole, music historians have been content to retain the name "Ars Nova" used by the French theorist and composer Philippe de Vitry as the title for his treatise around the year 1320.
The essence of this newness lay in rhythm - or, rather, in the development of a system of notation that encouraged the combination of many different lengths and subdivisions of notes. Thus grew up a particular musical style, a refinement that became increasingly mannered as the century grew old, but which found its finest expression in the music of Guillaume de Machaut and, in Italy, Francesco Landini.
Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, English culture had been dominated by French influences, nevertheless, medieval English literature maintained its vernacular core onto which Chaucer successfully grafted the French inheritance (taking not a little inspiration from Italian literary forms). Similarly, towards the end of the 14th century, English music had evolved a style that could draw upon a mixed heritage from England and France (and some ideas from Italy), moulding them together into a national style that was admired abroad as "La Contenance Angloise".
Despite the scant remains, it is possible to build up a reasonable picture of English music in the 14th century and even to point to some of its dominant characteristics. These are found above all in two frequently used techniques: the parallel movement in chords known as Descant, and the repeat or answering exchange of words and melody between one singer and another as found in Rondellus.
In maintaining a preference for chordal sonorities, even impieces that apply the rondelus technique (such as "Thomas gemma"), and in being slow to adopt the isorhythmic motet style so prevalent on the continent, English composers were being more than just typically cotlservalive. The works in the first half of this record show that a somewhat separate development took place in this country. In particular, the fuller sound favoured by the descant style formed an important aspect of the Old Hall music and was a major characteristic of English music through to the 16th century. Descant also emphasises the interval of the third, hitherto regarded as a dissonance, and it is the integration of this interval into a particularly consonant style of music that distinguishes the "contenance angloise" sound, and both these aspects of descant later dominate the style of the 15th century carols.
The 14th century music
In "Thomas gemma / Thomas cesus" the upper pair of voices has two closely related texts, one in praise of St Thomas of Canterbury, the other of St Thomas de la Hale of Dover Priory. The composer handles these brilliantly so that the voice exchange is both an interweaving and an opposition of the texts and music. The lower untexted voices also form a pair, partly imitating the upper voices, but also providing an harmonic basis and, later, enjoying two passages of hocket.
"Tu civium primas" has not one, but four texts - in praise of Simon Peter and the foundation of the Christian Church. The upper voices do imitate each other to a certain extent, but this motet is more harmonically conceived, often using descant over a bass "pedal" note.
Descant is also used, but freely, in two motets that invoke the help of the Virgin Mary, "Mater Christi nobilis" and "Singularis laudis digna", the latter calling for peace in the "Hundred Years War" with France.
"Civitas nusquam" celebrates Edward the Confessor, who ruled Anglo-Saxon England in the mid-11 th century. This is a more traditional motet in its manner of textual declamation by two voices (each with its own text) built around a plain song tenor laid out in slow, regular notes. The plainsong has not been identified but is presumed to be from the office of St Edward, King and Confessor. Such a description, however, does not prepare us for the simple beauty of the resulting music.
Similarly in "Doleo super te" a mostly syllabic declamation above a slower, partly isorhythmic tenor produces one of the most tender expressions of personal desolation to be found anywhere in medieval music. Certainly a place may be claimed for this short piece alongside other famous laments on this and related texts by composers such as Josquin, Tomkins and Schutz.
"Alleluia: Hic est" provides a vehicle for vocal virtuosity in an elaborated descant style (with the tenor, less usually for this style, in the lower voice). The chromatic intervals create an air of mannerist strangeness, uncommon in English music at this time as it moved towards the music of Old Hall and Dunstable.
The "Ite missa est" was the dismissal at the end of Mass; the jubilant setting performed here must have sent the congregation skipping home !
15th century English music
The eminence of the English "contenance" lasted only a generation or two. According to the Flemish theorist Tinctoris, writing around the year 1470, whereas Dunstable had been the fount and origin of the new music (of Dufay, Binchois and later Ockeghem), the English now "continue to use one and the same style of composition, which shows a wretched poverty of invention". In terms of the developing language in Burgundy, France and the Netherlands, he was correct - but it would be wrong to dismiss the carols and, a little later, the music of the Eton Choirbook as inferior products in themselves. In fact both as music and poetry, the 15 th century carol, together with its successor the courtly songs and Passion carols in the Fayrfax Manuscript (c. 1500), constitutes a very important area in the history of English song.
Almost all the 15th century carols are anonymous, and while many of them, perhaps the majority, are associated with the festive period from Christmas to Epiphany, many other subjects are also treated, by no means all of them religious. There are carols to celebrate military victories, carols of love, drinking songs, carols in praise of numerous saints, and carols on themes of a moralistic rather than religious nature. The definition of a carol has best been formulated by R.L. Greene as "a song on any subject, composed of uniform stanzas, and provided with a burden".
Most of the 15 th century carols are for two voices joined by a third, usually in descant style, in the burden. The prevailing melodic idiom is that of the 15 th century chanson, redirected slightly by the inflections of the English language. The carol is thought to have originated from the early medieval dance songs with their clear divisions into verse and chorus ; but many other influences are felt in these works, which are products of sophisticated minds, however mixed and "popular" the audience to which they were directed.
Contemporary with the carols are mature examples of the "contenance angloise" such as Forest's "Tota pulcra es", with its suave interlacing of vocal lines and sweet harmonies based on the interval of the third (and with a characteristic change of metre - at "et vox turturis"). In the slightly younger John Plummer's "Anna Mater" (Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary), we find an early example of the Votive Antiphon which became such a favourite with English composers towards the turn of the century.
During the second half of the 15 th century, English music became increasingly conservative, measured against continental models; but as it has remained so almost continually ever since, we must conclude that it is the natural tendency of an island race, and that much fine music can be written on islands!
- Paul Hillier