What I Like About...
Sunday, February 29, 2004
  Missa Se la face ay pale: Gloria
Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)

What was once a threat to reject the gift of life is now a celebration of that gift. Perhaps the original was only a bluff. Because Mr. Du Fay has used his decidedly secular tune as the unifying theme for this mass one may pause to speculate on either the sincerity of his religious feelings or the earnestness of his lovesick song. This would be unfair to our gifted composer not only since this flexibility was a common practice but mainly because, whatever the motivations, this is simply good music.

There is also a flexibility in instrumentation. In this recording we hear singers doubled on some instruments, including brass instruments near the end. But this, I think, does not matter since the beauty of this piece is more in how the lines fit together than the instruments or voices that present them. The musical lines are always beautiful and wonderful to follow. Even in the final moments when each line is at its strongest Mr. Du Fay maintains his gentle regard for the listener.

What I like about this work is how Mr. Du Fay makes use of the variety of ensembles within the quartet of voices. The way, for example, he starts the work as a duet. This technique has two benefits; it provides contrast and it makes the individual lines easy for the listener to follow. 
Saturday, February 28, 2004
  Se la face ay pale
Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 19

In less than a minute, Du Fay has charmed us with the threat of suicide. I have come to believe that any piece of music has about three, maybe four, no more than five minutes to make a point. Music is a language that relies on the short term memory of the listener. To go longer than five minutes without a significant event is to risk losing the attention of your listener. Mr. Du Fay reminds us that even more than one minute can be excessive. Perhaps because the idea of this piece is expressed so clearly, there is no need for further development. Our narrator has threatened to throw himself into the sea and that is that.

In spite of the potentially woeful nature of the text, this tune has the lightness I have come to associate with Du Fay. At times, the music lingers on the first part of the sentence and then exhausts the second part of the sentence quickly. There are moments of imitation that never become so long-winded or convoluted to befog the text. And the coda is an almost joyful run of notes in three equal voices.

What I like about this piece is that lightness. If our narrator presented his case with heavy morose phrases I doubt the beautiful lady would do more than recommend therapy. With a charming presentation like this, the beautiful lady is flattered to think that her company inspires a lethal grace.

posted by Isaac Watras 
Thursday, February 26, 2004
  Hymn: Conditor alme siderum
Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 17-18

Guillaume shows his affection with a soft touch. In his presentation of this tune he has remained clearly out of the way. His subtle adornments of the tune never develop a new idea. Rather, they bring the listener's attention to details in the tune that make it worthwhile to hear the same melody carry six verses. For example, the rhythm of the tune (long - short, long - short) is gently offset by the rhythm found in the tenor line (short - long, short - long). When we then hear the hymn repeated without accompaniment, we, perhaps subliminally, are guided in appreciation of the rhythm by Guillaume.

Furthermore, because the harmony that results from fauxbourdon writing keeps the voices close together, the lowest voice is destined to only hint at strong bass lines. As a result, in this style we hear a tune with accompaniment but no strong foundation. The supporting voices become more a part of the tune than a contrast or background for the tune.

What I like about Du Fay's effort here is the tenor line that he has written. When the other two voices move quickly, this voice moves slowly and yet it never departs from its devotion to the hymn. 
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
  Ballade: Resvellies vous et faites chiere lye
Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397-1474)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 14-16

Du Fay did not care if you or I were listening. This piece was clearly written for the certain audience named in the text. To us, the idea of two instrumentalists putting their instruments aside to join the singer for four notes is strange enough to get in the way of the piece. Also, I doubt most performers today would be so accommodating. More importantly, the musical decorations with which Du Fay adorns the names mentioned are almost lost to us since we have not met those people.

However, this piece is beautiful to us for the lightness it maintains in spite of the skill it requires. There are quick runs and complicated rhythms in each part. Yet these displays never create tension. Part of the reason for this is the frequent syncopation and rhythmic shifts. Another feature that adds lightness to the work is the distinctness of each of the sections. The piece never has time to get too weighty because it quickly moves on to a different pulse and tune.

What I like about this piece is the rhythmic contribution of the countertenor in the B section (which starts at track 15). These moments are not very easily related to other parts of the work. And because of that, the measure of off-beats particularly, lend spontaneity to this celebration of lovers who flee from melancholy.

posted by Isaac Watras 
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
  Carol: Salve, sancta parens
Anonymous, 15th century
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 13

Practice before theory and improvisation before practice. Triads were useful to composers long before they appeared in theory books and well constructed tunes like this one need no author. We all have a handful of tunes that we know, not knowing their source too well. And we add to this repertoire in small increments. One might be overheard changing the text a little or adding a cadenza as one walks down the street absently singing a tune whose title is forgotten. Unknowingly, we develop a language that surreptitiously conveys issues too elusive or weighty for words.

Sadly, most improvisations vanish into the air from whence they came. Some, fortunately, have ended up under the careful eye of Claude Palisca and other worthy musicologists. Looking at the score provided for this carol, we find, what appears to be, a carefully composed piece. For example, the melody makes good use of register as it generally rises to its highest and climatic note. The rhythm of the tune, which is a typical example of the period, is intelligent and effective. And the counterpoint is controlled and carries the text well.

What I like about the rendition on this recording is the moment when the number of singers increases from two to three. The three singers start on the same pitch and then slightly stager their departures from that point. In this way, the number of voices is disguised before it is changed. 
Monday, February 23, 2004
  Motet: Quam pulchra es
John Dunstable (ca. 1390-1453)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 12

Mr. Dunstable found freedom in confinement. Disdaining the organization of other medieval music, John has limited the possibilities for his motet. And, inspired by some of the most beautiful text available to composers during his lifetime and ours, John then restricted the motion of this music to the motion of the text. Unlike motets preceding this example, this piece is a presentation of text rather than music constructed from text. The ideas are different enough that what was once dissonance becomes consonance.

This is particularly true in the harmonic language of this piece. The sixth chord, so pretty to our modern ears, was labeled an appalling dissonance by Anonymous IV. Here, fauxbourdon abounding, the sixth chord and the third serve to relax and beautify.

What I like about this motet is John's presentation of the text. At the moment when the text is about to turn from an adoration of the beloved to an invitation, the voices are silent. Our narrator takes a few beats to muster courage before carefully asking the beloved to join him for a romp with the pomegranates. And once this invitation is established the pace quickens as our narrator describes his idea of what such a romp includes. 
Sunday, February 22, 2004
  Rondeau: Belle, bonne, sage
Baude Cordier (late 14th or early 15th century)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 11

Mr. Cordier's heart-shaped song speaks to the love of notation as much as the love for fair ladies. It is a healthy reminder for us whose art of calligraphy has passed: pushed aside by the help of technology. Writing music with pen and paper was a thankless process that often caused blindness. We could never know, yet it is possible that the process of writing may influence the way music sounds. For instance, in this tune, the metrical independence each voice has may be a stylistic feature of music written without bar lines. And, in contemporary music, frequent repetition may be the sad result of the tempting cut and past commands.

This rendition of Baude's love song is, I suspect, good evidence of how instrumental music, long disdained by the church, was helped in its development by vocal music. The tradition of vocal music preceding this work, as we know it from what documents we have, appears to have focused heavily on the expressive possibilities of musical lines that move mostly by step. Instruments provide us with the ability to move faster than we could sing, to leap more frequently and farther than we could sing. But the foundation of our instrumental heritage is music like this rondeau.

What I like about Baude's New Year's salute is the frequent use of descending lines. In a piece that has so much rhythmic interest, a simplicity of line is helpful to the listener. Also, in this performance, the descending scales provide an easy basis for improvisation.

posted by Isaac Watras 
Saturday, February 21, 2004
  Ballata: Non avra ma pieta
Francesco Landini (ca. 1325-1397)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 8 and 9

Mr. Landini's cadence is as much a beginning as it is an ending. A listener of this chronology may be relieved to move away from the modest instrumentation, the parallel fifths, and tangles of voice crossings so frequent thus far. With the harmonic language evident in his ballata, Francesco encourages us to look forward to a music organized with as much attention to chords as to lines and a more complete segregation of consonance and dissonance.

The clarity of this petition to love is helped by the instrumentation. The voice crossings, kept to a minimum, do not confuse the listener because each voice has a unique timbre. More than that, the bowed string instrument provides not only a bass line but also a background. The plucked string instrument not only fills out the harmony but provides a middle ground. So the voice is then distinctly in the foreground. The elegant rises in melodic line are then in a good position to work their magic on love.

What I like about this tune is the moment the bass line and melodic line start a phrase on the same pitch. Because the two parts are kept well apart throughout, this moment comes across as a concentration of the pain our narrator is hoping to dispel. 
Thursday, February 19, 2004
  Madrigal: Fenice fu
Jacopo da Bologna (14th century)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Track 7

Jacopo, with serious aspect, changed gender for the narration of this poignant writer's madrigal. The symbols in this text -- the phoenix, turtledove, transformation, flying, orchards, muddy waters, etc.-- are grouped in twos. The combination of these symbols deserves a quiet contemplation that only music can provide.

A discussion about meaning runs the danger of reducing the beauty of the concepts by taking away the mystery. However, with controlled counterpoint Jacopo is able to delve into these symbols helping our understanding of the text without committing us to a particular meaning. For instance, when the bird in the poem flies through the orchard the music memorably extends the first syllable of the word "orchard." The text continues but the music repeats. When we return to the music that carried the word "orchard" it now presents the word "quickly." In this way Jacopo's presentation of the text gives us time to feel the meaning of these words and to feel a connection between words that we may otherwise not make.

What I like about this madrigal is the conclusion. It reminds me of the Meistersinger we encountered earlier in this survey. Like the German Bar form, this madrigal is structured AAB. However, this form is used more effectively here than it was in Herr Sachs' worthy contribution. The change in rhythm and counterpoint style at conclusion embrace the declamation of the final couplet. 
Wednesday, February 18, 2004
  Mass: Agnus Dei
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 4-6

Machaut's syncopation did more than move the flesh. We have here four voices tangled as the voices we heard in the preceding rondeau. But these voices achieve a sound that alerts our more reverent and respectable natures. Unlike a song for lovers, this music makes no attempt to come to the listener or performer. Like much great music, this piece inspires the listeners and performers by challenging them to understand musical ideas that initially seem opaque. And, perhaps, was inspired by the potential Machaut could see in his performers.

The dissonance of this piece is more than harmonic clashes. In fact, the harmony is almost incidental. The lower two voices, the foundation of the work, are not easily distinct from each other nor are they easy to follow. The upper voices are not distinct from each other either and their motions seem to avoid any theme remotely suitable for a rondeau. There is an ecstasy in the faster and unpredictable motion of these upper voices. But this ecstatic dissonance is tempered by the frequent rests the performers and listeners are given in the form of long, open-sounding sonorities.

What I like about this piece is the way the moments of rest create an anticipation for the moments of dissonance. The disparate notes that appear unexpectedly on weak beats would be too much if they were all we heard. But, the more we listen to them the more, after a short break, we feel we can begin to anticipate them and understand. 
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
  Rondeau: Rose, liz, printemps, verdure
Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 2 Tracks 1-3

Machaut knew that rhythm and repetition are essentials of loving. Because of the syncopation (which, as we know, was really a hemiola) the musical line has enough subtlety to make us want to hear it again. And we do, several times. We repeat the opening of this delightful Rondeau until the lines of the text are spent.

The four voices are tangle in pairs. The contratenor and tenor are so close in register that they present one complicated voice. Increasing their union are the several voice crossings which, at times, makes it difficult to distinguish a single voice. Only slightly higher in register, the cantus and triplum are likewise engaged. These upper two voices are so active that it is not easy to follow one part more than the another. In fact, reading the NAWM score while listening to this recording may show that at least one of the singers does not stay on the same line throughout.

What I like about this Rondeau are the first four beats of the upper voices. Both parts move steadily by step. However, when combined, the listener hears a line that has a sudden upward leap after the first two and half beats. Even if the audience of this piece missed this detail, Machaut, I am certain, knew that by creating such intimate lines for the singers to enjoy, their delight would be easily conveyed to the listener. 
Monday, February 16, 2004
  In arboris/Tuba sacre fidei/Virgo sum
Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Tracks 47-48

Mr. de Vitry was not so pious that he did not know how to swing. It seems triple meter had, during his lifetime, the favor the duple meter will gain a few hundred years after him. Whatever the favorite, the triplet is always an effective rhythm to evoke lightness and motion. And the frequent use of the triplet, during the time of this composition, to celebrate the virginity of Mary is curious. It is as if by celebrating Mary's virginity these composers were able to fully appreciate the sensuous joys of life.

The singers start this motet one voice at a time. This is helpful to the listener for a few reasons. It establishes the roles of the parts. The upper two lead a life entangled while the tenor voice, which has the least amount of text, moves consistently slower never participating in the hockets to come. Because the tenor voice provides such a strong foundation to the work, de Vitry is free to explore the contrapuntal potential in the upper two voices without creating dissonance.

What I like about this motet is the way the hocket provides a balance between the swinging lines and the sustained notes. The opening solo sounds so strongly like a canon to me that I am always surprised by the long sonorities that follow. De Vitry, disinterested in canon, is able to enjoy these extremes without losing coherence by occasionally breaking the lines apart just enough so that they want to come back together. 
Friday, February 13, 2004
  Motet: Amours mi font/En mai/Flo Filius eius
13th century

The morose eroticism of this work relies primarily on the text and performers. The pitches and rhythms of this work are not entirely different from the two pieces that precede it on this CD. However, the Sederunt could be described as morose but not erotic. And the Ave virgo virginum may approach a sacred kind of eroticism but is not morose. With some obnoxious yet simple alterations these piece could all have the same mood. It is strange that part of a gradual, a conductus, and a motet could be so much alike. I have to wonder if this quandary is simple a problem of historical distance.

Historically, this piece is important to our survey because of its Franconian style. That is, the duration of each pitch was indicated in the original score. With the help of rhythmic modes and an ear toward cadences, the composer of this work, I am sure, focused his effort on one line at a time. The beauty of each line individually must have preoccupied the composer. A little voice crossing is no bother. Also, the harmonic consequence does not seem to carry the emotional content as much as the contour of the line. And by this time, musicians have a massive resource in Gregorian Chant that is exclusively a study of line. However, this work is also a step toward a harmonic language. When the performers become more accustomed to counting out beats the composer can then become more adventuresome in the way the parts stack up.

What I like about this piece is the way the parts dovetail. Especially because they are presenting different texts the small rests in each part are very expressive. 
Thursday, February 12, 2004
  Conductus: Ave virgo virginum
13th century
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 45

I suspect the lack of triads, particularly in final chords, and the wanton voice crossings in this work are enough to cause a modern listener to label this piece as primitive. This would be unfortunate as a good listening to this music can improve one's appreciation for so much of the 20th century repertoire. These two extremes share an interest in melodic line that is not obligated to meet harmonic formulas. And even the best Bach choral accomplishes its harmonic beauty as a consequence of line.

Structurally this piece is reminiscent of Perotin's Sederunt in that there are three voices tangled in a lilting rhythm. This work has a very different mood because of a few significant differences. Without the ominous fourth voice the sound is less continuous and less oppressive. The phrase endings are more consistent here and the voices work together to present the text with clear diction. And so, instead of the severity of Perotin's quartet, this trio offers a gentle adoration of Mary.

What I like about this piece is more a feature of the poetry than the music. I like the brevity of the seventh line. Each strophe develops an almost hypnotic rhythm over six lines, then breaks it, then returns for two more lines. This piece is effective because it does nothing to upstage this elegant rhythm. 
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
  Organum quadruplum: Sederunt, Gradual for St. Stephen's Day
Perotin (fl. 1180-1238)

In modern performance practice, this clearly would be an instrumental piece. Although the musical lines never leap or attempt showy arpeggios, there are many instrumental characteristics. For example, the enormously long pedal tones (as they could be called) may have not been a strain to Perotin's singers but would not be happily approached by most choirs today. Also, the manner in which the three voices are intertwined creates a great deal of voice crossing that may not tax an instrumentalist as much as a singer. Untypical of choral tunes, the piece is generally rhythmic and unrelated to the text.

An aspect of this piece that we are missing on this recording is the room in which it was intended to be performed. Those large, stone structures with high ceilings would be a kind environment to this quartet. The dark open fifths, long sustained pitches, the relentless rhythm, and heavy lines in this work sound like a contemplation of the crown of thorns.

What I like about this work is the form. There is no narrative. Using the word Sederunt we listen to three of the voice exchange parts while the forth sustains a syllable. When the fourth reaches the last syllable we know that we are almost done. This plan allows us, the listener, to experience a largely repetitious piece of music without feeling lost or disconnected from the performers. 
Tuesday, February 10, 2004
  Alleluia Pascha nostrum
13th century
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Tracks 32-41

Contrary to intuition, there are many good pieces of music like this one that could be described as having been written by committee. This becomes possible when all the contributing composers are strongly present in the same tradition and focused on the same symbol. Mary is the symbol these composers were looking toward. All of their passions, even the most secular, were expressed in terms of her. Music written by committee without a unifying issue is not very effective.

This piece is a seminal step in our survey. One of the reasons for this is that it is a complex work in several contrasting sections. As odd as this may sound, I am beginning to suspect that a piece of music, regardless of historical context or place, can be no more than five minutes long without losing narrative (less is even better). In order to achieve substantially longer pieces a composer must reach that goal through smaller episodes that bring the listener from one narrative stop to another. Although the istampita we heard on track 25 achieved a good length with contrasting sections, this work rises above that instrumental romp in its range of expression and development. As it works out, the last section of this piece recorded here is a three-part motet. This is the first time, on this CD, that we have heard three lines controlled so clearly. And we have arrived here with the logical yet impassioned steps of the preceding excerpts.

What I like about this piece is the line. Harmony is more than the combination of pitches. As we can hear in this piece harmony develops as musical lines are combined. 
Monday, February 09, 2004
  Aquitanian polyphony: Jubilemus, exultemus
12th century
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 31

The early church, wanting to distinguish itself from uncouth neighbors, banned instrumental music almost entirely. And, so, vocal music enjoyed several hundred years of careful attention. When instrumental music becomes acceptable, as a reinforcement and extension of these vocal achievements, it serves sort of an apprenticeship. Listening to this admirable performance I am reminded how much instrumental music has benefited from this heritage.

For example, although the text and harmony of this piece are unmistakably ancient, the relationship of the two parts is familiar to modern ears. The tenor part, traveling at a slower speed than the upper, provides foundation and direction. With stability thus provided, the upper part has the proper setting to indulge in dissonance, expressiveness, and virtuosity.

What I like about this piece is the startling octave leap in the middle of the fourth line. Leading up to this leap the tenor part changes style in a way that is more engaged in the upper line. Then, after the leap, the tenor part returns to its initial polyphonic style. However, from here to the end the upper part increasingly explores this higher register. This reinforces the turn in the text on the line "He who today issued from Mary's womb...." 
Sunday, February 08, 2004
  Organum: Alleluia Justus ut palma
ca. 1100
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 30

The first example of counterpoint in our survey is a modest one. We have heard some harmony in vocal pieces supported by instruments as well as the purely instrumental passages in the preceding tracks. We have even encountered brief moments of counterpoint during a few improvisational flourishes. But this organum provides us with our first carefully crafted counterpoint. Much of the piece, however, is unadorned plainchant. The harmonized phrases serve to contrast the sections of monody.

This reminds me of track 20 where, for dramatic purpose, a 10th century trope uses contrasting voice registers. Regarding this organum, even though the contrasts do not seem to support the meaning of the text, they lend a shape to the piece that engages the listener. The repeat of the opening phrases that we hear in this recording also helps the listener as it signals the conclusion of the piece. (On the topic of conclusions, we should note that, in this survey, the cadence of a sixth to an octave first appears here.)

What I like about this piece is the counterpoint of the first Alleluia. The general direction of the two lines is to hesitantly move from an octave to a unison. When the unison is first achieved the upper voice crosses under and then returns to the unison. All at once this voice crossing emphasizes their unison, creates harmony, and briefly touches an unexpected change in timbre. 
Saturday, February 07, 2004
  Istampita Palamento
14th Century
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Tracks 25-29

It has been text, thus far in our survey, that has given shape to music. And this piece seems to revel in a cheerful ignorance of text. Other than sharing a general concept of form with the sequence on track 17, this piece has little resemblance to Gregorian Chant or any of the vocal music that precedes it on this CD. The most significant instrumental contribution we have heard has been Adam de la Halle's Robins m'aime. Mostly, the instruments there presented melodic lines in which the listener could place the text. The exception, of course, was the drumming.

The tune A chantar, track 23, also relied on instrumental support. However, unlike Beatriz de Dia's beautiful complaint, the melodic lines here have no interest in holding you. There are too many repeated notes, too many ornamental notes. The melodic line of any istampita is only interested in groove. And where has groove been up until the 14th century? Who can say? Europe was a much larger place in the past. It is likely that most music listeners created their own music impulsively and with little training and no thought of documentation. As Adam de la Halle happily reminds us, there has always been a need for groove.

What I like about this piece is the way the performers have thrown themselves into it. The introduction, climax and coda are distinct because of the contrasts and improvisational flourishes of these performers. The freedom the score allows, I imagine, would make it easy for the instrumentalists to react to their listeners who, in the best circumstances, would be dancing. 
Thursday, February 05, 2004
  Nachdem David war redlich und aufrichtig
Hans Sachs (1494-1576)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 24

Our survey brings us to the 16th century. Here we encounter Wagner's hero, the shoemaker-Meistersinger. It is surprising, so many centuries since the Epitaph of Seikilos, that this music is not very different from what we have heard before. We may hear more variation in more recent music only because we have access to a wider selection. Or perhaps, the more we listen to disparate music the more we will find things that are alike.

Like the sequence on track 17, this piece uses the melodic pattern of a minor third followed by a major second. As mentioned, I find this pattern to be effective in creating a strong character. This piece goes farther and presents the most disjunct motion we have yet encountered. Though the leaps are never more than a fifth, they are frequent. Sung without instrumental support, the singer thrusts these notes out of almost nowhere with virtuosity. The melody has a powerful gravity toward 'G' which prevents the singer or listener from ever getting lost.

What I like about this piece is how it climaxes on the text "...therefore in the morning...." At first this seemed a strange line to reach the highest pitch. However, it is the moment the narration changes from describing David's plight to suggesting a possible solution. Even though the opening material returns at the end, there is a moment after the climax and before the conclusion where the singer is more cautious, conspiratorial. 
Wednesday, February 04, 2004
  Canso: A chantar (To sing)
Beatriz de Dia (d. ca. 1212)

And here we have a woman unlucky in love. She is supported by some light instrumental music. The song is introduced by a string instrument that mostly provides a drone. The melodic statements from this instrument are small but memorable. At the very end, the string instrument trades places with some wind instruments. The recording here is, I think, intended to be an excerpt of the original and the song would continue with the winds. But I like it as it is here, strangely fading out.

As stated, the form of this song is ABABCDB. As I hear it, the C is basically the same as A. But it is different enough to provide a transition into the climax of the piece. The A theme droops down from the pitch 'A' to 'F.' The B theme complements this motion by a stepwise motion from a low 'C' up to 'F.' This is the pacing back and forth of a neglected woman speaking to herself. She breaks out of it for the climatic statement, "For I have been cheated and betrayed," which is expressed with a surprising F major triad. And this line, unlike all the others, has a clear and strong melodic arch.

What I like about this piece is that so many of the phrases come to rest on a major seventh. This dissonant cadence is so much like the pained clutching of an unhappy person. I am also impressed with the singer. The way she embellish the pitches has the sudden dips that I usually associate with Asian singing. 
Tuesday, February 03, 2004
  Can vei la lauzeta mover (When I see the lark beating)
Bernart de Ventadorn (ca. 1150 - ca. 1180)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 22

If this tune had a Latin text and were performed with a calm attitude it could easily fit into the Mass for Christmas Day. But, chant being an art of detail that ornaments words, the vernacular language and decidedly secular topic of the text here creates a sound clearly distinct from chant.

I would not describe Ventadorn's effort in this song as through-composed. The piece has a clear architecture that encourages the performer to imitate the sighs of those unlucky in love. Each musical line covers two lines of text. The first musical line goes up and holds as one would breath in and wait. But no, it is not to be, we let go and descend but hold on the fifth scale degree. Maybe it is possible, we assert the seventh and highest pitch of this song at the beginning of the next musical line. But no, it is not going to work, we are not optimistic and descend but not able to stop, we hold on the second scale degree. Perhaps if we return to that highest note...but there it is too much and we drop a fifth. ("...that I am astonished...") And still, unable to let go entirely, we hold on the second scale degree yet again. We start again but this time we are fatigued. We turn and descend to stop on the first scale degree.

What I like about this song is how well that formula works for different verses. The recording here presents only two verses, there are six more to go. I wonder what improvisations the early performers of this song may have indulged. 
Monday, February 02, 2004
  Rondeau: Robins m'aime from Jeu de Robin et de Marion
Adam de la Halle (ca. 1237- ca. 1287)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 21

As I recall, the secular joy expressed in this tune is generally embraced by freshman students of music history. I hope that it is still a hit.

While considering this piece my attention is first drawn to the meter. Up until now the pieces we have been listening to on this CD have seemed to foreshadow Sprechstimme. In this rondeau, however, we find a text that is fit into a strong musical meter. And meter lends itself to music without text which brings up another interesting issue lurking in this happy piece. The form, as seen in the score, is ABaabAB. However, the presentation in this recording presents some variation. Each section of the tune is repeated and the entire piece is presented twice. The first time through a singer alternates with a plucked string instrument, no chorus. The second time, without singer, drums and a drone are added to the background and the plucked instrument is joined by woodwinds. The highest woodwind instrument breaks away with improvisational flourishes over the last three sections. This discrepancy between score and recording makes me wonder what was really going on musically during Adam's life time. Most curious, though, are the drums. How developed was the drumming language and how long had it been going on?

What I like about this piece is the drumming. It is easy, listening to the drums, to imagine these piece being played long ago and to imagine improvisations that were never written down. There must be entire musical traditions that have simply disappeared from a lack of archives. 
Sunday, February 01, 2004
  Trope: Quem quaeritis in praesepe
Gregorian Chant (10th century)
Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music, CD 1 Track 20

In this piece the dialogue it contains is helped by contrasting registers. The piece preceding this one, Hildegard's, used women's voices as well and some light instrumental support. Unlike Hildegard's piece, however, the high voice types generally avoid singing with the low voices. Thus the call and response is dramatic.

Chant is an art of detail. Looking back over the Mass for Christmas Day there is such a small range of contrast the work seems to have no narrative. As I hear it, this Mass is not a musical story. Rather it is a series of incredibly beautiful meditations. In its entirety the Mass is uplifting because the listener moves from one meditation to another prepared for the next event and therefore able to use the chant as a way to reach toward the unseen. First, the text must be well known to the listener. The text provides the form and continuity of the Mass. Second, the art of writing, copying, and reading plainchant notation would be in the listener's blood from the hours spent working on manuscripts. And finally, I think, is Do. All of the notes in each chant depart and return to some Do. In this way, each chant is a highly ornamented continuation of a single pitch. And it is a moveable Do. This pitch may be found in the church or in sounds of life around us. These aspects of plainchant make it easy to internalize. And not only would the known chants become a part of the listener, the listener would be inspired to compose his or her own.

What I like about this trope is that it was clearly inspired by living with chant. 
In January 2004 I starting writing an opinion for each selection in the Norton Recorded Anthology of Western Music. Now, more than a year later, I am almost finished. Soon, I will have an archive full of opinions on the music we so carelessly call "classical." And no one can stop me.

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Director of the Contemporary Performer's Workshop... Music Teacher for St. Aloysius Gonzaga School... Principal 'Cellist of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra... Composer

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