If You Had Been There

We know what Chant sounds like. But how was it originally performed? And what about other kinds of Early Music? Stuart Nickless takes a journey into the past to discover how performers made their music.

How close do we really get to early music? We have the instruments it was played on. And we have a pretty good idea of the style. But what about the performances themselves? The circumstances in which we hear early music nowadays – in the concert hall, on a CD, a performance in a church – are utterly different from how the music was experienced by its first listeners.

Take Gregorian chant. Chant is enjoying a massive boom at the moment with hundreds of thousands of CDs being sold. But what a gulf there is between listening in the carpeted, centrally-heated world of the average living room and the austerity of a medieval church. If you had been in the congregation in a monastic church, say in France, anywhere between 550 (when Gregorian chant started) and 1200 (after which Chant started to change significantly), what would you have seen? Chants like the Responsorium Graduale Christus factus est formed part of what might have been a two hour Good Friday service taking place probably in the morning. Good Friday was of course a feast day and the entire community would have been in the church (including sometimes animals!) to hear the service. Though there were sermons, and probably communion too, the greater part of the service would have been sung by the priest and a choir of men all taking the same melodic line (so no division into tenors and basses).

In some parts of the service, the congregation may well have a part in the singing too. They probably sang prayers in unison in a simple chant, and there would also have been hymns, often based on folk tunes which made them much more easy to grasp for the musically-illiterate peasants. A more complex piece like the Responsorium Graduale was for the choir and priests only. Occasionally they may have had music to read, but coping with 11 lines of difficult notation (music wasn’t divided into two staves until later) in murky light meant that choristers almost certainly knew their stuff by heart.

And sound quality? Interestingly, some evidence points to the idea that medieval singing, far from the rounded mellifluous sounds we prefer today, was nasal and pinched and there may even have been some falsetto singing. Another curiosity is that services in the evening seem to have been sung at a lower pitch than in the morning. Organ accompaniment, particularly when the whole congregation sang, was also used on occasions and the combination of primitive organs and far from sophisticated singers must have sounded pretty atrocious.

Chansons in France
Let us move on to the sixteenth century and to an aristocratic house, perhaps a great court like Francis I’s at Fontainebleau or one of Henry VIII’s palaces in England. The music best loved by these courts was the Chanson, pieces like Josquin’s Faute d’Argent. The Chanson started life as a folk song at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was quickly developed by composers, particularly Flemish ones like Josquin, into a sophisticated polyphonic form for three and finally four and five different vocal lines. Chansons were performed as entertainment at social events: feasts, when special guests were visiting, even at sporting events like archery contests.

No-one really knows who performed them, but given the sophistication Chansons had achieved by the end of the century it seems likely that they were mostly sung by professional musicians, salaried by the court. Gifted amateurs among the courtiers may have been involved – Henry VIII was a keen musician and he would have been able to cope with the relatively simple cantus firmus that was the foundation of many of these songs. But this was definitely not music for every one to join in.

How would the audience have responded? Chansons covered everything from abstract philosophical subjects to bawdy numbers about drinking and sex. Whatever the mood of the master of the house, there was a Chanson that fitted it, and we can be fairly sure the coarser pieces would have got a stag-night reaction.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century two musical forms appeared that did finally make music-making less professional – madrigals and viol music. Madrigals – songs usually for four or five voices – were sophisticated, with clever word painting and interplay between the parts, but nevertheless avoided the sort of intricacy and over-elaboration that would have put them out of bounds to everyone except skilled professional musicians.

Madrigals thrived particularly in England and Italy. They were sung in the native tongue, and tended to be, like the modern pop song, about love. Middle-class, educated people (for whom learning to read music was an automatic part of education) sang madrigals, not as a performance, but as a social event, as we might gather for a game of cards now.

Viol music flourished in the first half of the seventeenth century and the centres of gravity were England and France. Viols, which developed parallel to the violin but had six strings, came in three basic sizes – treble, tenor and bass – and had the cachet of being noble instruments, unlike the plebeian trumpet. Viols were bought in a ‘chest’ which had two of each size and most viol music was for six parts as a result.

Typically a viol evening was an intimate affair for the middle classes – six friends getting together to make music in a smallish chamber suited to the soft timbre of the instruments (it is much softer than a violin). Some pieces were written for four parts so that players could take a rest if they wanted to, and there is music with vocal writing too, allowing singers to show off their skills and adding a different colour to the music. In all probability, the average viol player could handle any of the instruments in the viol family (the equivalent of a violinist being as happy on the cello) and viol music quickly became so popular that books on etiquette were offering chapters on appropriate behaviour at a viol evening. This was real participatory music-making. We might well rue the fact that it doesn’t have an equivalent today.

Classic CD magazine, 1994

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