Far into the past

For various reasons — a project with an orchestra, a pending review (which my wife and I are writing jointly) of Richard Taruskin’s five-volume history of western music — I’ve been listening to renaissance music, by Josquin and Ockeghem.

And I’m both bored and irritated by some of the performances I hear. That pure sound of unaccompanied (and, all too often, uninflected) voices, rising and falling, without any evident point or purpose, no rhythm to speak of, every piece taken at the same tempo…yuck! That’s not very musical, if you ask me, and it surely can’t be very good history.

Those eras were more violent than ours, with emotion closer to the surface. From The Perfect Prince, an exhaustive (not to say exhausting) book about one slice of 15th century history, I got an unforgettable picture of the pomp of kingship — how people expected kings (and all the nobility) to look striking, dramatic, miles removed from everyday life. That, in fact, was proof that they were kings. The same must have been true for the kind of top-ranking church events, in huge cathedrals, where Renaissance masses must often have been sung. This wasn’t everyday music-making. It carried with it, surely, a sense of its own importance, and of the drama inherent simply in the fact that the performances took place.

Do we hear any of this in performances of this music today? I think not. It strikes me, too, that the very notion of clean and beautifully blended singing — or in any kind of musical performance — is very much a 20th century creation. And not early in the 20th century, either. If you listen to music recorded in the early decades of recording, you don’t hear clean performances, or at least not clean by the standards Toscanini and Karajan (in orchestral music) later taught us to expect.

And everything we know about earlier performance — the lack of rehearsal, the sound of the instruments — ought to tell us that clear, clean blends were even less likely before the 20th century. By the time we get back to the middle ages and the Renaissance, we’re pretty much guessing what music sounded like (and even how it was performed — by voices only, if a piece appears to be written that way, or by voices combined with instruments?). But it strains belief, at least for me, to imagine that it sounded like our present-day performances.

I was disappointed in the Clerks’ Group, which has been recording Ockeghem for years, especially after I read that they perform from the original manuscripts (which give a much more flowing, much less blended sense of how the music may have been conceived than modern transcriptions do), that they also sing new music, and that they’ve done crossover projects with pop musicians. They sound bland; I can’t follow where the music’s going, and I lose interest.

But the Ensemble Clément Janequin, in a CD of Josquin chansons (Adieu, mes amours, on the Musique d’Abord label), strikes me as a winner. It’s intensely human — sung with feeling, attacks of strong emotion, drama, and often without a pretty vocal sound. The voices often are doubled by instruments (viols and lutes), and I like that. It seems to give the music a physical body (fighting against the ethereal sound that so annoys me), and also messes with the intonation (since voice and instrument, playing in unison, won’t completely be in tune), which makes the music sound real, and not so ahistorically clean. (I also like a CD of the Hilliard Ensemble singing Josquin, maybe a little more “modern,” expressively, but alive, and impossible to resist.)

I’d love to hear Renaissance sacred music performed the same way, with voices and instruments, even though I understand that musicologists now think that the “higher” a musical performance was — the more sacred — the more likely it was to be performed by voices unaccompanied. We can’t recreate the sound of the original performances; still less, I’m guessing, can we recreate their feeling. In fact, we don’t know what the sound and feeling were. But at least we might find a way to do these pieces so that they reflect — with no ambiguity — our understanding of the time they came from.

Forgot! My favorite performances of medieval music are by the Trio Mediaeval, who’ve recorded two CDs for ECM. This group is made up of three women, two Norwegians and a Swede, and (especially when I’ve heard them live) they have a sound that’s just as close to folk music as it is to anything classical. This doesn’t stop them from singing the music with great care about rhythms and intonation. But it’s never a prissy kind of care, stemming from a fear (endemic to classical music) that the worst thing anyone could do would be to sound rough and vulgar. It’s not unlike the kind of care you find in pop or folk music performances — where people want to sing in tune, but also savor the roughness that inevitably creeps in when different kinds of voices blend together. The Trio Mediaeval isn’t quite like that — the three women sing in pretty much the same way, so their blend can be seamless — but they aren’t afraid to tilt in that direction.

(They sing new music, too, and I’ve written a piece for them. I was like the guy in the old TV commercial, who liked the Remington shaver so much that he bought the company. I loved this group so much that I longed to write something for them. Watch this space for news about performances.)

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