Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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Reflections on the image of musical roots

By Benjamin Bagby

We musicians have always been fascinated with the notion that we can trace our musical lineage back through time and find some actual roots or origins, something we might even consider to be close to the music of ‘our ancestors.’[1]  The idea that we performers might be able to nourish ourselves from such musical roots is both stimulating and mystifying; stimulating, because we find a certain energizing consolation in knowing that we are not simply ‘making up’ the music we perform, but actually linking ourselves to the generations which came before us hundreds of years ago, to the oral traditions which bear witness to their auctoritas and give our present efforts a feeling of authenticity; it is mystifying, because we lack the tools and experience for determining what this authenticity might be, and we are effectively not in a position to recognize the actual root we seek within the context of the multiple parallel traditions it might have engendered. We will never know if the comfort of gaining access to ‘our roots’ is not simply a deception. 

Musical Roots

In considering the whole idea of a root as an image, it is true that the organic vision of an actual plant rooted in nourishing soil is very powerful. Underneath the plant there is a complex system of roots going deep into the soil to find nutrition, and at a certain point, following this system of roots, one always comes to the end; there is always the place where the entire organisim is complete. One can extract the plant – even the largest tree – from the soil and view it as an integrated organism, in which the same channels of nutrition and biological information are shared by each element, from top to bottom. It is the beautiful, organic vision of a complete, living system.

When we apply this image to musicial-poetic traditions of the European Middle Ages (and in particular to the orally-transmitted traditions of monophonic chant and song which predate the 13th century), the situation becomes complex, dark, disorienting, and we begin to lose the comforting feeling that we are part of a single organism. The more we search for the musical roots, the more that vision of roots recedes before us, and it seems almost impossible to find our way within the organism. Just for argument’s sake, let me carry this idea to its logical if somewhat ludicrous extreme: if we really were to reach the end of the root system of our musical culture, we would be at the beginning of human existence on this planet and would have to admit that our ultimate roots consist of either 1.) the songs of Adam and Eve, whether spontaneously generated or taught to them by their Creator (and I won’t open a  musico-theological Pandora’s box by asking about the Songs of the Creator’s Roots), or 2.) the archaic grunts and poundings of pre-historic hominids as they searched for food and fought for social dominance in their terrified little bands. I doubt that any of us – or any that might come after us – will want to succeed in reaching that ultimate point (although it certainly does have a certain primitive authenticity: we might imagine a distant future in which the intelligentsia attends exquisite concerts of Neanderthal music performed in authentic, cave-like surroundings, with re-creations of historical gesture, clothing, food, and of course, instruments, not to mention the fine details of historical pronounciation).

If we indeed do not seek to find the absolute end of the root system of our musical culture, then what will be our criteria for deciding where to stop as we move along the system? Will we have the ability to know our actual roots when we hear them (or imagine them), or is the search for a resting-place nothing more than an arbitrary operation? What informs our search?

Perspectives on the Past

We have a unique situation in our own so-called modern society, in that we possess access to a huge amount of information about the past. In traditional societies, access to the past is selective and biased, going through the family, the clan, or through the person in tribal society whose hereditary task it is to remember and recite his people’s history. But in the last few hundred years we (now living in nation-states and no longer in tribes or even principalities) have developed an access to the past which is impersonal. We no longer go to a grandfather or to the wise woman of the village for access to the past; we look in books, in archives, or we consult the random vastness of the internet. And one of the results of this process is that we no longer have the personal sense of being part of a chain of events or a chain of relationships, but we stand outside of it and look in from outside, a situation which creates very unique problems for us, problems of perspective.

The closer we come to our own musical experience, the more differentiated is the sensibility we employ when we listen to music. To give an unsophisticated example of this phenomenon we might look at the world of popular music (which is actually a complex of dozens of commercially-manipulated sub-worlds catering to the tastes of many differrent audiences, now called ‘markets’). If we think about a teenage popular song which is only one year old (or even three months old), most members of that song’s constituent ‘culture’ – its market – would say that this song has faded from popularity, that it is a song which is ‘old’ (one year is a very long time in that world), and hence forgotten, that is, unless it is resurrected in the ‘nostalgia market’ a few years later. The margin of ‘now-ness’ – and hence acceptibility in the fast-paced youth-oriented marketplace – is extremely small; the specialised consumers’ ears are acutely tuned for every fine distinction of style, language, the use of instruments and voices, every element is extremely present and infused with significance in their experience. Even though ‘their’ music was produced and marketed by coldly calculating professionals with the sole purpose making money quickly, it is still the music which this particular audience has accepted to live with, dance to, and share with friends – passively, of course –  as a common experience, a source of their social codes, an expression of their identity. In a perverse way, then, it may even be called authentic.

But the more we have temporal distance from musical ideas and sounds, even within our own culture, the more undifferentiated is our ability to understand them or to find a place where they belong. So, for instance, when I think about the popular music of my parents’ youth, I’m always making errors in identification and context, or placing a certain song’s popularity ten years too early or too late, without really realizing it. I’m only vaguely aware of the codes, the significance, of a given song or repertoire of songs. These are matters which, for my parents in 1937, would have been extremely precise. And if my parents would speak about the music of my grandparents’ generation, they would probably refer to beloved tunes as just ‘grandpa’s old songs’, an undifferentiated mass of musical nostalgia which has no real meaning for later generations. We are talking about a period of only 70-90 years, and already within this period there is an extremely large margin for misunderstanding. Even with the presence of recorded sound, for roughly the past 100 years, the margin of ‘disconnection’, the loss of immediacy and sensibility in what we are listening to, is still remarkably large. For the period before recorded sound, the problems are compounded by the fact that we have no access to live performance at all, but must content ourselves with verbal descriptions of music making, printed & written documents, photos, paintings, and instruments which have survived. And although we might hear a performance by someone who studied with someone who studied with a given 19th century musician, we still do not have full access to the direct, human element. This means that, as we search for the roots of our musical traditions, as soon as we travel more than a few months into the past, we are already on a path which is slowly becoming slippery and difficult to find, even illusory. Indeed, the roots are inaccessible to us, deep underground.

If we wanted to re-create a musical soirée in Vienna ca. 1820, we would be able to make precise statements about materialistic aspects of that soirée: we might know exactly which piano was being played, which pieces were performed, the names of some musicians, and we might even know the color of the décor in the room; but the nuanced attitude towards the actual sounds in that room in 1820 is coming from our own ‘historical imagination’. This is a musical event from a well-documented cultural milieu taking place not quite 200 years ago, so we can imagine – as our search goes back in time – how the disconnectedness is compounded when we reach the Middle Ages, to a time 800 years or more distant from us. When we reach back into the past searching for access to very old musics, we will eventually reach a time from which there is no physical manifestiation of music, no instruments, and no music writing of any kind. And we can imagine that the role played by the imagination will – and must – become even larger as the time recedes, the roots become more difficult to follow, and traditions become more removed from us.

Historical or Imaginal?

There used to be a vigorous debate about the word ‘authentic’ in relation to the performance of early music. Now that the smoke has cleared from that battle (as usual, there were puritan fundamentalists involved, which explains the intensity of the conflict) the volatile ‘a’-word has become somewhat tabu and we have subsequently learned not to utter it if we can possibly avoid it – at least in early music circles –, it has instead been replaced by the more politically-correct acronym HIP (‘historically-informed performance’).  And we might ask ourselves: what exactly is this historical information, and how is it informing us? Is it really information or is it propaganda? Why don’t we call it PIHI ‘performance informed by historical imagination’? These are questions which preoccupy many musicians involved with reconstructing the sounds of the past, and it is not limited to those of us fascinated by the Middle Ages.

Regardless of the historical period which interests us, the concept of ‘historically informed performance’ thrives on the conviction that today’s performers can find knowledge and instruction in the documentation which has survived from past musical practices: musical notation, descriptions of performance situations, treatises, methods, visual representations of music-making, playable instruments, etc.  Unfortunately, all of this documentation, which we performers assiduously devour and study, is still missing the one crucial element of musical performance which we would most need and desire to possess: the actual sound, the presence of a living master. Barring the discovery of time-travel, we shall never meet our master (and of course, there is always the terrifying sub-scenario of this time-machine fantasy: what would happen if we had access to the original sound and to the master’s living art, but we simply did not like what we heard?). Deprived of this essential face-to-face musical experience, we are forever doomed to confront our own past musical cultures through a veil of conjecture and intuition, with our contemporary tastes and preferences silently informing our musical choices.

This situation is challenging enough in the cases of most early European repertoires, but it has obviously not kept generations of performers and scholars from fashioning a thriving early music scene, complete with living masters and identifiable traditions, so that our vision of the past seems bright and clear. However, the situation becomes much more complex and clouded when we seek to perform the musical arts of medieval cultures which were largely pre-literate, which did not perform from musical notation nor learn the musical arts from methods and treatises, and from which we possess only a few literary descriptions or visual representations of performance, or surviving fragments of instruments. What kinds of witnesses have survived from the Middle Ages which we might use to reconstruct a performance art that has been silent for 800 years and more?  Are there other sources of information to which we might turn in making such an attempt?

These questions seem to be unique to our information-obsessed culture, and they certainly didn’t cause great concern to musicians of earlier times. If we look at the 19th century Romantics’ view of the Middle Ages, for example, we see an almost joyful embracing of a colorfully-imagined past with no particular care for, or detailed access to, actual historical information. This phenomenon (which we can observe in the Gregorian Chant aesthetics of the 19th century monks of Solesmes and the architectural restorations of Viollet-le-Duc in France) might even be given its own acronym: HIIP, ‘historically-inspired imaginative performance’. We encounter a liberated sense of embracing the imagined pre-national past and integrating it into the ‘glorious national present’. Today, for instance, the 19th century enthusiasm for everything ‘Gothic’ – itself not a medieval term – and the embracing of this imagined ideal by the Romantics seem for us in the 21st century to embody a sentiment removed from our own more information-oriented view of the past, and even farther removed from our own experience. Indeed, it is a style and attitude towards the past which takes on its own particular, unique dynamic. And in light of this I would not be surprised to find, at some point in the future, historically-informed performances of  ‘19th Century Gothic Revival’ music. All of the same issues we have been considering about medieval music – including the issue of searching for roots – would apply to ‘19th century medieval’ music. And to continue this thought: it would not be illogical to expct that 200 years from now there might be a historically-informed revival of the way we currently perform – and view – our own renderings of medieval music: ‘The neo-HIP Revival of early 21st Century HIP Medieval Music’.

Manuscripts and Skeletons

I’m taking this long and laborious path in order to shed some light on the relativity of all historical musical endeavour; the way we think about, perceive, and listen to musics of the past is very much influenced by the kind of relativism we employ and the perspective we choose to adopt. Knowing that we do not have human resources for medieval sounds, we cannot, for instance, invite the 12th century Parisian discantor Perotinus into a room with us and ask him to answer our questions or ask him to sing for us, and so we end up having to speak for him, sing for him. We are forced to reply on our own resources, since medieval musicians are not here with us now, and since they also did not leave for us much help in the form of documents or instructions intended for our use.  Whereas we are obsessed with the documentation of our thoughts and deeds, musicians in the Middle Ages were more concerned with actually living their lives than in documenting them. Even those precious medieval musical manuscripts which did survive were not made with a view towards documentation for the sake of a possible reconstruction in posterity; those scribes and musicians were certainly not interested in what we might think of them today. Their reasons for documenting their musical traditions had more to do with recognizing the importance, the seriousness (gravitas) or authority (auctoritas) of a given repertoire, of collecting things which belong together in one category, of creating a written record to be consulted as an aid to memory, of recognizing their importance through a clear ordering of their narratives in a tangible manifestation of the human ‘book of memory’. In the case of certain musical traditions, the expression of a worldly power could be enhanced through the documentation – and hence the dissemination – of music, or in other traditions simply a love of  things which are beautiful might lead to the creation of a musical document. But their enormous efforts were certainly not intended to help later generations perform the music outside of the living oral traditions which engendered it. It somehow hurts our feelings that medieval musicians – with whom we so often feel a strong kinship – don’t reciprocate our feelings, and that they didn’t think to leave us more than a few meager instructions on how to play or sing their music. We wonder why there were no ‘time capsules’ left for us to inspect. They simply didn’t think about us, and why should they have?

From our perspective, we find that we have to fill in all of the flesh on the skeletons which have been given to us, and as historically-informed as we may want to be, we still come from our own society, with our own cultural experiences and prejudices which will affect and inform the way we might choose to flesh out those skeletons. In a way, the situation was no different in the early 13th century, at a time when there were some types of music being heard which we would now call ‘traditional’, or which were already ‘early music’. From our perspective of course, temporal relationships in history seem very clear and are generally identified as sets of 100 years: the 13th century is ‘medieval’, but so is the 12th century, or the 11th, and so on. In a music history textbook these centuries will be grouped together and dealt with in the same chapter, as manifestations of a unified medieval culture. And yet a musician from the 12th century, travelling forward in a time-machine, would consider the 13th century to be a wondrous new world of sounds, techniques and attitudes. The further away these historical periods are distanced from us, the more room there is for our misunderstanding, until we reach the perspective point from which we might even confuse late Antiquity with the early Middle Ages, a situation chronologically equivalent to confusing the music of Penderecki with that of Perotin. We think of the medieval musician as being much closer to pre-medieval styles and periods, yet actually, in terms of access and familiarity, he was further away than we are today. For example, intellectuals of the European Middle Ages had difficulties with the perception of Greek Antiquity, to which they only had access via Byzantium and a random collection of translated texts. And all of this fanciful contemplation of time-relationships is just to put some focus on the problems that face all musicians who are interested in performing medieval music, including the repertoires of liturgical chant, secular song, and instrumental music. I have not even mentioned the complex issues of geography and the uneven unfolding of various styles at different times and in different places throughout medieval Europe.

Why the Middle Ages?

We are often led to think that the Middle Ages is a self-contained time/place continuum which displays a logical ‘development’ towards ‘more developed’ musics of later periods. We are often unaware of the diversity of medieval musical experience which existed in different places at different times within that long and arbitrarily-defined period of almost 1000 years. For instance, it is indicative of this mode of thought that scholars of the 20th century, not medieval musicians, invented the term ‘ars subtilior’ to refer to the elaborate polyphonic styles of the late 14th-century, superceding the supposedly less elaborate styles of the earlier ‘ars nova’ and ars antiqua’, when in fact these are terms used principally by medieval theorists to describe musical notation, not musical performance style. Even the unfortunate but commonly-accepted terms ‘medieval’ and ‘Middle Ages’, invented in the 19th century, carry connotations of a period which, although stable (‘The Age of Faith’), is somehow only a time of in-between, merely a sombre interlude (‘Dark Ages’) bridging two other more resplendant periods, each more worthy of a real name (‘Antiquity’ and ‘Renaissance’). And yet in our own society and time, we intuitively understand that our culture’s music is a not a monolithic ‘repertoire’ of pieces which can be carefully ordered in textbooks, but a complex and multi-layered Darwinian swirl of many styles, in constant competition with one another, but also cross-pollinating one another in sometimes surprising ways, re-emerging and re-combining from month to month, year to year. Electronic media and the globalization of culture have made this process denser and faster than was the case even 20 years ago, and yet, the principle remains the same: musics which are old and new, foreign and domestic, high and low, entertaining and reflective, somehow manage to coexist and thrive, and any label which we might decide to apply will simply not do justice to that diversity.

Roots: a vision from the medieval perspective

Let us take a look at one example of how the idea of a ‘historical period within a historical period’, might be reflected in music from a particular time and place during the Middle Ages, and how we might make audible, in performance, the diversity of sounds from a given time and place. In a concert program of Sequentia entitled ‘Testimonies in the Court of Love’[2], I was interested in looking at the diversity of musical worlds in one of late 12th-century Europe’s most active centers of secular song, the court of Marie de Champagne in Troyes. Marie de Champagne is known as the patroness of numerous poets and musicians, of which Chrétien de Troyes (creator of Le Conte du Graal and other Arthurian works), and the trouvère Gace Brulé are certainly the most renowned. Let us bear in mind that Marie’s mother was Aliénor d’Aquitaine, a figure of enormous cultural importance in the 12th century. Aliénor was an Occitan-speaking noblewoman from the most illustrious court of the southwest, birthplace of the troubadours, and was renowned for creating that mythical institution of the so-called ‘court of love’, an image which profoundly influenced later troubadour culture and our subsequent view of amor courtois.

In our categorical thinking about medieval courtly song in French-speaking lands, the first word which usually comes to mind is ‘trouvère’; and if we want to make a concert program about courtly music in France in the late 12th century, we would normally think of making a program consisting of trouvère chansons and perhaps some related genres, all taken from a variety of well-documented 13th and 14th-century manuscripts. The resulting concert program and its presentation would fit our received 20th-century norms of what a ‘classical music concert’ should be, enhanced by an adherance to our late-20th-century norms of what an ‘early music concert’ should be. Depending on the nature of the performers, their abilities and their agenda, this early music concert might be a serious performance reflecting the high style of grand chant courtois; or it might rather be a series of short and charming musical distractions designed to conjure up in the listener a more extroverted and entertaining vision of medieval courtly culture (the thriving sub-genre of contemporary medieval music performance unofficially known as ‘drums and fun’); or it might be a combination of both of these styles. Still, these two common modern approaches hardly do justice to the musical diversity which would have been known at a court such as Countess Marie’s.

When we read descriptions of medieval courtly life from original sources (narrative, epic, or chronicle), we sometimes find surprisingly vivid accounts of music making, instrumental music, singing and other aristocratic entertainments[3]. Such courtly descriptions often seem to depict an extremely lively, intense and varied musical milieu, in which traditional story-tellers mingle with poets, virtuoso instrumentalists and singers, both local and ‘foreign’.  It’s a stimulating experience to read about such events, and yet when we consult the musical manuscripts which were compiled nearest to the time and place being described, we discover only a few elements of the musical cornucopia described in the medieval texts. And for this reason, our attempts to perform the music from a medieval court such as Marie de Champagne’s will inevitably turn out to be a ‘concert of early music’, containing trouvère chansons – probably including grand chant, lai, descort, jeu-parti and pastourelle – and a handful of instrumental pieces. The rest of the original performance such as described in the texts seems lost to us.

A reconstructed musical world

Or perhaps not so lost? This is where we come into contact with the kind of musical work which Sequentia has pursued over the years: trying to find ways of making reconstructions of past oral traditions, to gain access to a more complete musical picture of the Middle Ages. In saying this, we should be aware that every performance of medieval music – including medieval chant – is by its nature a reconstruction. For that matter, every performance of a music which is not ‘our own’ is a reconstruction. The sad truth is that the actual music of the Middle Ages no longer exists, since all the musicians who created it, performed it and lived through it are long dead. The surviving manuscripts, depictions of instruments and descriptions of performances are simply artifacts, not music. We live in a reconstructed musical universe, filled with sounds made by the living but based on documents (and more recently, recordings) made by the dead.

Again, we face questions involving relativity and degree: in a given musical reconstruction of a medieval oral tradition, what will be the elements we choose to incorporate (notice that I say ‘choose’)?  What will be our criteria for making decisions about structure, sound and musical rhetoric? Where will we turn for sources which might inform our decisions? Are there living musical traditions we can turn to, which might contain elements of their own deep past which can can teach us something about ours?

The power of myth

We live with several myths about the musics of the world, our own music included. One of these myths holds that the music most commonly called ‘Western’, or ‘European’ has been constantly subject to a process of change – some would say development – and the rapid embracing of technological improvements: new instruments, new techniques of composition, notation, and execution. What makes this myth even more poignant is that European art music has been lived through written notation for at least the last 500 years, and one would expect written music to be something representing a stable musical culture. European high art music is partially the musical outgrowth of the medieval and late-classical science of musica, and has been inherited by the institutions and values of classical music, maintained by intellectuals, conservatories, virtuosi and theorists, and usually divorced from the actual music of unlettered people, which we must identify with the qualifying term ‘traditional’ (‘traditional European music’ or ‘traditional Western music’).

Another myth teaches us that traditional music – and this includes all non-European musics as well – exists in a state of great stability and in unbroken continuity with the past, changing little, or not at all, over many centuries. Myths are powerful: I have yet to meet a traditional musician who will readily admit to the possibility that his/her tradition has undergone any changes, even when confronted with obvious, audible proof.  I have also never met a classically-trained European musician who is willing to admit that his/her tradition might have become fixed and immutable, and that in some cases the same venerable-yet-tired masterworks are being ‘interpreted’ over and over again by ever-younger generations of inflexible, empty virtuosi.

The truths behind these myths are not so clearly-defined, and so we are happy to go on living with them, since myths are what we live by. We want to believe in an unbroken link with the past, in the invariance of musical practices passed down through generations by an unlettered and uncorrupted ‘Volk’, in the integrity of the roots reaching back to the ancestors who lived in an unspoiled, authentic culture. The myth of musical invariance is linked also with ethnic or tribal pride, identity with certain places, a homeland, and a feeling of being immutable, special, chosen, pure. Our own world is so compromised and confused; how could we not be attracted to this myth? We will never be able to know exactly to what degree any given traditional musical culture might have ‘evolved’ or might have been influenced by contact – even random contact – with new ideas and practices over centuries, and indeed some rare and isolated groups of music-making people may have remained static for extremely long periods of time; but we must always examine our attitudes towards traditional music with this mythological subtext in mind. Throughout history, there have also been disruptions caused by imperialist conquest and colonialization which have influenced local traditional musical styles: aside from the obvious example of the Romans, we might think, for example, of the aggressively-expanding empires of the the Persians, the Ottomans in the Near and Middle East, the Arabs in northern Africa and Spain, the English in Ireland, India and North America, the Spanish in South America, and more recently, the Global Corporations just about everywhere. All of these – and many other, smaller invaders – left behind their unwritten marks on traditional musics still considered today by their practicioners to be ‘pure’.

Another, related myth worth mentioning: The field of medieval music performance has been actively preoccupied – at least since the work of Thomas Binkley’s Studio der Frühen Musik beginning in the mid 1960’s – with the idea that a unique, potent musical force known as ‘The Arab Influence’ infiltrated Western Europe during the Middle Ages, via Muslim Spain and the Crusaders’ voyages to the Holy Land. To be sure, in a variety of specific cases, one can point to this indeed being the case in Spain (which was, after all, an Islamic country for a longer period of time than it has since been Christian) and some areas of Mediterranean Europe, and certainly local traditions were affected by this contact, as I have maintained above. But the myth assumes a kind of European-wide saturation which specifically targeted courtly music (troubadour song, for example), vocal techniques, poetic forms and the use of instruments.

And yet, little or nothing has been said about the possibility of a reverse trend, about ‘The European Influence’ on Arab musical cultures during the same period. Why might this be? Of course: the myth dictates that non-European traditions are non-changing and immutable, and that the unsteady Europeans eagerly adapt any new sound, idea, technique or instrument they encounter. We project ourselves into the role of the visitors – let’s take the image of Crusaders as an example –, and instead of terrified holy warriors far from home, suffering from heat exhaustion, bad food, vipers, insects and dysentery, the Crusaders become somehow more like us: curious, well-educated, multicultural tourists. Following an informative visit with their gracious hosts (who were not interested in European music, it seems), they return home – the lucky few who survive – laden with new ideas, melodies & tuning systems, ‘uds, rababs and dombaks, and suddenly a cultural virus has been transmitted; European music has begun to be ‘influenced’. Anyone who has made a close reading of the Crusades will find this scenario difficult to accept; and common sense tells us that if a young French knight encounters Arabic classical music and falls in love with it to the point of mastering its art, he will probably also have fallen in love with the culture and language which surrounds it, the foods and customs which nurture it, the beliefs which suffuse it, and the people who live it daily: certainly his teacher, some fellow students, and perhaps even a romantic partner? In such a scenario, why would our knight want to return home to the rainy north to face – alone – the hostility of his countrymen when confronted with his imported, infidel musical sounds?

This idea connects with another famous musical myth – a bit of residue from the colonial mentality – that music is a ‘universal language’ which binds the world together. Most musicians who subscribe to this myth are Westerners, and the music whose language they find so universal is usually Western classical music (enhanced in recent decades by jazz, pop, rock n’ roll, rap, etc.). The music which binds the world together, the music which can be called ‘a universal language’, is definitely not Korean, Turkish, Navajo or Shona.

Searching for ‘the Other’

Thus deprived of living sources of medieval sounds, we search for the characteristics of ‘otherness’ in looking for images of what medieval music must have sounded like. We suspect that it cannot possibly have been anything like our ‘classical’ music (with its powerful operatic voices, widely-vibrating strings, written masterpieces and genius maestros) and we seek it in musics that we perceive as being pure, unspoiled, something utterly outside our experience, foreign, in short: barbarian (I use this term in its original sense, meaning ‘those who do not speak our language, who are therefore unlike us’). To an expert vocalist from a traditional Asian or Arabic musical culture, the sound of a Western opera singer is a barbariansound, just as most Western classicly-trained singers would view a vocalist from, say, the classical Sufi tradition of Uzbekistan, as a singer whose art, language and technique are completely foreign, perhaps worthy of distanced appreciation, but too far removed from ‘our’ experience to ‘speak’ to us in our own tongue: barbarian. It is not surprising that there is wide disagreement in the world on what is actually meant by the term ‘vocal technique’, and usually it is the barbarianwho is thought to have either an insufficient technique or no technique at all. Even the Romans were known to comment on the strange vocal sounds produced by the barbarians they encountered.

Faced with our commonly-accepted Western classical conservatory vocal technique (sometimes erroneously called bel canto, and often identified by non-European singers with the perjorative term ‘operatic’), we clearly do not find an image of vocal sound which might fit with our image of the medieval singer, and we begin to search the realms of ‘otherness’, of barbarian sound. If the music we wish to re-create is vocally demanding (highly melismatic solo liturgical chant, for instance) we will find most European ‘folk’ voices to be technically insufficient, and yet if we search too far away from Europe we will find the languages, the vocal techniques and the basic sounds to be too foreign, too barbarian (has anyone ever asked a Japanese or Chinese traditional singer to bring his/her ancient vocal arts into the service of troubadour song or Gregorian Chant?).

And so, where do we Europeans generally turn when searching for models of vocal otherness in our reconstructions of medieval singing? To the Middle East and Northern Africa, of course, to those lands steeped in Judeo-Christian, Hellenic and Roman culture (and later, the dominance of the Islamic caliphates and the Ottomans), to that varied cluster of ‘oriental’ cultures – near and yet very far – which has fascinated and obsessed Europeans for more than a millenium. For many European musicians today, the collective ‘sound’ of the Middle Eastern vocal arts (of which there are countless styles and traditions, most of which the European ear cannot identify or fully appreciate) has become the ‘default vocal mode’ and the sound of  ‘otherness’ we seek in the re-creation of medieval European musical repertoires. Even Timothy McGee’s recent scholarly study of medieval singing techniques, based on a variety of medieval treatises, comes to this conclusion (without actually making any specific comments about which elements of which ‘Eastern’ vocal styles – and he includes India in this definition – might be appropriate for a given medieval repertoire): ‘In the absence of a better model, therefore, any and all of the Eastern vocal practices can be used to assist the modern reader to conceptualize the kind of sound that would have resulted from applying what is described in the theoretical treatises and required by the ornaments.’ [4] This idea belongs to the great ‘orientalist’ tradition in Europe. It assumes, of course, that ‘Eastern’ vocal techniques, ideas of beauty and sound, have remained untouched and unchanged throughout the centuries. If we seriously consider the Myth of Invariance and the Myth of Arab Influence which I mentioned earlier, we will perhaps listen more critically and carefully when Western musicians borrow liberally, even indiscriminately, from today’s traditional Eastern musical techniques in the reconstruction of medieval European music. 

Finally, this: how can we possibly speak intelligently about any vocal technique (Eastern or Western) without including a consideration of the specific language which is sung? Language is, after all, at the ultimate root of all vocal art, and the sound of a singer’s voice is not, even in the most melismatic styles, divorced from the words being sung, the language they are sung in, the vowels and colours which are unique to each language. The vocal technique of a Syrian singer, for instance, will be intimately linked with the sounds of the Arabic language as spoken by that singer and his/her audience. If we are willing to accept this fact, then we cannot possibly accept a superficial, orientalistic attitude towards searching for the roots of medieval singing. We must learn to evaluate more critically the musical trophies we bring home from our imaginary Crusades.

We live today in an age of cultural inclusiveness, when anything can be successfully combined with anything else (sounds, colors, designs, textures, etc.), especially if it sells in the global marketplace. In music, we are constantly confronted with the sounds of an international world-music pop culture, in which a Celtic-Sufi-Bulgarian-Zydeco band might sound completely coherent to a mass audience, some of whose great-great-grandparents may have never left the ancestral village with its modest musical pleasures. We easily overlook the enormous changes in society which have shaped our tastes and expectations, fragmented our sense of time and diluted our faculties of perception. Coming from this day-to-day reality, how will we – and especially the generations to come – be able to judge whether the roots of our traditions can be discovered, or even recognized?

One more myth: the maestro genius

Most of us are influenced and have been formed, however subliminally, by our musical training – itself largely a product of the 19th and 20th century conservatory ideal – which teaches us that there exists a large corpus of composed (and therefore written) ‘masterpieces’ of ‘classical’ music, written by genius composers and best performed by great musicians of immense stature, who ‘interpret’ those masterpieces for an adoring, passive audience. This is a musical mentality which has permeated our society only relatively recently, within the last 150 years or so, and which says the following to the young musician:  “You are the musician who aspires to be a master interpreter, a virtuoso, a maestro; and the musical work itself  – which is printed on paper and is now on your music stand – is the masterpiece against which you will be judged. Your task is to practice and study (preferably with master teachers), and during hundreds of hours in a lonely practice room to throw yourself against this masterpiece, until finally one of the Olympian elect (preferably in a master-class) says that your interpretation is good. As your career progresses, you will hopefully win competitions (the analogy with competitive sports does not go unnoticed), make recordings (the new calling-card of the young virtuoso), and appear in prestigious concert halls, until one day you too will be worthy of the name maestro.”

Perhaps this distressing, suffocating situation is one of the motivations for searching out the songs of our roots, since we prefer to believe that the 19th century masterpiece/maestro mentality is not something which we would expect to find in our roots.  And yet, we can easily observe how these modes of thought and evaluation have subconsciously permeated even the performance of medieval music. For instance, over the past 40 years or so we have witnessed the undeclared creation of a ‘canon of medieval masterpieces’ which constantly require new ‘interpetations’ (to name a few such masterpieces: Guillaume de Machaut’s polyphonic Messe de Notre-Dame, the Beauvais Ludus Danielis, the songs found in the Libre Vermell de Montserrat, the Cantigas de Amigo of Martin Codax, the ‘Goliardic’ songs from the Carmina Burana manuscript, the polyphonic music for St. James from the Codex Calixtinus). The interpretations of these medieval masterpieces (each of which has been recorded many times, by different ensembles and soloists) have become the measure of performing artists’ worth and a measure of their creativity. On the one hand, we assume that these pieces were part of an immutable and stable musical culture, and yet each recording is greeted upon release by critical comparison with the previous recordings, and it is expected that each new interpretation will bring a fresh insight into the masterpiece, which will be ‘revealed’ to us by the interpretation. Are we searching for the ‘authentic’ version, or are we actually participating in the 19th century vision of the genius interpreter? As an afterthought, it’s interesting to note that these masterpieces are all mostly of a length which would allow them to fit easily within the currently-accepted 74 minute time limit of a conventional audio CD. The performance-format of a masterpiece fits a marketplace in which variety and brevity are assets, and in which overly-long texts, repetitive liturgical formulae, psalmody and recitation are the musical equivalent of the Black Death.

Diversity and roots in 12th-century Troyes

Let us return to the court of Marie de Champagne in Troyes. My initial comments about the image of musical roots, and the situation of the organism of roots seeming to recede in time, apply also to a French court of the 12th century. We tend to forget that the musicians at Marie’s court were not aware that they were ‘medieval’ musicians, and that their view of their own musical roots would be from a radically different perspective (the medieval here-and-now, so to speak) than ours today. Those particular musicians in that specific situation were not only interested in the artistic creations that were new at court – and let’s not forget about the ‘popular’ music being sung in the streets and taverns – but they were also interested in the venerable oral traditions which surrounded them, some of which were already in the process of dying out, and others of which were perhaps newly-arrived from foreign lands and therefore of great exotic interest. If we – as performers of medieval music who are interested in exploring the roots – want to gain access to a musical world such as Marie de Champagne might have known, we must first examine what blocks our access to the roots themselves. Again, this is a task involving perception and perspective.

In Marie’s court, with its own relative perception of its own past, there were many musical and poetical factors at work. For us, her court might seem like a closed entity, something resembling a musical situation we already know; and thus, based on our readings of music history (and the powerful influence of the maestro myth), we would expect to find familiar functions and structures: ‘composers’ of trouvère songs, ‘singers’ of trouvère song, and some ‘instrumentalists’, minstrels who play instruments either as soloists or in a ‘chamber music’ setting.

In reality, the situation was much more fluid and actually might represent not so much a gathering of classical musicians as a festival for traditional music. Not only were there literate poets (some of them, such as Chrétien de Troyes, even Latin-speaking clerics) creating new songs, but there were certainly singers from other traditions and speaking other languages, whose performances may have influenced (and been influenced by) those of the trouvères most active in Marie’s court. In the late 12th century those traditional musical cultures which most influenced a French-speaking court were largely coming from the northwest (Brittany) and from the island peoples of the great northern seas (especially Ireland, Wales and Cornwall). Today we assume that there is a large European country called France, possessing a specific identity which was always such, but the modern Republic of France we know consisted, in the 12th century, of many small political and linguistic entities which were often at war with one another. People spoke a variety languages and dialects, and didn’t neccessarily understand one other. French (langue d’oil) was certainly spoken in the Ile the France and other central areas, but one could travel 100km from Paris and speak another dialect or language completely (one of the great political successes of the modern French nation was to eradicate most of these ‘dialects’, and but for the tenacity of Bretons, Corsicans and a few Occitans, it might have been a total success). At Marie’s court, there were certainly trouvères such as Gace Brulé, sometimes minor aristocrats but not always, who created – and often performed – their new songs (with manuscript documentation coming much, much later). But there were also traditional musicians from the northern islands and Brittany, and possibly from other countries as well: the nearby Low Countries and the German-speaking lands, Aquitaine and the southwest, the regions south of the Alps, and even the far-off eastern forests. These poets and musicians brought with them their own traditional songs, sung stories, instrumental music and instruments. I mentioned earlier the parallels with a contemporary festival for traditional music, at which you would expect to find an attentive audience of fellow-musicians, each steeped in the lore of his/her own culture’s idiom and perhaps curious about the sounds coming from distant colleagues. At Marie’s court, some of the Celtic languages spoken/sung by visiting entertainers were indeed translated into French, and in doing so there was a radical transformation of the oral idiom and of the manner in which stories were being told, as they were changed from something strange into something accessible and known. Some elements of the musical repertoires of oral, pre-literate northern cultures ultimately found a world audience thanks to the cross-pollination at Marie’s court and others like it (such as the French lais – translated from oral, Breton originals – by a noblewoman calling herself Marie de France who lived in 12th century England). These were truly moments when musicians gained some limited access to their roots, when the roots spoke clearly. And yet, all that is left to us today is the ‘literature’ found manuscripts which silently attest to a once-living musical culture.

At the time of Marie de Champagne the entire corpus of Arthurian stories to which we have access today were orally-transmitted tales performed in strange Celtic languages, carried by itinerant singers and recited or sung as a part of some since-lost tradition. But there was evidently an enormous fashion for these stories at Marie’s court, and we must assume that Marie, as patroness of the court and prime moving spirit of its artistic priorities, was instrumental in making sure the fashion for Arthurian stories found its proper expression in French which could be understood by all. One of the projects that a literary-minded medieval aristocrat might be expected to undertake was to order that collections of songs be made, whether out of antiquarian interest, for reasons of courtly status, or out of the ambition of sheer religious fervour (as in the case of King Alfonso X ‘el Sabio’ of Castille, the collector of the Cantigas de Santa Maria). At Marie’s court the popular and fantastic northern stories of Lancelot, Perceval and others finally found their way into French verse thanks to the genius of Chrétien de Troyes, who basically took the oral tradition – the root tradition – and transformed it into something that we now call ‘medieval literature’. In his time, it was neither literature nor was it truly oral poetry (he certainly added many embellishments); but rather it functioned at a point in-between, in a gray zone between orality and something which can be read out loud or silently. And that is what interests us about this particular place and time: it is a period in transition, and sometimes in such a period the roots become visible.

But there is more: the visitors at Marie’s court certainly knew and loved another, perhaps older genre of sung story which had its roots in French oral tradition, the chanson de geste. For us, in the long perspective of medieval literature which we enjoy, this is a medieval genre along with Chrétien’s creations based on Celtic sung stories and the new songs of the trouvères, all of it more or less the same degree of  ‘medieval’, or at least in our music history textbooks. But for the cognoscenti at Marie’s court there was much distinction to be made – and sense of old and new, foreign and known, epic and lyric – amongst these various types of text, music and performance styles. Again, the issues of medieval relativism and the perspective of our perceptions are extremely important for us to keep in mind when thinking about roots, because the medieval musician’s ‘new music’ could now be considered one of our roots, and yet we probably view the medieval musician’s own roots (the more archaic, oral song traditions) as something similar, from the same time as his new music. 

For those of you who are interested in performing medieval instrumental music, I’m sure you have experienced the problem of simply finding enough notated music to play. The exisiting repertoire of notated instrumental music from before 1300 amounts to a number of pieces you can count on your fingers and toes, and yet we read about such music in a way that describes an incredible world of diversity and virtuosity. It’s tantalizing to be cut from that particular root. All of us have had the experience of being tired of having no alternative to the familiar examples of saltarello and estampie printed in every anthology, those particular pieces which had the luck of surviving by being written. We might ask: “why didn’t they (the medieval ‘composers’ of instrumental music) write more pieces?” The fact is, they probably didn’t write any pieces. If you were a virtuoso instrumentalist coming from a highly selective and secretive oral tradition, the worst thing that could be imagined would be to have your pieces written down in a generally-readable notation; your melodies, structures, and your mode of performing them would be uniquely your possession, and the possession of your tradition, and in writing them down they could leave your possession and cause your tradition to wither and die. Through the medium of musical notation, unknown – and perhaps unworthy – competitors could have access to your personal musical property. This is one reason we don’t have access to this music today.

Certainly some instrumental music does survive in vocal forms, influenced by traditional practices, recycled – as it were – in an organic fashion. We don’t know for sure as a general phenomenon, but on a piece-by-piece basis there are indications of this in the way melodies are transmitted in vocal manuscripts. For instance, in the repertoire of lyric lai (which have a French courtly love text) notated in the 13th century, we can observe at the beginning of several pieces that there are titles which have nothing to do with the lai’s actual text, but rather something specific which reflects on a story from the north, for instance, a name from the legend of Tristan. Knowing that the song itself is not about Tristan, and based on what we know about the way music is transmitted, we can conclude that these written names are simply the names of the melodies themselves. The 13th century poet who created a new text in a new form, was using prima materia from an older oral tradition, taking material from a famous melody – vocal or instrumental – and honouring that melody by naming it in the title (we remember that medieval artists borrowed freely from one another, and there simply was no concept of stealing or plagiarism). It’s absolutely plausible that there existed a beloved traditional instrumental piece, or nota, called Tristan in 12th century Brittany – or perhaps a sung version of the story of Tristan & Isolde, perhaps making use of a related melody – and this melody enjoyed great popularity (which leads me to another reason why we don’t find the original melodies in manuscripts: if something is very popular, there is no reason to write it down; again, manuscripts were not made with us in mind). These orally-transmitted pieces, based on the repertoire of beloved stories of northern peoples, served also as source of raw material for new creations, and this is why we find in 13th century manuscripts a large number of earlier lais which have titles of an Arthurian nature yet have no Arthurian content.

In a way, we have done the same thing that the medieval transformers have, in that we have used the same prima materia as the medieval musicians, and used this raw material to trace our way back, down into the roots of the tradition, or at least a small part of one small root. The medieval creators of lais were also involved with the art of reconstruction, and we are in a way taking our inspiration from them and joining that tradition, at a distance of more than 800 years. This technique has helped us, just to take this one example, to make a program about the court of Marie de Champagne which is more than just a Lieder recital of 15 trouvère songs.

We have been able to use our own reconstructions to partially rediscover the musical diversity at a court such as Marie’s (combining trouvère chanson with lyric lai, instrumental nota, chanson de geste, sung Arthurian tales, and Latin clerical song), to put ourselves in her position as a moving force in the worlds of music and literature, to see an image of her past, in a way, through her own eyes, relative to her own time and place, relative to her own roots. We can also put ourselves into her position as someone who loved not only ‘new’ music and poetry, but also the archaic traditions of her roots and the arts of far-away lands.

Going through a process such as I have described here is but one example of how we can gain access to something which might be called a musical root, how we can inform and refine our perceptions of different medieval musical repertoires, their relative places in the culture of their time. This kind of basic, musical work allows us – as musicians having much common experience through invisible, inaudible shared roots –  to partially enter into that process as well, instead of simply viewing it and analyzing it from the outside. In entering any lost tradition, however minimally, I think we can begin to see our work as something less materialistic, less related to information, and more as a process of connectedness that comes from understanding and re-inhabiting its elements, its goals and attitudes.

All of us who are trying to pursue the elusive path through the imagined system of our music’s roots can benefit from this perspective, whether we are trying to explore traditional music-making in our own culture, in other cultures, or in traditional musics which are already dead. Given the fact that we that we live in the here-and-now, we can never actually know our ancient roots but must intuit them, sometimes even imagine them. The image of the root was not chosen randomly: roots are usually invisible within the soil where they thrive, just as most green plants will die when deprived of sunlight. But we can obtain an enormous amount of nutrition and stimulation through the creative search for our roots, whether we find them or not. We search, not because we seek information or dogmatic guidelines to the ‘correct interpretation’ of medieval song, but because we are looking for the life-force of music itself.


1 I originally began to reflect upon this idea in response to the theme of the Jarosław Festival (Poland), ‘Songs of Our Roots’, a festival in which musicians are invited to speak about their work following their performances. Some of what I write here is based on remarks I made following the Sequentia performance during the Jarosław Festival in August, 2000. In the years since then, further reflection on the issue of musical roots now leads me comment on some of the unique problems of perspective and perception faced by performers of medieval music.

2 This program was in the active repertory of the ensemble Sequentia (Eric Mentzel, voice, organistrum; Benjamin Bagby, voice & harp; Susanne Ansorg, fiddle; Norbert Rodenkirchen, flute) during the years 1998-2000, and performed in Jarosław in August 2000. More detailed information about this program can be consulted on the Sequentia web site:

3 One example of such a performance is the description of the youthful Tristan’s harp-playing at the court of King Mark of Cornwall, as depicted in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (ca. 1200), lines 3588—97 and 3601-08. For text, translation and commentary, see: Benjamin Bagby, ‘Imagining the Early Medieval Harp’, in A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music (ed. Ross W. Duffin), Bloomington, 2000.  pp.336-344.

4 McGee, Timothy J. The Sound of Medieval Song. Ornamentation and vocal style according to the treatises. Clarenden Press, Oxford, 1998. p.120

This essay was originally published in Polish translation in the journal ‘Canor’, 2002

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9 June 2017
Essen-Werden (DE), St. Lucius Kirche

25 August 2017
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Benjamin Bagby's recent activities as teacher/lecturer, linked to his performances

At the invitation of the music department, Benjamin taught a performance workshop on the music of Hildegard von Bingen for students at Princeton University (29 March), where he also performed 'Beowulf' in a collaborative production with digital light designer Craig Winslow. Following this, at the invitation of the medieval studies program and the English department, he gave a lecture on his work with reconstructing the 'Beowulf' performance, at Yale University (3 April).

At the Université Paris – Sorbonne, where Benjamin is on the faculty, the yearly 'Entretiens de la musique ancienne' were held this year in honor of his life-long work with reconstructing 'lost songs'. The main event was his performance of 'Beowulf' (11 May), with French video titles, in the Amphithéâtre Richelieu of the Sorbonne, followed by two days of symposium at the university's Centre Clignancourt, sponsored by the historical music organization IREMUS and the musicology department of the university. During this symposium, Benjamin gave a lecture on his work with reconstructed harps and the kinds of clues they can provide ('Beowulf ': dans l'atelier d'un conteur d'histoires).


2017 Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship awarded by Early Music America to string-player Allison Monroe

This scholarship is given by EMA to “an outstanding and highly-motivated (and possibly unconventional) young performer of medieval music who seeks to widen his/her experience through more advanced study and/or auditions in Europe.”  The recipient is chosen by a jury of musicians who knew or worked with the great medieval music specialist and teacher, Barbara Thornton (1950-1998), who co-founded Sequentia together with Benjamin Bagby in 1977. Read more about Allison here.

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