From Music’s Dim Past, Rediscovered Songbook Casts Telling New Light


The French medieval music ensemble Diabolus in Musica ‘lean into the contours of its repertoire with a more personal emotional investment.’

PERSPECTIVE — Like ancient animals emerging from melting Arctic glaciers, more and more music from past millennia is rising into our public consciousness, especially as performers understand what the music means and audiences perceive what it says across the centuries.

The flashpoint is the Leuven Chansonnier, which turned up in a 2014 auction in Belgium as if disccovered in a time capsule. Its condition was amazingly good for a 600-year-old-plus artifact. Hand copied in the Loire Valley between 1465 and 1475, the collection of 50 secular chansons in a tiny volume (with pages the size of large index cards) is full of music that sounds remarkably soulful to modern ears, suggesting that the central theme here was grief. Works include famous names such as Johannes Ockeghem but also anonymous pieces not known elsewhere. But in contrast to the restrained musical performances associated with this repertoire, texts are often so volatile they could be from Argentine tango. “You will curse five hundred times an hour, and find yourself deprived of all good things,” reads one anonymous text.

The collection of 50 secular chansons is packed into a tiny volume with pages the size of large index cards.

Serious attention given to such content can’t help but galvanize a different kind of performance. And indeed, the Leuven discovery has been treated to recordings by Blue Heron in Cambridge, Mass., and Sollazzo Ensemble in Italy (a complete traversal of the Chansonnier; the first has been released, the second comes in September, and the third next year). These recordings deliver the music — plus other repertoire from this general period — with an immediacy that reaches far beyond antiquarian circles. Other stellar groups such as the 30-year-old Diabolus in Musica can’t help but lean into the contours of its repertoire with a more personal emotional investment. Thus, just in time for the 500th anniversary this year of the death of Josquin des Prez, artifacts from the 15th and surrounding centuries have a shot at even greater public appreciation than in years past, when Ockeghem might’ve been a mere solution to a game of Anagrams. 

Some 7,000 hours of recordings from the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Fidélité de Jouques are being created live with 45 nuns (ages 26-85) singing Gregorian chant daily. Download the app for a modest monthly fee, and time-honored holiness is only as far away as your phone — but with the visual accompaniment of square-note score and text. If that seems arcane, consider the new Cappella Romana CD titled Hymns of Kassiani by the earliest known female composer, the Eastern Orthodox nun Kassiani (c. 810-c. 865) whose simple, more rhapsodically melodic music might suggest a less-ascetic Hildegard of Bingen with flashes of Mediterranean heat. 

Booklets and translations also abound in that disc, a significant development. During the chant craze of the 1990s, listeners were all but encouraged to let the music wash over them. It’s prayer, after all, that would seem to offer enlightenment by osmosis. I prefer to know what exactly these prayers are about, which gives the music much more foreground status, not only in my ear, but also my soul. Ingesting the words is even more crucial in secular music because the verse is dense and far less predictable, especially in the excellent streamed video “Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain.” Premiered by Blue Heron and Les Délices on on April 8, the concert was offered with simultaneous text translations plus video projections of 14th-century art that help set the scene — and better reveal music that the later masters of the Leuven Chansonnier built upon.

Boston-based Blue Heron, above, teams with Cleveland’s Les Délices on an excellent streamed video, ‘Machaut’s Lai of the Fountain.’

Words, in general, have been my central preoccupation with any repertoire that predates the early 1600s, when Monteverdi created word settings that we would now identify as being operatic, functioning to reveal the specific emotion at hand. Before Monteverdi, the words weren’t there to be expressed on a nuance-by-nuance basis but to be more or less along for the ride, giving a generalized context to the mass or motet at hand. No surprise that performances felt emotionally detached. Secular music is an even more specialized world. The chansons of Ockeghem — that great mathematical wizard whose sacred music often seemed to be as much about science as art — are like miniature, often polyphonic worlds unto themselves that have so many unanswered interpretive questions that pieces shape-shift dramatically from one performance to another. In songs with multiple texts — are they sung simultaneously, separately, or both? — any given chanson can have a duration of three minutes in one realization and seven minutes in another. 

How and where the words are wedded to the music is by no means certain in notation of that period, which often seemed to exist to remind performers of what they already knew. Some of the more pioneering recordings of this music — Medieval Ensemble of London in the 1980s and the acclaimed Gothic Voices in the 1990s — feel purposefully detached: The poetry was left to speak for itself in performances that seemed to be more about artistic recitation, albeit it of a high order, than anything expressing how the composer felt about the words.  

British soprano Emma Kirkby’s unaffected, instinctual musicality gave radiance to everything her voice touched as far back as ‘A Feather on the Breath of God.’

Two singers, though, questioned that approach. Emma Kirkby’s unaffected, instinctual musicality gave radiance to everything her voice touched as far back as A Feather on the Breath of God, when she was a guest performer on the best-selling 1985 Gothic Voices disc of Hildegard of Bingen (Hyperion CDA66039). The other is Barbara Thornton (1950-1998), whose founding participation in the medieval music group Sequentia from the 1990s until her death from brain cancer gave elemental gravitas to anything her voice touched.

Performing forces grew smaller and smaller in performances that found greater eloquence in austerity. Early recordings of Machaut’s 14th-century Messe de Notre Dame, now sung with four voices, tried re-making the piece into the larger-scale Hallelujah Chorus. One might well ask, “Is that all there was?” Probably yes. And that’s the good news. Precision over amplitude has been the first principle of the early-music movement. Also, there was probably no standard way of doing things. Were voices accompanied by instruments? Maybe on some days. But careful, cultivated attention to what any piece of 15th-century music needs is not enough.

An atmospheric church acoustic can sweeten the overall package to a modern ear. That’s one reason why the spacious SACD sound in Cappella Romana’s Kassiani disc is greatly appreciated. With music that implies or accommodates a drone or pedal point, so much expression is possible, from microtonal Arab-tinged ornaments to creating the sheer space that accommodates passion. 

Cappella Pratensis has long adopted the period-performance practice of all singers reading off a single choir book, prompting certain kinds of vocal blends and possibly enabling performance spontaneity. This applies particularly to accidentals that can go up and down depending on the hand signals of a designated performer. One of Pratensis’ recent concerts had the original choir book projected from a large- screen TV so the singers could read off it in their socially distant state. Blue Heron’s Ockeghem@600 project delivers a solid sense of the music and its meaning but leaves me wanting more heat. And Ensemble Sollazzo definitely has that. The Leuven Chansonnier, a studio recording, is definitely worth investigating (Passacaille PAS1054), though a live concert by the group gives an expressively richer idea of what might be ahead.

Some multi-text chansons have so much musical traffic that any deep personal expression is nearly impossible. Certain Josquin chansons are basically choral works and are rightly treated as a group expression rather than as an individual one. In general, the older, more objective approach toward this music holds firm with durable ensembles such as the Orlando Consort. But in three-voice songs where there’s a dominant line (with others supporting the expression at hand), far greater expression can open up once one listens past the obviously exotic cadences and modal vocal lines that seem almost Wagnerian as they skirt between traditional major and minor keys. 

In the anonymous “Ravi d’amours, despourveu de bon sens” (“Ravished by love…”) found in the Leuven volume, the rising and falling contours of the music seem to create musical objects with a stark sense of light and shade, like a chiaroscuro painting technique transferred to music. Moments of rapture and devastation sit side by side. Other voices enter with different contours but similar contrasts, which seem to populate the musical canvas with like-minded, complementary objects.

In effect, such performances open up a previously ignored continent of music. The Leuven Chansonnier isn’t totally responsible for these breakthroughs. But it was something that prompted me to take another look at repertoire that had baffled me for years. Now I can look forward to musical discoveries for years to come.