Medieval musicians

“Medieval musicians were virtuosos of the diatonic, sensitized to the subtle differences of weight and role of the various scale degrees and the intervals between them…”

I was very interested to read Lefferts’ comment here. He is discussing plainchant, and the way in which the melodies of chants – single unaccompanied voices – curl around certain notes, certain repeated formulae, and how they start and end on certain pitches. It reminded me of a thing I have considered for a long time – the idea of the different notes of an ordinary scale having a hierarchy, so that a single note has a certain taste or flavour. Each note of a scale – each degree, as Leffert puts it, has a certain relationship with its surrounding notes – the intervals between them.

Blind and partially sighted

Today I presented a lunchtime talk for the Museum of the University of St Andrews, in their medieval gallery. The talk was to present and describe and demonstrate the replica Queen Mary harp. The medieval gallery of the museum holds some very interesting early treasures of the university, including its three exquisite silver-gilt 15th century maces. However these were not in their display case today, as they are being paraded up and down the streets of St Andrews during the Graduation processions.

Before the talk proper, there was a special session for blind and partially sighted people. The museum staff had prepared a special “audio description” of the harp, and embossed line drawings of it, and the blind and partially sighted attendees also had lots of opportunity to touch and feel the carving and decoration on the harp.

For the talk itself I concentrated on the ceremonial music of the old harp traditions. I tried to tie the discussion in with the objects on display; “Gosteg yr Halen” from the Robert ap Huw manuscript went with a 16th century silver salt cellar; I read a translation from George Buchanan’s history of Scotland, a first edition of which is on display in the gallery; and we compared both the decoration on the harp as well as the structure of the music with a carved Pictish cross slab that stands in the museum.

Finally, to tie in with the 600th anniversary of the founding of the University, in 1411, I played a piece of music for another 600th anniversary: “the Battle of Harlaw”, which commemorates and describes this famous and bloody battle which was fought in Aberdeenshire in July 1411.

Early Music VSI

This small slim paperback of 130 pages is part of Oxford University Press’s “Very Short Introduction” series. I have been collecting these for many years, and I have found them to be highly variable. Some are just a little dull; some are rather biased, postmodern, or narrow; but some are just brilliant. This newly published work by Thomas Forest Kelly, published this month, is one of the brilliant ones. I would highly recommend it and to that end I have already listed it for sale in my Emporium:

It is a superb pocket size introduction to the idea of “early music”. The first chapter considers the basic ideas, investigating peoples constant urge to look to the past for their art. Three subsequent chapters comprise the heart of the book, dealing respectively with the history of mainstream Western music in the medieval, Renaissance and baroque periods. These three chapters so easily and concisely explain the styles and types of music in each different historical time, that they are highly recommended as the best overview and introduction to this difficult subject. This is followed by one chapter discussing performance practice and ideas of authenticity, and a final chapter (which reads more like an appendix) listing notable individuals and organisations involved with early music during the 20th century in Europe and America.

I have long been searching for an accessible overview history of western music, and this one finally fits the bill. Coincidentally, Cambridge University Press have recently published a “Companion to Medieval Music” which is not very short, and naturally not concerned with Renaissance or baroque music.

Both of these titles will be included in July’s Emporium update – but you get a sneak preview here first!

Instruments, repertory, or interpretation?

Reviewing the whole idea of “early music” I was struck by how different areas of it focus on different things. I’m especially aware of a focus on instruments which comes in the historical harp field. I suppose that harps in general are quite rare instruments in modern Western culture, so a replica or reconstruction of a historical harp is all the more curious as a physical object. Many times at events people come up to me and want to know how old it is, and what wood it is made from. I doubt that jazz pianists get asked that very often!

The second area of focus is then repertory – given a carefully reconstructed and exhaustively described and explained instrument, what do we play? The search for historical repertory is an interesting activity to observe. There is a constant tension between the familiar and the exotic. People know certain old tunes and there is a temptation to overplay them. On the other hand, part of the attraction of reviving old music is the novelty, the thrill of discovering something new and exotic. Some old repertories sound very alien, and I often have people come up after an event to comment on how the music sounds oriental.

But I think that the most important aspect of our work ought to be expression and interpretation. The whole point of music is surely a communication between people, and so it is by definition happening right now, totally in the present. If it speaks of the past, all well and good; many conversations today reference history as a symbol or authority, with great rhetorical and symbolic weight. But the past is only that, a reference; the communication is entirely now between living breathing people, and so the expression and the communication have to be the most important thing.

Cathedral music in St Andrews

I am kicking off my summer series of medieval harp concerts in St Andrews Cathedral, with a programme of medieval church music from the 12th century.

The concert is on Tuesday 7th June, at 12.45pm, in the Priors House, a medieval vaulted chamber in the cathedral grounds in St Andrews.

Celebrating 850 years since building work commenced on the cathedral in 1161, this concert features a programme of sacred music from that time, from St Andrews, Inchcolm and further afield. As well as playing the Scottish monastic plainchant on my beautiful decorated replica of the Queen Mary harp, I will demonstrate other unusual medieval Scottish instruments during the half-hour concert.

The St Andrews Cathedral concert series will continue on the first Tuesday of each month through to September, with a different theme each month. To follow June’s sacred airs, July will bring ferocious medieval battle music, while August’s recital will present formal elegies and laments.

Further information is available at
This event is organised by Historic Scotland. Admission is free, but ticketed; tickets can be obtained from the Cathedral visitor centre, tel 01334 472563.