Mundus et musica, a 2012 release by Carpe Diem Records, introduces us to Qualia, a trio of musicians and researchers that seeks to revive old musical, literary and pictorial sources. In the background you will hear their performance of a perpetual canon by the Spanish composer and theorist Bartolomeus Ramis de Pareia from which the disc draws its eponymous title.
Qualia have chosen to focus on the idiosyncratic Segovia Codex for this CD, a music manuscript of the late 15th century that has a quantity of music that does not appear anywhere else. The manuscript was copied in Spain by someone who was very familiar with Flemish popular music of the time and might well have been familiar with some of its composers. Why else, after all, would the copyist refer (in Dutch, yet) to the famous Hayne van Ghizeghem as “Handsome John”?
A double wedding in 1496 might help explain the close connection between Spain and Flanders. In that year, the siblings Juan and Juana, children of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, married the only children of Emperor Maximilian and Mary of Burgundy, Philip and Margaret. Certainly there was a lot of interchange between the two regions and the courts of their respective rulers, all of whom were well known as patrons of music.
The Segovia manuscript contains a number of pieces that take a single line of an existing famous song and adds a new voice to it. The added voice tends to engage in bursts of rhythmic activity that were often thought to be completely instrumental in character, and indeed there is no singing on this recording. However, current scholarship, not to mention empirical proof from able singers, suggests that it is indeed possible to sing some very tricky music. It is now generally accepted that either solution is feasible and either is historically justified.
Listen to some of this setting of Le souvenir, originally a 3-part song by Robert Morton. In the Segovia manuscript, one voice of the original song has been extracted (here played on the portative organ) while a more complex one, played on the vielle on this recording, was added by Johannes Tinctoris:
Sounds very improvisatory, don’t you think? Listeners familiar with the rhythmically wacky world of ars subtilior music may hear echos of that older style in this music. But at the same time, with a bit of imagination, others may hear 15-century jazzers improvising on tunes they knew well, don’t you think?
It is interesting that the CD’s booklet makes specific mention of the fact that the instruments are tuned, not at A-440, but nearly a half step higher than modern orchestral pitch, and also that the keyboard is tuned specifically with a number of pure fifths, at least in some pieces. This is certainly not information found in every CD booklet, and it challenges the listener, (or at least this listener), to pay close attention to the tuning.
The recording also comprises some pieces that are related to, though not taken directly from, the Segovia compositions. Here is a bit of Alexander Agricola’s 3-part “Cecus non judicat de coloribus,” a piece that is copied in lots of manuscripts. Its title, which translates as “the blind man does not distinguish colors” is nothing if not enigmatic. But Tinctoris mentions that he met two blind vielle players in Bruges, and they are generally thought to be the siblings referred to as “Ferdinand and his brother” mentioned in the Segovia manuscript: