The music of medieval France was deeply and inextricably tied to the poetry from which it sprang. This hour on Harmonia, we're exploring the music of early 14th century poet and composer Jehan de Lescurel. Our featured release is harpsichordist Richard Egarr’s 2017 recording of the keyboard partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach.
We heard the opening sinfonia from Johann Sebastian Bach’s second keyboard partita, in C minor, performed by harpsichordist Richard Egarr.
Getting to Know You
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Johann Sebastian Bach. Jehan de Lescurel…? Not exactly a household name. While the pantheon of great classical composers is pretty well-known to the general public, even many hardcore classical music fans would be hard-pressed to name their favorite medieval composer. Like most medieval composers, Jehan de Lescurel’s work has mostly languished in obscurity. However, this hour on Harmonia, using a fantastically well-researched 2013 recording from Ensemble Syntagma as our guide, we’re taking a deep dive into the music of the past.
We heard a ballade by Jehan de Lescurel, performed by Ensemble Syntagma.
Like most medieval composers, we don’t know a whole lot about the life of Jehan de Lescurel. We do know that he was born in Paris in the early 14th century, and that he probably received most of his musical training at the cathedral of Notre Dame, a place which played a very important role in the early development of European polyphony. Lescurel himself, however, was not particularly well known for his polyphonic songs. In fact, only one of his 34 surviving works is polyphonic. Let’s hear that one now.
We heard Jehan de Lescurel’s sole surviving polyphonic song, “A vous, douce debonnaire,” performed by Ensemble Céladon.
There's Something about the Medieval
Lots of people profess to dislike medieval music. Perhaps you’re one of them? In many ways, it sounds foreign to our modern ears, accustomed as they are to 18th-century style harmony, but the medieval era actually has a lot to offer, if we’re willing to really sit back and listen.
We heard an instrumental version of Jehan de Lescurel’s “Amour, voulés-vous acordez,” performed by Ensemble Syntagma.
The honest truth about medieval music is that, when it really comes down to it, we don’t actually know exactly how it sounded. That isn’t to say that musicians who specialize in medieval music are just making it up as they go along - far from it! There are so many places we can go to look for clues. Sometimes, the manuscripts themselves offer hints. Other times, we look to art, to see what the instruments really looked like, or to written treatises. The ensemble Anonymous Four actually named themselves after one such treatise, a famous one written by an anonymous writer, dubbed “Anonymous IV” by a 19th century French musicologist.
We heard another instrumental interpretation of one of Jehan de Lescurel’s songs, performed by Ensemble Syntagma.
Form and Function
Welcome back. This hour on Harmonia, we’re exploring the music of the 14th century medieval poet and composer Jehan de Lescurel.
One of the most important things to understand about medieval music is that the music serves as a vehicle for delivery of the text - not the other way around, as is sometimes the case with later music. Before the advent of Netflix and Hulu, in a pre-digital world, music was the primary vehicle for storytelling, and in many places, one of the most important forms of entertainment.
We’ll hear a dit by Jehan de Lescurel - a kind of medieval story song. The form has roots in the fantastic tales that featured heavily in medieval sermons, but ultimately, over the years, evolved into a kind of satirical lampoon.
We heard the last six strophes of Jehan de Lescurel’s dit “Gracïeus temps,” performed by Ensemble Syntagma.
J. S. Bach: The Partitas, BWV 825-830
How many of us had our first introduction to early music through the works of Johann Sebastian Bach? Perennially popular since the great Mendelssohn-orchestrated Bach revival of the 19th century, Bach remains one of our best-loved Baroque composers today. This hour on our featured release, we’re exploring a 2017 recording from harpsichordist Richard Egarr, a two-disc set of Bach’s keyboard partitas.
We heard the gigue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s sixth keyboard partita, in e minor. Before that, we heard the sarabande, allemande, and toccata from that same partita, all performed by Richard Egarr. In the recording notes from that 2017 harmonia mundi release, Mr. Egarr offers both a personal tribute to the composer and provides an interesting analysis of the complex numerological elements of the partitas. As with all of Bach’s music, it’s safe to say there’s more to it than meets the eye!
Break and theme music
:30, J. S. Bach: The Partitas, Richard Egarr, harmonia mundi 2017, Disc 1, Tr. 2 Partita I BWV 825 in B flat major: II. Allemande
:60, J. S. Bach: The Partitas, Richard Egarr, harmonia mundi 2017, Disc 1, Tr. 6 Partita I BWV 825 in B flat major: VI. Gigue
:30, J. S. Bach: The Partitas, Richard Egarr, harmonia mundi 2017, Disc 1, Tr. 1 Partita I BWV 825 in B flat major: I. Praeludium
Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal
The writer for this edition of Harmonia was Elizabeth Clark.
Learn more about recent early music CDs on the Harmonia Early Music Podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes or at http://www.harmoniaearlymusic.org.