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Harmonia Uncut: "Fourteenth-Century Chamber Music"

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Welcome to Harmonia Uncut, the podcast that takes you to early music performances you might have missed. I'm Wendy Gillespie, inviting you to join me as we travel back in time to September 21st, 1989. The place is Recital Hall at the Indiana University School of Music, where members of the faculty of the Early Music Institute are presenting a concert of medieval music. Thomas Binkley, the founder of the EMI, was, of course, a specialist in medieval music who had strong ideas about its performance. Paul Elliott, Eva Legêne and yours truly had a certain amount of experience with the repertory, but this was only the second time we'd performed it with Binkley, and the repertory in question, late 14th- and early 15th-century French music, presents lots of really interesting musical challenges.

The concert opened with Guillaume de Machaut’s Complainte from his Remède de Fortune that begins, “Tels rits au mains” - “He laughs in the morning who weeps in the evening” - a complaint about the vicissitudes of life caused by the spinning wheel of Lady Fortune, who, the poet says, “would betray her own father and cast him from a place of honor into unspeakable misery.” It's worth mentioning that the piece is over 9 minutes long - one way or another you'll hear all the words. At the time this was relatively unusual in medieval performance practice. Performers feared that their listeners would get bored, and yet people would listen to a whole opera in a language they didn't speak or to a concert of Indian music that went on for hours and hours and thus it was decided that the music would be performed complete. And besides, there was no admission charge, and the audience wasn't locked in, so what harm could there be?


Tels rit au main from Guillaume de Machaut’s Remède de Fortune in live performance in 1989. Part of the fun of live performance is that it captures a snapshot of real life at a given moment. In this concert, for instance, the singer was not consulted about where a melody might sit most comfortably in their voice. Professor Elliott, a true professional, wanted to please, and besides, he had not yet acquired a full-time position, so he ended up in the upper part of his range for most of the concert.

Next, we’ll hear a French ballade, this specific musical form with three verses. This particular ballade is by Anthonello de Caserta, and it is unique in being the only musical setting of a poem by Guillaume de Machaut that is not composed by the poet himself. Each of the verses ends with the words, “Puisque desires ne me laissez durer“ - something like, “since desires don't let me survive,” heard in a different contexts at the end of each verse.


We hear Paul Elliott sing Beauté parfait, a Machaut poem set by Anthonello de Caserta, with Thomas Binkley on lute and yours truly on vielle.

Let's end our visit with a couple of pieces in a row. The first is an anonymous ornamented version of a song called J’ay grant espoir that is found untexted in an Italian manuscript despite its French title. The tuning of the vielle player is not perfect - I get to say that because I was playing it - but the rhythm is nice and loose, and the gestures are well meaning. J’ay grant espoir is followed by the final piece on the concert, involving everyone, of course. Hé trés douce rossignol is the only piece ascribed to the composer known only as Borlet, about whom we know absolutely nothing. This song is a virelai, so it begins and ends with the same words and music. You'll hear lots of birdsong (a rossignol is a nightingale), and of course, a plea for mercy from the lover to the beloved.


We've been listening to part of a concert from September 21st, 1989, at the Early Music Institute, now the Historical Performance Institute of the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, IN. The performers were tenor Paul Elliott, recorder player Eva Legêne, your humble servant on vielle, and Thomas Binkley playing lute and douçaine. Many thanks to the IU Music Library for kindly digitiZing this reel-to-reel tape.

We are always interested in hearing your thoughts about this podcast. You can find Harmonia on Facebook or leave a comment or question anytime by visiting Harmonia early  This has been Harmonia Uncut and I'm Wendy Gillespie, thanks so much for joining me!

Guillaume de Machaut, Le remède de fortune

What the heck is fourteenth century chamber music?

The concert was called “Fourteenth century chamber music” - way to try to attract an audience who like string quartets! But once you get them in, hit them between the eyes with uncompromising performances of complex medieval music. In real life, a paying audience might not appreciate this trickery, but if it’s a free concert by professional musicians, not to mention a chance to hear Thomas Binkley live, maybe it’s worth a try. So we did - the year was 1989, the performers were faculty of the Early Music Institute in Bloomington, Indiana.

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