What baroque ensemble was named for a French composer, was the ensemble in residence at New York’s Trinity Church, and has recorded the complete sacred choral works of Joseph Haydn filling out an 8-CD set? That would be the ensemble REBEL. We’ll hear from a live performance they gave at the 2011 Indianapolis Early Music Festival on this episode of Harmonia. But first…
Historical performance practice and improvisation
One of the things that defines “early music” is the attempt by performers to present material in a historically informed way. In the case of medieval music, where often very little documentation exists, performers sometimes have to make educated guesses about many aspects of performance practice. In some cases they rely on improvisation, or even composed material to quote “fill in the blanks.” In other cases, even when the notes are present, different performers may make very different decisions about style.
Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame is one of the earliest polyphonic mass settings in the Western tradition. Little is known about the life of Machaut, and the only information we have about the music is from handwritten manuscripts. In this case, the notes are all there, but there is little information to tell us how this music actually sounded. What was the vocal technique? How did they tune? Did they use ornaments or other added gestures?
Many contemporary performances of this mass pull from the choral traditions of France, England and Germany, like in this performance by the Hilliard Ensemble.
However, in the Middle Ages, many intellectual and cultural influences from the Middle East spread across Europe through trade and pilgrimage routes as well as war. Some have suggested that this influence extended to music, or even that aspects of musical style in medieval Europe shared some common characteristics that we associate more closely now with the East. Ensemble Organum, directed by Marcel Peres, drew from this historical information in their interpretation of Machaut’s Messe de Notre Dame, using microtones, improvisation, and a sound reminiscent of Byzantine chant.
Unlike the medieval music we just heard, more instructional manuals and other writings on the performance of Renaissance music exist.
While renaissance manuscripts provide performers with the music itself, musical treatises teach how to embellish pre-existing music, and even compose new music. These are tools that many of today’s renaissance musicians regularly put to use.
For the next example we’ll hear, ensemble Ciaramella turned to the Brussels basse danse manuscript of Marguerite of Austria to prepare music for their 2010 recording Music from the Court of Burgundy. Their improvised version of the famous tune La Spagna imitates surviving variations on the tune from the second half of the 15th century. Here is La Spagna played in slow, even notes with a lively improvisation played over it.
Ensemble REBEL in Indianapolis
We’ve been considering ideas of historical performance practice and improvisation on this edition of Harmonia. Now let’s move on to some live performance.
Over several weekends each summer, some of today’s best performers of early music find themselves in the middle of Indiana. The 2011 Indianapolis Early Music Festival was no exception and opened with an evening of music performed by the baroque ensemble REBEL (pronounced re-BEL) with recorder and flute player Matthias Maute.
Their program featured some of the better-known names in Baroque music, but they also included music by Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, whose chamber music gained him the admiration and patronage of the powerful Mantuan family, the Gonzagas, and the mysterious Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli, known for his four publications of sonatas.
Featured release: Rose of the Compass
Our featured recording–Rose of the Compass, by recorder player Nina Stern— takes us on “a musical voyage from Medieval Italy to Armenia, from the Balkans to the Middle East.” Stern combines the “rich traditions of both folk and classical music.”
Note: The writers for this edition of Harmonia are Laura Osterlund and Anna Pranger.