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8.551203 - Introduction to Early Music (An)
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An Introduction to Early Music

An Introduction to Early Music

 

Broadly speaking there are two types of early musician. There are those for whom programme planning involves scouring the shelves of specialist music shops for reliable modern editions of early music. But there are also those for whom the atmosphere of a dingy library filled with the rich aroma of rotting parchment acts on the senses like a Class A drug: to these zealots, an encounter with code-named tomes such as W1 or Bologna 015 is equivalent to the steam enthusiast's sighting of LNER 69523 or GWR L99.

 

So what are the sources of early music like? Frequently incomplete, ambiguous, and illegible. But one thing they all have in common is that they are extraordinary. Extraordinary because they have survived at all, and extraordinary because many of them are the only surviving source for the music that they contain. The feeling of leafing through decaying pages known to have been copied by the likes of Ludford and Purcell is not easy to describe - the distant musical past will never come alive, but this is arguably the closest that you'll get.

 

The sources of early music fall into two categories: manuscripts (handwritten documents) and prints. Before the invention of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century all music had to be prepared in manuscript. This was obviously a lengthy process, and one in which scribes invested much time and effort. Unfortunately for the musician of today, the physical appearance of the manuscript was often paramount, with the result that the overall visual effect was sometimes allowed to ride roughshod over textual detail. Early printed music was often ambiguous for different reasons -if more than one impression was made in order to create a single page of music, it is easy to see how the notes might not have fitted accurately onto the relevant lines of the stave or between the relevant spaces. Moreover, the replacement of stout parchment by flimsy paper means that many a unique folio has been eroded by the corrosive action of primitive inks and exposure to light and moisture.

 

However, these things become easy to live with, and the real enthusiast will frequently revel in the natural degeneration of a manuscript because it underlines its age and frailty, and hence its historical value. In reality, points of editorial controversy usually occur when trying to make sense of the things that early scribes chose not to indicate at all. Imagine, if you will, a medieval composition. Title? Not always. Composer's name? Frequently not. Scoring? Highly unspecific. Pitch? Huge can of worms. Tempo indications? None. Marks of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation? No, no and no. And so it goes on. But, again, the lack of such things often inspires today's editor and performer. Apart from anything else, the scope for interpretation (if that's not too dirty a word) is greater the further back in time that you travel, precisely because of all the unknowns.

 

An understanding of early musical notation is, of course, the key to the decoding of early sources. The written preservation of music is regarded as a sine qua non for the Western classical musician, but if we return to seventh century Europe we find a very different musical culture: one of oral transmission. Isidore of Seville reported that "unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down". Two centuries later a system had developed. The

outline of a melody was indicated by a series of squiggles and dots (known as neumes, from the Greek word neuma = sign). Specific pitch was not indicated: this notation merely existed in order to jog the performer's memory. Gradually, the association between the vertical position of a neume and its pitch began to be made – one neume placed higher on the page than another represented a sound pitched higher in the voice than another. From there, the alignment of neumes upon a series of horizontal lines (a stave) in order to indicate precise pitch relationships was but a small step.

 

So much for pitch; but what about rhythm? Well, we cannot be sure. Some believe that differently shaped notes implied different rhythms in much the same way that modern musical notation does (a white note with a stem [a minim] sounds for twice the length of a black note with a stem [a crotchet] in the same context). However, the earliest rhythmic notation of which we can be sure defines a note's length by its context rather more than by its individual appearance. In the case of a single-line melody (for instance Gregorian chant) the problem is unlikely to be resolved conclusively, but when two or more parts sound at the same time the jigsaw will often only fit together in a limited number of ways. As time went on, the appearance of a note became as important as its context, until eventually – by the Baroque era – the shape and colour of a note dictated its length precisely.

 

The development of musical notation is a complicated story. The work of several musical theorists survives, but one theorist doesn’t always agree with another. The job of the scholar is partly to decide which theorists to trust and which not. Just because the work of certain theorists has survived doesn’t mean that they necessarily understood everything that there were describing. Now, as then, it is important not to believe all that you read in the parchments.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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