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8.553618 - Codex Faenza: Instrumental Music of the Early 15th Century (Ensemble Unicorn)

The Codex Faenza: Instrumental Music of the Early XVth Century

From the Middle Ages the music of the beginning of the fifteenth century that survives is almost exclusively vocal, with liturgical song from monastic sources and courtly songs, motets and madrigals from aristocratic circles. The rare examples of medieval instrumental music, such as the Robertsbridge Codex, and the manuscripts in Paris (Bibl.nat.,f.fr.844c) and in London (BL 29987) confirm this. The monophonic songs of the troubadours, trouvères and Minnesingers, with their melodic balance and beauty, and the polyphonic compositions in their richness of sound are the model on which medieval music is formed. On the other hand contemporary music theory, that provided the basis of musical notation, continued a speculative tradition marginal to practical musical performance.

A wealth of visual representations and documentary evidence bears witness to the great share of instrumental music in the musical life of the High and Later Middle Ages. It almost seems as if it predominated over vocal music. In many troubadour and trouvère poems there are examples of how the singer's audience took immediate pleasure in dance, an estampie. In nearly all representations of church and secular festivities there is found a small group of instrumentalists, generally with lute, harp, fiddle, flute, organ, shawm and percussion. In spite of this it is very difficult to say definitely how these instruments were played and used, since the representations of musician angels and humans make use rather of the symbolism of instruments than showing real performance and there is no documentation of practical instrumental performance methods. Certainly vocal compositions were accompanied by instruments, as witnessed by wordless unvocal contratenor parts, or were even purely instrumental. It is certain too that instrumental music in its various forms was dependent on forms of vocal music. Nevertheless music by instrumentalists remains always a sound of the moment, dictated by conditions, namely the instruments available, technical possibilities of performance and, not least, the inventiveness of the performers. Among other things this use of improvisation led to the use of instrumental alternation in organ Masses in which singers alternate with the organ in the Ordinary or the Mass. In these organ improvisations the notes of a chant held in long notes, provide a basis, the so-called tenor or holding part, while the discantus or superius, the upper parts, move freely in quicker note-values. This use of quicker notes in improvisation is known as diminution.

The Codex Faenza stands out in particular in the period around 1400 for its exclusively instrumental compositions. It is preserved in the Biblioteca Communale of Faenza, classified as BC 117. The manuscript was copied between 1400 and 1420 and is of great importance in the history of music. An anonymous composer provides evidence here of the practice of diminution and of vocal pieces in tablature, that is he has adapted compositions for his instrument. Apart from the organ the instrumentation is not fixed either in writing or graphically. He makes use of the contemporary Italian six-line notation system in the style of the fourteenth century, with two staves, one under the other, joined by bar-lines in a score. The tenor is always below, with the discantus on the upper system. In vocal music it is usual to have the different parts of a piece either written out one after another on a page or in separate part-books. These would first be heard together in performance. The notation in the score of the Codex Faenza may be the attempt of an instrumentalist to express visibly what he has heard sung.

That the manuscript is also known as the Codex Bonadies comes from the fact that, in addition to the music, it contains also the theoretical work of Johannes Bonadies, added first in the years 1473-74. The Codex consists of 79 folio sheets and includes 52 versions of Italian and French secular vocal works in diminution and tablature from the fourteenth century as well as liturgical cantus firmus pieces. Among the composers included are Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-I377), Jacopo da Bologna (1340-c.1360), Francesco Landini (c.1325-1397) and an anonymous composer of the fourteenth century. This mixture of cultural influences is not surprising, since Italian court culture at the beginning of the fifteenth century was strongly directed towards France, as is reflected notably in the history of music. The small group of composers working in Upper Italy extended the declining art of the fourteenth century by means of fashionable and ambitious Chansons in the style of the French ars subtilior.

Unfortunately not all the vocal models of the compositions of the Codex Faenza are known. Some are lost, and of these only the beginning of the text is preserved. Other pieces seem to have no vocal counterpart but to be based on dances, as, for example, Bel fiore dança. Two of the pieces here included have no title.

The systematic method of this manuscript bears witness to a unified conception. This is not a chance collection of random repertoire. The manuscript is in two parts. Each of these begins and closes with a Mass movement. The first includes only pieces of French origin, ballades and virelais. It begins with a Kyrie and ends with a Benedicamus Domino. The second is similarly devised, with the difference that the instrumental versions are based on Italian originals, madrigals and ballate and include, beside an opening Kyrie, a Gloria, the whole to be completed by Ave maris stella. The sources of the tenor of the Mass movements come from the Mass Cunctipotens genitor Deus and are the earliest surviving sources for organ Masses. The changed notation suggest the conclusion that the compiler of the manuscript was a cantor, thus following the custom of the time in varying the existing music and allotting it to instruments. Since diminutions and improvisations are a matter of the moment, calling for spontaneity, it seems likely that the Codex Faenza is a kind of written example of this art.

For the most part the new versions stick strictly to the original. The tenor of the opening work is played exactly and not ornamented, while the discantus is freely varied, with the notes of the original discantus part always included in the ornamentation. In some places, however, can be seen a much freer treatment, adjusting the character of the music to the instruments. An example of this is found in Non avrà, which is partly different from its source, developing rhythmic patterns in repeated passages that are suited to performance on plucked string instruments. Through this kind of arrangement a new work is created for the listener. To emphasize the connection clearly, we have included the relevant vocal sources, where available, for the instrumental compositions. Aquil' altera is given deliberately without the 'modern' accidentals of thirty years later, as an indication in the instrumental version of the change of contemporary style. These unwritten indications are known as musica ficta. Whether notes should be changed or not was left to the musician as an act of composition. He could thus give a piece another direction and a different character. As an interpreter he might add ornaments on the spur of the moment, as is clear from a letter of Machaut to Péronne.

After the Codex Faenza, some thirty years later, the organist Conrad Paumann provided a standard work on improvisation in his pedagogical book on organ-playing, Fundamentum organisandi (1452). This also gives evidence of practice for different instruments. As an example of this the grave-stone in the Munich Frauenkirche can be cited, on which Conrad Paumann is represented seated at the portative organ surrounded by instruments of which he had mastery as well as the organ and for which his compositions were also designed: lute, harp, fiddle and flute. With the exception of percussion instruments all musical possibilities are indicated for polyphonic ensembles of the time.

In the sixteenth century the musical ideal changed. The different sounds of instruments, muffled and strident, nasal and buzzing, weak and strong, were changed into a homogenous body of sound, as, for example, families of recorders or of viols. Some time later, in the early seventeenth century, there developed in Italy a new kind of music, in which again a solo instrument was used over the sound of an accompanying bass and harmony instrument, the principle of the basso continuo. Composers such as Bartolomeo de Selma e Salaverde, Riccardo and Francesco Rognioni, Giovanni Bassano and Girolamo dalla Casa, themselves instrumental virtuosi, devised unbelievable diminutions on chansons, madrigals and motets of the sixteenth century, in which the basso continuo is comparable to the tenor part. The Codex Faenza, then, perhaps offers an anticipation of a technique that was first to reach its height two hundred years later.

As in music, so Renaissance thought, directed towards an understanding of natural science, sought also for new possibilities of expression in other arts. Through the study of nature, calculation and investigation, Filippo Brunelleschi, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the first to use perspective in art, derived from mathematical rules. This made it possible to give the observer the impression, in a picture, that he was observing, from one fixed point, a happening, as only from this one point. Every movement also changed the perspective and offered a new point of view between the observer and the world around him.

This is how the Codex Faenza should be understood. It is an example of the possibilities of musical notation that gives others a comprehensible reflection of the diversity of variations open to an interpreter. Since this art opens up to the listener various perspectives, it appears always new again and subjective, and will always be defined by the immediate inner attitude of the performer and the listener.

Michael Posch & Riccardo Delfino
English version by Keith Anderson

Ensemble Unicorn
Under its director Michael Posch, the Ensemble Unicorn sees its task as making the wide range of music from the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance more accessible to a wide audience through refreshingly new interpretations, with lively authenticity its guiding principle. The core ensemble consists of specialist musicians from Austria, Italy and Germany, and well-known singers and instrumentalists may be called on as guest performers, as occasion requires. The Ensemble has made several recordings on compact disc and appeared on radio and television, and has for many years been involved in education and cultural projects with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education and the Arts. The Ensemble has made numerous festival appearances and concert tours throughout Europe, North America, and the Near East.

Bernhard Landauer, Countertenor (3,9,14)
Florian Mayr, Countertenor (3,9)
Johannes Chum, Tenor (3,5, 14)
Colin Mason, Baritone (5,9, 14,16,17)
Marco Ambrosini, Fiddle (1,2,6,8, 10)
Thomas Wimmer, Fiddle (1,2,6,8, 10, 15), Laud (4)
Riccardo Delfino, Gothic Harp (1,4,6,8, II, 13), Hurdy-Gurdy (12,15)
Norbert Zeilberger, Organ (7, 12,16,17)
Michael Posch, Recorders (1,2,6,8,11,15)

Michael Posch
The recorder-player Michael Posch was born in Klagenfurt, Austria in 1969, and studied at the Carinthian Academy, at the Vienna Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst and at the Trossingen Musikhochschule. Solo appearances with conductors such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt and collaborations with early music ensembles such as Accentus, Oni Wytars, the Clemencic Consort and Concentus Musicus bear witness to his enormous musical activity, in addition to his academic work in the fields of recorder-playing and early music. He is currently director of the Early Music Departments of the Vienna Conservatory.

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