Vocal stereotypes in the late middle ages

After a bit of a break from blogging, I’m pleased to note the publication a new piece that I wrote about vocal stereotypes and epistemologies of song in the late middle ages, with particular reference to Italian musical culture. “Howling like wolves, bleating like lambs: Singers and discourse of animality in the late middle ages” marks a new thread of scholarship for me in which I have become increasing interested in the ways that song is represented in the late middle ages. By this I mean how the practice of singing and the singing voice is described and conceptualised by contemporary writers, and indeed how composers make use of these ideas and attitudes in their compositions. My curiosity was sparked by a reference to the singing voices of the Mongols in the travel writings of a thirteenth-century author. (This line of enquiry has also lead to other fields of investigation, discussed briefly here.) This lead me to consider how other authors described the voices of singers of particular nations in often unflattering ways. (I intentionally steered clear of more “generic” descriptions that have been discussed by other scholars in great detail.) Well, from there I dug deeper into various epistemologies of song and poetry—principally in an Italian and humanist context—to reveal the depth of attitudes to singing voices from the thirteenth- to mid-sixteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the way that some poets sometimes described themselves as animals or even used an anthropomorphised animal voice as a poetic voice in their poetry. This led me to reconsider a few of the most puzzling songs from the mid-fourteenth century created by Italian composers, most likely around Florence. A good dose of Dante was also in order: this foray into Dante scholarship was both thrilling but also intimidating. In short, this is big picture scholarship that tries to map some ideas about the singing voice in the late middle ages (which I take as late as c.1550), although it ends by discussing some very particular musical works from the fourteenth century. Continue reading “Vocal stereotypes in the late middle ages”

Some insights into late medieval music notation

As 2012 draws to a close, it pleases me to learn that the journal Early Music has published my article examining an anonymous late fourteenth-century song, Aÿ, mare, amice mi care. This Latin rondeau was discovered among an odd assortment of music fragments by Mark Everist just a few years ago but until now has not been satisfactorily transcribed nor its notation discussed. Thanks to the generosity of Oxford University Press, I am able to provide readers of my blog with a free-access URL to my article for their personal use only. The details of the article are as follows:

Jason Stoessel, ‘Revisiting Ay, mare, amice mi care: insights into late medieval music notation’, Early Music 40/3 (2012): 455-468. doi: 10.1093/em/cas101. Free access links: PDF or HTML.

Continue reading “Some insights into late medieval music notation”

Armchair philology – Musical treasures from the Austrian National Library

Philology—the study of early texts, their meaning and how they have been passed down through the ages—has has traditionally consisted of researchers chasing after books and manuscripts scattered throughout libraries and archives. I use the adverb “traditionally” with some irony since for some time now researchers have done much of their work sitting at a desk (or occasionally in an armchair) pouring over facsimiles, photographic images on 35 millimetre microfilm, and increasingly digital images on a computer’s screen, of original sources. Researchers are spending less time with the original manuscripts. Although it is important that archivists maintain access to the original sources, it is also important that these sources are conserved for future generations. There are many music manuscripts that have been the subject of intense scrutiny over the last century, and between their handling by scholars and sometimes fraught attempts at conservation by their owners, the condition and legibility of these sources has noticeably declined. Though I am inclined to give examples, I won’t because that would give the impression that I am censuring particular individuals, libraries or archives. The reality is that time has simply taken its toll on these books.

Continue reading “Armchair philology – Musical treasures from the Austrian National Library”

A new composition by Denis Le Grant?

A new colour digitisation of a fascinating musical fragment from the last quarter of the 14th century has provided new evidence for assigning another composition to one of that century’s most famous, but today little known, composers. The fragment is found in the the western manuscripts collection in Bibliothèque Nationale de France (hereafter BNF), under the shelf number NAF 23190. Music historians often refer to this manuscript as the Trémoïlle manuscript—reflecting the fact that it was owned by the Duchess of Trémoïlle prior to its donation to the the BNF—or simply Trém. BNF staff uploaded Trém’s digitisation on the Gallica website on Monday, 9 January 2012. All that remains of what must have been a grand music manuscript is a bifolium, a two-page leaf that contains an index of the lost manuscript’s content and the notation of four motets (some incomplete). While the notated compositions are important, what has interested researchers most is the index that seems to name some motets, liturgical music and songs still known today and also contains several unknown works (see Droz & Thibault 1926; Bent 1990). One of the interesting things (there are several more discussed in Bent 1990) about the index is that two different names were added in front of two settings of the Credo from the Mass. For the second Credo the name “sortes” appears. It has been generally assumed that this is a reference to the same composer (whose name is sometimes given as “sortis”) and his popular Credo “de Rege” that was used in both the so-called Toulouse and Barcelona polyphonic settings of the Mass. It was previously thought that the name given for the first Credo was “decus”. However, the BNF’s splendid online colour reproduction has revealed that the name is in fact “denis”. Continue reading “A new composition by Denis Le Grant?”