Music of the Gothic Era

Notre Dame Period (c.1160-c.1250)
Organa by Leonin and Perotin Ars antiqua (c.1250-c.1320)
Codex Bamberg
Motets and instrumental pieces from the Codex Montpellier Ars nova (c.1320-c.1400)
Roman de Fauvel; Codex Ivrea
Motets by Machaut and the Codex Chantilly
Recorded in 1975. Includes full texts with English translations.

The Early Music Consort of London directed by David MunrowDEUTSCHE GRAMOPHON Archiv Produktion Codex 453 185
2 discs [67'16" + 72'04"] mid-price reissue

by Chia Han-Leon "Music of the Gothic Era" traces the history of polyphonic music based on plainsong (single line of vocal melody, in free rhythm, whose highest form is Gregorian chant) from the early 12th to the end of the 14th centuries. The first disc begins with four organa duplum of the Notre Dame Period by the 12th century French composer Léonin, who lived c.1135-c.1201. He is known only from the writings of an English theorist who is him(?)self only known by the illustrious name of Anonymous IV. This latter fellow(?) called Léonin the best composer of organum and that he compiled the Magnus liber (Latin, "great book") of chants used at a church in Paris which was later recast as the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. The organa duplum are basically 2-voiced works using a pre-existing plainsong upon which a newly-written upper melodic line (called the duplum) is superimposed. The two organa quadrupla of Pérotin on the disc involves four voices. The effect is simply like listening to conventional chant, as many know it, with solo voices singing above it. Like chant it is hypnotic in its uniformity, but also colourful like a solo song. Munrow, in his usual practice, adds further colour to the music with softly chiming bells. Pérotin is not a component of skin cosmetics but another French composer whose precise identity is again unknown. Considered the leader of the Notre Dame School, he wrote in the style of music called Ars antiqua ("old art") and was also known (in Latin) as Perotinus Magnus, he is believed to have lived from c.1160 to somewhere between 1205-1225. He was the choirmaster of the chapel at the Notre Dame Cathedral, and contributed greatly in the revision of Léonin's Magnus liber. It is here the 13th century that the motets of the Ars antiqua appear. These are smaller sized compositions (no choir) with even more complex melodic lines. They originated after 1200 as two-part works upon which a new text is added to the duplum. This new upper voice was called the "motetus" because of the addition of words ("mots") -- from which the name motet comes from. These 'songs' range in theme from the religious to the secular, praising God and strawberries alike. Interesting possibilities abound, as in O mitissima (disc 1, track 15) where a prayer to the Virgin Mary is juxtaposed with a lovesick complaint for the fair Marion. Many of these pieces are anonymous, and some are accompanied by such instruments as the shawm (an 'early oboe'), tabor (hand drums), fiddle, medieval harp, recorder and lute. Opening disc 2 is an 8-minute instrumental piece in which various combinations instruments play melodies which are also used for singing. Up to the mid-14th century, motets were considered the highest form of music in its day, offering unparalleled opportunity for aesthetic and intellectual expression. After 1350, its supremacy was challenged by other courtly forms of song such as the rondeau and ballade. Both these and the motet however continued to serve the courtly love traditions. The Codex Ivrea, compiled between 1360-70, demonstrates a wide range of thematic concerns, and although there were those who felt that music of such calibre should not be performed before an "ordinary", ignorant audience, some of the lyrics are no more different from the stuff we get nowadays. In Clap, clap, par un matin (disc 2, track 12), the duplum sings:
Get up Robin, let's go to the grind,
click, click, to spite that knave
who's always keeping an eye on me.
I'm going to be screwed today,
and to make him even more angry
I'm going to sing:
"Ho, ha, knave, he, ha, ho!"
Click, click, Robin's asleep, his grinder's worn out.
Listen to these Gothic pop songs and judge for yourself, but don't say I didn't warn you. The Early Music Consort of London is one of the pioneers of the 70s' revival of Early Music, and consists of such illustrious names as Christopher Hogwood, James Bowman, Nigel North and of course the crusader himself David Munrow (1942-76), who is responsible for the 15 pages of detailed notes in the booklet. The performances possess a certain degree of rigidity of rhythm, as is typical of many British groups, though the plus/fault of rhythmic freedom is a matter of the listener's personal taste. The singing is lucid and virtuosic, although there have been complaints over the "hee-hee-hee" and "ho-ho-ho" singing style heard in some of the Leonin and Perotin pieces, which can sound rather like over-civilized laughing. Nevertheless, there is a certain intensity and intimacy, even tenderness, to the way some of the organa are sung. Instrumental colouring in these works also make the discs a good alternative to those tired of the monochrome of Gregorian chant, although like the latter, I should advise any one investing in the set to take the music in bits, rather than listening to everything in one go. The 1975 recordings in absolutely no way betray their age; the superb remastering is as silent as one can wish for. Just as artists of the early modernist period yearned for the flourishing life of the Renaissance, we now at the end of the 20th century seem to long for things even further back, seeking what many imagine to be the tranquility as well as the simplicity of Medieval art, and perhaps life, as manifested in the recent interest in Gregorian chant. Whether the "Dark Ages" and the proceeding Gothic period were truly dark or not (it was probably no more brighter or darker than the present age...), what the music of these only vaguely understood times offers is above all, the image of an alternative world, even a paradise compared to our battered century. Looking around at the renaissance of mysticism and melody nowadays, I dare say that the music of the Gothic era might just be(come) the music of the future.


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