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"I have set my hert so hy - Love & Devotion in Medieval England"

Voice Trio; The Dufay Collective
Dir: William Lyons

rec: Dec 16 - 20, 2014, Oxford, St Michael & All Angels Church
AVIE - AV2286 ( 2015) (76'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: (modern) E
Cover, track-list & booklet

anon: Ave Maria I say; Danger me hath, unskyfuly; Esperance; Hayl Mary, ful of grace; I have set my hert so hy; I rede that thu be joly and glad; Le grant pleyser; Nowel: owt of youre sleep aryse; Plus pur l'enoyr; Wel wer hym that wyst; Wyth ryth al my herte; Ye have so longe kepe schepe; anon, arr William LYONS: Bryd one brere; Gresley Dances; I syng of a mayden; William LYONS: Adam lay ibowndyn; Alysoun; Blow, northerne wynd; Corpus Christi Carol; Maiden in the moor lay

[VT] Emily Burn, Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks)
[DC] Rebecca Austen-Brown, recorder, vielle, rebec, gittern; William Lyons, recorder, double pipes, flute, whistle; Jon Banks, gittern, harp; Jacob Heringman, gittern, lute

If you have a look at the track-list you will notice the problem which performers of music from medieval England face. It is not without reason that the director of The Dufay Collective, William Lyons, appears as the composer of a number of items. In such cases the texts have been preserved, but without music. Relatively few pieces from the Middle Ages have come down to us complete - that is to say: with text and music.

The difference with the continent is striking, as Lyons explains in his liner-notes. "During the 14th and 15th centuries in France and Italy, a conscious effort was made to preserve the music of former and present times in ornate monumental collections of vernacular and Latin songs. In England there is evidence that the same practice occurred, but owing to various external factors very little concrete evidence survives to show the extent of such collections." This has resulted in quite some collections of continental music being still available for modern interpreters, whereas in England no complete manuscript has been preserved from the time between the Winchester Troper (10th/11th century) and the Old Hall manuscript (late 14th/early 15th century). These two sources only comprise sacred music. Comparable sources of secular music seem completely absent.

This disc is an attempt to give some idea of what kind of secular music was written and performed. The word "written" is probably less appropriate here, because relatively little music was written down. Music was usually learnt, performed and handed over to new generations by memory. We know that texts were usually sung or at least recited with an instrumental accompaniment. That is the reason Lyons decided to write his own music - in the style of the time - to some texts which have been preserved without music. In addition pieces are chosen from various sources of the 14th and 15th centuries which are preserved in the libraries of various universities in Britain.

The authors of the texts and - in case of music which has been preserved - the composers have remained anonymous. Lyons emphasizes that the secular repertoire performed here was not music of the 'people', but is associated with the higher echelons of society. Some may suggest the influence of 'folk' music, but "this is pretend folk for 'highbrow' consumption". Therefore no attempt has been made to make this music sound like 'folk' music. Lyons also points out that there was probably no marked difference between 'popular' and 'learned' styles of playing and singing.

He mentions that the state of instrumental music is even worse than that of secular vocal music. Therefore some of the vocal items are performed here instrumentally, a very common practice in a time when little music was specifically conceived for instrumental performance. Once again the habit of improvising has prevented music from being written down. Moreover, it is questionable how many players of the time were able to read and write. The programme ends with various pieces from a source which has been discovered recently and which includes a number of dances - the kind of instrumental music which was most often played in medieval times.

The first half of this disc includes secular music about courtly love, not very different in content from what we know from, for instance, medieval France. The second part is devoted to 'devotional music' as mentioned in the subtitle of this disc. This comprises a genre which is typically English: the carol. New Grove defines it as "an English or Latin song of uniform stanzas beginning with a refrain called a 'burden' that is repeated after each stanza". Today it is almost exclusively connected with Christmas, but originally it could be on any subject and even have a secular content. One of the carols in this programme is still sung during Christmastide: Adam lay ybounden, in modernized spelling. It is sung in various settings, for instance by Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten. In the case of the present disc we hear William Lyons' attempt to re-imagine the piece in an idiom which is closer to the time the text was written.

This seems the only way to give some impression of how these texts may have been sung and played at the time. It is only in such an approach to the repertoire that it makes sense to keep the original spelling and sing in a historical pronunciation. The three singers of the Vocal Trio are specialists in this kind of music which results in completely convincing interpretations. The texts are very different from modern English; fortunately the booklet includes translations.

In some performances of secular medieval music songs are performed with a battery of instruments. That is historically highly questionable. The instrumental accompaniment at the time was probably very modest; the text was the main thing and should not be overshadowed. The Dufay Collective is well aware of that; in the vocal items the soft instruments, such as lute, harp and gittern dominate. Recorder and flute produce relatively soft sounds as well. The loud double pipes are only played in the dances.

These are stylish performances of music which was likely meant for a domestic context in a relatively intimate atmosphere. This is no spectacular music to be played while doing other things. You should listen very carefully. If you do you will be richly rewarded.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

Relevant links:

Voice Trio
The Dufay Collective

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