musica Dei donum

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"Seized by Sweet Desire - Singing Nuns and Ladies"

Musica Ficta
Dir: Bo Holten

rec: March 1 - 3, 2005, Copenhagen, St Paul's Kirke
Naxos - 8.572265 (© 2009) (49'39")

anon: A vos vieg, chevalier sire/Et florebit; Je sui jonete/Hé Diex! je n'ai pas mari/Veritatum; Mors (clausula); Soufrés, maris, et si ne vous anuit; S'on me regarde/Prenés I garde/Hé! Mi enfant; Cil bruns ne me meine mie/In seculum; Nus ne mi pourroit/Nonne sui, nonne, laissier/Aptatur; Joliement en douce/Quant voi la florete/Je sui joliete/Aptatur; LEONINUS (fl c1150s-c1201): Non vos relinquam/Homo quo vigeas; PEROTINUS (fl c1200): Alleluja, v./Posui adiutorium (Organum triplum); Sederunt principes (Organum quadriplum); Vederunt omnes (Organum quadruplum);

Malene Nordtorp, Ann-Christine Wesser Ingels, Amy Vestbø, Susannah Carlsson, soprano; Rie Koch, Elisabeth Ørsnes, Linnéa Lomholt, Helen Rossil, contralto

"Mulier tacet in ecclesia" (A woman must keep quiet in church) - this verdict by the apostle St Paul was the rule in Christian churches in Europe for many centuries. The apostle meant that women should not exert authority in church but in the course of history it was extended to a general prohibition of music-making by women in liturgy. This has had its effect on our view of music history: only recently have ensembles given some attention to sacred repertoire which was sung by women during the renaissance and baroque eras.

One of the places where liturgical music was sung was the convent. And that includes nunneries: many nuns received an excellent musical education. Problem is: we know that they sang, but we know very little about what they sang. And that means that recordings of repertoire sung by women are highly speculative. That is also the case here, as Bo Holten indicates in his liner notes.

The liturgical repertoire in the programme comes from what is known as the Notre Dame School, whose main representatives are Leoninus (or Léonin) and Perotinus (or Pérotin). Their music is highly elaborate and virtuosic, and reflects the skills of the singers in Notre Dame in Paris, who were highly paid. The pieces by them which have been preserved contain a 'tenor' which is a long-held note, with one to three voices circling around it. These consist of very long melismas, and as a result two syllables can easily take three minutes to be sung. This explains why Sederunt omnes and Viderunt principes, although they contain only two lines, are lasting so long: between 10 and 11 minutes.

This repertoire was - and is today - sung by male singers. But Bo Holten refers to the fact that it was spreading through Europe, and therefore could also have reached nunneries. He states that "performing it with female voices shows new and valuable elements in this music - greater transparency and clearer harmony among them." I find these performances very interesting and have enjoyed them. But greater transparency and clearer harmony? No.

The second aspect of this recording is about the repertoire of female trouvères. There has been general agreement that trouvères were always men, but a recent study concludes that there were also female trouvères. Some of their names are known. This disc contains some anonymous pieces which are from the circles of the trouvères. It is partly because of the texts that some pieces are thought to be written by women, as it is assumed these could not be written by men. I don't know if this is a valid argument, but it is interesting to approach this repertoire from that angle.

These songs are also performed well, but I find it disappointing that they have been recorded in a church. A more intimate acoustic would have been preferable. What is really odd is that the pronunciation is unhistorical. The Latin texts are pronounced in the Italian way, which was uncommon in France before the 20th century. Likewise what we know about the pronunciation of French in ages past has been ignored. Also disappointing is the short playing time.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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