musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

English songs of the Middle Ages
Rumorum/Grace Newcombe
concert: Nov 22, 2018, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

[in order of appearance]
[Moral songs] anon: Worldes bliss ne last no throwe; Quaunt le russinol se cesse; Man mei longe him lives wene; Ar ne kuthe ich sorghe non; Yorkshire estampie
[Marian songs] anon: Duce creature; Stond wel moder; Edi beo thu hevene quene; The milde lomb; Aaliz/Flur de virginité
[Secular songs] anon: Foweles in the firth; Mirie it is while sumer ilast; S'onques nuls hoem; [piece without title]

Grace Newcombe, voice, harp; Mara Winter, voice, flutes; Jacob Mariani, fiddle, gittern

The further one goes back into history, the harder it is to find music which is available for performance without too much trouble. From the early Middle Ages not much music has been preserved, the composers are seldom known and often we don't even know under what circumstances and exactly how they were performed. Moreover, many texts which were intended to be sung, have been preserved without any music. As a result much effort is needed to bring this repertoire to life and to present it in such a way that it is appealing to a modern audience, without compromising the context in which it has come into existence. This is impossible to achieve by artists for whom this is just part of a wide repertoire which spans a long period of time. One really needs to delve into the music itself and into its historical, social and literary background. The members of the ensemble Rumorum are just such an ensemble of specialists.

They have met at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, and since 2015 they have taken part in several competitions, where they have enjoyed considerable success. They also have performed at various prestigious festivals, such as the Tage alter Musik in Herne and the Festival Early Music in Utrecht. In 2017 they were selected for the EEEmerging scheme, which has been a great help to several ensembles. Recently I have reviewed several discs by ensembles, which have been part of hat scheme, and these were all excellent. There is every reason to believe that Rumorum's first disc, when it comes, will be just as good.

The performance in Zeist, as part of the early music season of the Organisatie Oude Muziek, which is also responsible for the Utrecht Festival, certainly was most promising. On Rumorum's website we read: "Passionate about engaging with the enigmatic imprints of past cultures, the ensemble brings medieval music to the modern concert stage in an honest, artful, and historically sympathetic way. Alongside the performance of long-revered medieval repertoires, the ensemble fills gaps with informed compositions and stylistic improvisations, and, in internalizing texts and forms, draws upon memorization to create transparency between act and audience. The voices of RUMORUM revive the beauty of sung and spoken poetry, and the group has developed an instrumentarium that is harmonized from a colourful web of frescoes and manuscript marginalia."

There were no improvisations this time, and the "past culture" which was the subject of the concert, was that of medieval England, more specifically that of the 12th and 13th centuries. All of the eleven songs in the programme have been preserved without the name of the composer. They are in two different languages, Middle English and Anglo Norman French. According to Wikipedia "Middle English (ME) is a period when the English language, spoken after the Norman Conquest (1066) until the late 15th century, underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period of 1150 to 1500." In contrast, "Anglo-Norman, also known as Anglo-Norman French, was a dialect of French that was used in England and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period. (...) It was spoken in the law courts, schools, and universities and, in due course, in at least some sections of the gentry and the growing bourgeoisie."

For a long time the material that was known, was treated as part of other traditions, both with regard to repertoire and to performance practice. Only recently it has been acknowledged as something with a character of its own. The discovery of the typical features of English songs allowed for the addition of melodies to texts which have come down to us without music. An interesting aspect of this repertoire is that many texts are religious, or at least have a moral tenor, which can be explained by the fact that they were written by members of the clergy. It is assumed these songs were written for performance in public places. They may have served as a kind of sermons on the market places and on the streets. Interestingly many songs have been preserved in manuscripts which also include real sermons.

The members of the ensemble paid homage to this practice by performing these songs in the way of actors, addressing the audience with their songs in the way they perform them, but also with the help of gestures. The fact that they sing these songs from memory greatly enhances a very immediate communication with the audience. As I did notice during the performance that does not fail to have its effect. The venue in Zeist also allows for a direct contact between the performers and the audience, and from that perspective the church of the Moravian Brothers was the ideal place for this repertoire and this way of performing.

Obviously parts of the performance are speculative, for instance with regard to the use of instruments. Were they used to support a singer, and if so, which instruments were used? Often a singer may have accompanied himself on the harp, just as Grace Newcombe did during the concert. Instruments as the flute or the fiddle may have been used for interludes or for improvisations during the performance of songs, which are all monophonic. And then there is the issue of pronunciation. Much research has been done in this matter, in several languages. In the English songs I heard some words which were not unlike medieval Dutch. I can't judge whether the pronunciation was correct, but I assume it was. An acquaintance of mine, who was also present, and knows everything about French, told me that the pronunciation of Anglo Norman did sound entirely convincing to her ears.

Obviously most of the music was completely unknown. There were a few exceptions. Edi beo thu, hevene quene is quite well-known and is available in modern recordings, for instance by the Hilliard Ensemble. And the concert ended with an instrumental piece which sounded quite familiar to my ears, and which was part of the repertoire of early music ensembles in the early days of historical performance practice. This piece, and several others, either arranged or reconstructed by the ensemble, were performed with verve and rhythmic precision.

It was a fascinating concert. It seems to me that this is exactly the right way to present such music to a modern audience. The artists don't try to bring it up to date, as it were, by means which compromise its historical character. In fact, by performing them in the way these songs may have been performed at the time they were created, they come much closer to an audience of today than through any attempt to 'modernize' them.

I very much hope that this programme will appear on disc in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Concert reviews