Ensemble for Medieval Music. Benjamin Bagby, Director

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What is the Sound of Medieval Song?

By Benjamin Bagby

The concept of ‘historically informed performance’ thrives on the conviction that today’s musicians can find knowledge and instruction in the documentation which has survived from past musical practices: musical notation, descriptions of performance situations, treatises, methods, visual representations of music-making, playable instruments, etc. Unfortunately, all of this documentation, which we performers assiduously track down and study, is forever missing the one crucial element of musical performance which we would most need and desire to possess: the actual sound, the presence of a living master. Barring the discovery of time-travel, we shall never meet our master. (And of course, there is always the terrifying sub-scenario of this time-machine fantasy: what would happen if we had access to the original sound and to the master’s living art, but we simply did not like what we heard?) Deprived of this essential face-to-face musical experience, we are forever doomed to confront our own past musical cultures ‘through a glass darkly.’

This is challenging enough in the cases of most early European repertoires, but it has obviously not kept generations of performers and scholars from fashioning a thriving early music scene, complete with venerated living musicians and identifiable traditions, so that our vision of the past seems bright and clear. However, the situation becomes much more complex and clouded when we seek to perform medieval song, especially from the period before ca. 1300.

I refer here to monophonic song – including Western liturgical chant – since these are the repertoires which have provoked the most debate (and discord) among proponents of various theories of how such music might have sounded 700, 800 or even 1000 years ago. Monophonic song is situated at the volatile crossroads of oral tradition and the scriptorium, of voices and instruments, of Latin and the vernacular, and is the principal vehicle for musical practices which rarely, if ever, were described by medieval musicians in a manner that speaks to our condition. Over the years, generations of musicians have tried to bring these repertoires back to life, with predictably uneven results. We sometimes may know how this music was performed, but we will never know how it sounded.

Still, this situation does not discourage people from listening to recordings of medieval monophonic song and attending live concerts, the majority of which present medieval repertoires in the guise of a straightforward and polished chamber music concert. Many of these performances are given by serious musicians who have dedicated their lives to the thoughtful study of the texts and sources, and to integrating their study of performance practice into a living and expressive art; the most outstanding of these soloists and ensembles transcend being merely ‚historically informed’ and reach out to their audience with performances which touch the listener’s soul and which, in a way, make irrelevant that fact that the musical sources are 700 years old or more. These are performances in which one feels a true ‚authenticity,’ and even a closeness to the original musicians, poets and singers who were once ‚modern’ and for whom the term ‚Middle Ages’ did not exist.

However, in today’s world of medieval music one can also encounter the concert experience as pretentious pseudo-liturgy; as ironic, edgy cabaret; as ponderous mystery play or cute, costumed courtly entertainment; as ecstatic ethnic percussion session ; as extravagantly-orchestrated symphonic poem; as dutiful list of dry musical examples; as SCA free-for-all, etc. For some of these performance modes, technical ability (to play an instrument well or sing in tune with a consistent production) is not considered essential. Medieval song, having no living traditions except the ones we create for it, thrives even in the harshest of environments and adapts easily to the disguises performers require it to inhabit. No other ‚historical’ music is thus fated to absorb such intense projections and fantasies from its modern performers.

There are many reasons for this situation, but one reason is obvious: the trivialisation of the Middle Ages (and hence medieval music) in our own popular culture has obscured the reality of medieval musical life, and has had consequences for the perceptions and expectations of medieval music performance in our own time (Carl Orff’s ‚Carmina Burana’ certainly contributed to this situation, already in 1937). We still suffer from a syndrome which is collectively known as ‚drums and fun.’ This, in turn, is linked to our own nostalgia for a European ‚folk music’ which has vanished; some turn to non-European traditional musics for a comforting influx of sounds and techniques which can be imitated (and instruments which can be played), hoping for a connection to a more genuine – but still imagined – Middle Ages.

The fact that today’s ‚medieval music’ presents itself in such a disparate manner, with such a wide spectrum of seemingly acceptable performance modes, some of them incoherent, has had consequences for its status in the musical world in general. Compared to the practice of Baroque music – which in the past 40 years has thrived and grown into a truly living amalgam of traditions, with high standards (and expectations) of excellence and an international community of musicians united by common knowledge and experience – the practice of music before ca. 1300 has not achieved the kind of ‚critical mass’ necessary for a mature and vibrant musical culture to emerge. No professional schools dedicated uniquely to the performance of chant and medieval song have emerged, leaving inexperienced young performers with few alternatives for study; many are left with no choice for training but to attend the occasional workshop, or worse, to imitate recordings they admire without necessarily knowing anything about the music itself. Without a generally agreed-upon course of study to complete, young musicians can find themselves forming professional ensembles – and making recordings – after having had only the most rudimentary training (or no training at all), something which would be unthinkable in any other serious musical discipline.

This situation has, in turn, left many music critics without orientation in their evaluations of performances, so that their voices cannot be depended upon to judge a fine performance from a mediocre one. More and more often, we read critics who simply quote from the materials provided by the performers, perhaps adding some vague remarks about ‘atmosphere’. In many cases, image and feeling, or a certain sound-quality (‘angelic’ or ‘earthy’ = ‘medieval’) have come to replace a discussion of actual musical content or the merits of a performance. There are almost no critical voices insisting on honesty, quality, or even beauty.

If you had asked me – when Barbara Thornton and I first founded Sequentia in 1977 – how the future of our discipline would look in 30 years, I would have confidently predicted that by 2007 there would be several serious schools dedicated to the study of medieval performance practice, cutting-edge ensembles and soloists working closely with the most innovative musicologists and philologists, world-class festivals presenting the work of young performers, regular presentations of medieval music-theater at the highest level, large and informed (and demanding!) audiences, a high level of critical discourse and evaluation, and a vocal-arts culture which would bring not only medieval vernacular song, but also Western liturgical chant back in all their magnificent virtuosity. Some of these things have indeed become reality, but on such a very small scale that ‚critical mass’ never had a chance to evolve.

If I continue my comparison with Baroque vocal music, we might see one of the reasons for our lack of critical mass in medieval song. The vocal music of the Baroque period is a fertile ground for musical imagination, but since the parameters of its structure, sound and execution are rather clearly known – we possess a wealth of sources, treatises on singing, and descriptions of performances – the performer’s imagination is guided within clear limits. The number of schools teaching Baroque performance practice has increased dramatically since the 1970’s, leading to the creation a pedagogical ‚scenes’ which interact and strengthen each other. In addition, the presence of opera as an important genre makes Baroque music a logical field of activity for an excellent young singer interested in building a career. Ambitious and talented vocalists have created a critical mass in their field, and the results can be heard on any recent recording. The standards are high, the competition is intense, and the rewards are potentially enormous.

This has not been the case for medieval song. Although both performers and musicologists would like to believe that our efforts to understand medieval repertoires are inexorably leading us closer and closer to modern performances which we might be justified in labelling ‘historically informed’, some of the forces which are helping to shape the way musicians of the 21st century perform medieval music are, in fact, anything but historical. The perceived demands of the public (‘the market’), and the contemporary tastes and intuitions of the performers themselves often inform today’s music-making as much as any medieval sources. Today’s medieval performers, all of us musical survivalists, have had to learn to combine economic reality with our desire to recreate a convincing and appealing sounding image of the past.

It is the principal medium of that sounding image – the vinyl LP, followed by the CD and the technologies which will replace the CD – which has increasingly become the potent instrument calling the tune of how medieval music will sound in our time. The classical recording industry, whose recent woes are well known to all, has changed radically from the days when an LP recording of medieval music was considered a success if it sold a few hundred copies. By today’s standards, these early recordings had laughably modest budgets, the packaging was subdued and scholarly, and the performers were relatively unknown. The expansion of interest in medieval music, and the presence on the scene of certain charismatic performers during the 1960’s and 70’s, began to change the way medieval music was studied, performed, recorded and perceived by its listeners.

But it was the appearance of the CD and the subsequent huge opening of the market for recorded sound in the 1980’s and 90’s which transformed the situation dramatically. This period of commercial expansion also witnessed the phenomena of ‘Chant mania’ (millions of CDs sold, mostly to kids) and the obscuring of the borders between medieval music and ‘New Age’ (medieval music as a source of relaxation and wellness for adults, and a harbinger of the ‘crossover’ market yet to come). Recording budgets increased, packaging became more lavish and professional, and we saw the emergence of a canon of medieval works which, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, could be profitably recorded again and again without saturating the market: the Cantigas de Amigo of Martin Codax, the Messe de Notre-Dame of Guillaume de Machaut, the songs of the Carmina Burana manuscript, the Cantigas de Santa Maria of Alfonso el Sabio, and the works of Hildegard von Bingen. The constant recycling of these repertoires has inspired much copying by less experienced performers (as I mentioned before), so that a kind of perverse ‚oral tradition’ has been created through sheer lack of effort and imagination. (Someday, I expect to see the appearance of one of those musical genealogical charts – such as for rock bands – showing the cross-relations, the students and imitators of various ensembles and soloists). Medieval song functions in a tightly-knit trans-Atlantic group of families which, through recordings and the internet, has spread its influence to the rest of the world.

Along with the canon, there is the modern phenomenon of the fixed ‘medieval ensemble’, a group usually consisting of three or four performers, forced to accommodate itself to a huge variety of repertoires. Clearly a structure inherited from the world of classical chamber music, rock bands and the folk revival, these small ensembles turn out to be an economic necessity as well: such compact groups can tour in a cost-effective way (for instance: they fit into one taxi). More significantly, the proliferation of trios and quartets has helped set norms for sound quality and performance practice which listeners have come to accept as the ‘sound’ of medieval music. These ensembles tend to fall into two categories: same-sex ensembles of vocalists, with a sound ideal which stresses homogeneity and perfect tuning (usually for the performance of late-medieval polyphony), and mixed groups of singers and instruments which tend to encourage the image of medieval solo song as chamber music. Sometimes, when budgets permit, the size of an ambitious mixed ensemble can grow to become a ‚medieval big-band’. In all of these formations, we can witness the phenomenon of the copy, the ‚clone’ of Ensemble X. Incidentally, I think most historians would doubt that medieval Europe was in the thrall of a half-dozen professional touring ensembles, each consisting of a handful of attractive, literate and well-nourished men and women in their 30’s and 40’s, with all their teeth intact.

Parallel with recordings, the institution of the concert also informs our perceptions of the performance of medieval music. And yet the whole idea of the ‚concert’ is foreign to medieval music in general. In any given genre, the medieval performance circumstances were either semi-private, liturgical (sung in the context of a certain liturgy in a specific place), or – in the case of courtly music – interwoven with festivities intended for the nobility. Attention spans were longer and more intense in a pre-literate culture. Today, audience expectations for the overall concert experience – comfortable, well-lit churches, chapels and concert halls, program notes, pre-concert lectures, an atmosphere of reverent silence and standardized concert length – have had an influence on the presentation – and hence our perception – of medieval music. For example, in dealing with the confrontation between medieval and modern concepts of time, today’s musicians have been forced to make tortured decisions, truncating extremely long or repetitive pieces (liturgical chant, long poems) so that the program does not seem excessively ‘austere’ or ‘monotonous’ and thereby alienate the audience, or worse, the presenter (almost all advertising for medieval concerts contains the reassuring code-phrase ‘rich and varied’). This fear of alienation is a slippery slope descending towards the ridiculous, as any ensemble which has tried dressing up in pointy shoes and pretending to be ‘medieval’ can attest.

In all recordings of serious music (also limited in time: a maxed-out CD holds less than 80 minutes), we expect pristine acoustics, utter silence in the pauses, and perfection in sound-quality, all bearing witness to the heavy classical-music baggage which medieval musicians must schlepp with them. We have placed each piece we record in the digital equivalent of a sanitized and well-labeled, bulletproof glass exhibition case, and yet if we tried to imagine another reality than this one, the results would not be taken seriously.

The 1990’s witnessed the emergence of a few successful medieval ensembles whose popularity proved that medieval music could penetrate even the highest echelons of the classical music world. For those who have thus escaped from the ‘medieval music ghetto’ into the musical mainstream, this well-deserved recognition and freedom can be a mixed blessing. The sophisticated marketing of recordings (or, to use record-company jargon: ‘the product’), has further helped to influence the expectations of critics, listeners, and other performers for these prominent groups as they work to remain artistically viable. As the recording industry’s expansion into new markets increases, we find performances of medieval music appearing in the ‘crossover’ category, and productions in which early repertoires are mixed with traditional music, improvised music, or with contemporary works written especially with the performers’ unique abilities and sounds in mind. In this, the next generation of aspiring young performers has found new ‘medieval’ role models.

What do we really know about the sound of medieval song? Based on the situation I have just described, a cynic would say that the sound of medieval song is the sound of our own ‘historically informed’ imaginations as we project on the past through the powerful lens of the present.

But there is more to this story. Although medieval song will forever remain chronologically removed from us, and the sources which allow us access to the music will probably remain the same, we performers can work to achieve more honesty in our approach to these sources and more intensity in the way we work with them.

We know that medieval musicians were humans like us, who lived in a real world – not in a fantasy re-creation – concerned with serious contemporary issues of faith, honesty, eros and politics, and how these issues might be addressed in musical and poetical form. These musicians, linked to powerful and illustrious traditions, worked largely within an oral tradition of which the extant manuscripts can provide only a glimpse; but we can see enough to know that those traditions – and the new music which grew from them – were closely linked to actual human conditions, needs, and perceptions. It wasn’t medieval music; it was music. We know much about the rhetorical values and systems which the medieval singers inherited and expanded, and how these flourished; we know that the vocal arts were regionally varied, often extremely virtuosic, demanding the highest imaginable training of young singers; we know of the deep sense of metrical structure which informs how language is performed (Latin and the many poetic vernaculars), of the wealth and complexity of poetic forms, and the of role of memory within an oral tradition, all of these pointing to a world of musical sophistication and technical mastery almost beyond our comprehension. Anyone who has admired the subtlety, technical virtuosity and expressive brilliance of the visual arts of the Middle Ages will understand that the musical arts would be no less subject to high standards and expectations. How can we musicians today do true justice to the great vocal and instrumental traditions of the Middle Ages?

The past 30 years have witnessed an enormous expansion in the teaching of musical performance practice outside the limits of so-called ‘classical’ music: experimental and multi-media performance, electronic music, new music, jazz, world music, and Baroque music performance have all gained a major place in conservatories and university music departments. During the same period, however, the study of medieval European music (which represents a chronological period of almost 600 years and encompasses many dozens of distinct repertoires) has remained largely limited to a few special schools and the occasional workshop given by visiting performers. The few existing schools for early music which offer programs in medieval music find that the sheer quantity of repertoire overwhelms most attempts at teaching, and it is considered a success if two semesters can be devoted to all music before 1300 (including chant) before moving on to the more polyphonically source-rich 14th and 15th centuries. Strangely enough, although the study of medieval musicology – especially medieval song and chant – has flourished since the 1960’s, there has been much less parallel dynamism in performance practice, and only occasional important synergy between theory and practice which has found a consistent expression in world-class performances and recordings.

Young generations of motivated performer-scholars interested in medieval music need a place to turn for professional training at the highest level. The need is critical for a school which offers talented students a comprehensive program of study and technical training in the performance of the core repertoires of European musical culture:

  • the immense and virtuosic traditions of liturgical chant;
  • the traditions of extemporized polyphony which ultimately found expression in polyphonic composition;
  • the myriad of para-liturgical song-forms (monophonic and polyphonic) which adorned monastic and cathedral services for hundreds of years.
  • the multiple vernacular vocal traditions (such as the troubadours) which are considered essential to an understanding of all subsequent art-song forms;
  • the earliest-known instrumental music;
  • music drama (both secular and sacred);

All of this – in addition to the study of early notational systems, music theory, the medieval modes, improvisational techniques, Latin and the medieval vernacular languages, rhetoric and poetics – must finally be absorbed into the teaching of medieval performance practice.

Once this is possible, standards of excellence will be raised and the ‚drums and fun’ trivialisation of medieval music will return to pop culture. It is my hope that one day we will be able to undertake bold and essential initiatives to change this situation, so that medieval music performance can join Baroque music in the mainstream of cultural life, where it belongs.

This essay originally appeared in Early Music America (Summer, 2008). It is also available in German: Der Klang des Miitelalterlichen Gesangs (PDF, 138 KB)

Upcoming Concerts

13 August 2023
Lviv, Ukraine (Mirror Hall, Opera)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

15 August 2023
Kyiv, Ukraine (Hall at the Modern Art Research Institute of the National Academy of Art of Ukraine)
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

20 August 2023
Jarosław, Poland
The Wanderer - Medieval songs of travel

See full concert schedule



Benjamin Bagby's teaching activities in 2019

In March 2019, Benjamin will give two weekend courses on the solo songs of Philippe le Chancelier (d. 1236). The courses are being hosted by the Centre de Musique Médiévale de Paris. Dates: 9-10 and 30-31 March.
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After retiring from his teaching position at the University of Paris - Sorbonne, where he taught between 2005 and 2018 in the professional masters program, Benjamin Bagby continues to travel widely in 2019 to teach practical workshops for young professionals:

Folkwang Universität der Künste (Essen-Werden, Germany).
Benjamin has joined the faculty of this renowned masters program for liturgical chant performance and medieval music. The dates of his courses in 2019: 5-7 April; 26-28 April; 17-19 May; 30 May–01 June.
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For the second year in a row, Benjamin will teach an intensive course in the 8th International Course on Medieval Music Performance (Besalú, Spain): Songs of the troubadours (for singers and instrumentalists).
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Amherst Early Music Festival (Connecticut College, New London CT) 21-28 July:
An intensive course on the solo cansos of the Occitan troubadours, with a focus on songs from the great Milan songbook Bibl. Ambr. R71 sup. (for singers and instrumentalists).
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