Sonus Novus/Sonus Vetus

by James V. Maiello    ¦   April 13 2017

In September of 1996, I had just begun my undergraduate degree in music education at S.U.N.Y. Fredonia.  My first music history course was in Room 1021 of “Old Mason,” the oldest part of the music building (1938).  It was a neoclassical brick structure with high ceilings, battle-scarred chalkboards and real wooden mouldings. The large windows actually opened (though they often had to be propped up with a stick).  It looked—and felt—like what college was supposed to be.  The windows, next to one of which I always sat, were indeed propped open that day, letting in air that had just begun to turn crisp, as well as the ambient noise of students laughing and the occasional car engine revving or backfiring.  The professor, the late Tom Carpenter, remains one of the kindest teachers I encountered in my education.  In any case, my interest in early music began with a recording played in class that day, Mara Kiek’s hauntingly beautiful performance of A chantar me’r, a twelfth-century trobaritz song by Beatriz, the countess of Dia.  Here, Kiek sings another medieval vernacular song, Byrd on a Brere, this time in Middle English:

medievalladyFor a trumpet player raised on a steady diet of pop and rock music, band literature, jazz, and mainstream “classical” music, the sound was completely new.  Kiek’s unaccompanied voice was arresting in its purity, resurrecting a thousand-year-old melody that was exotic and simple, but infinitely complex in its subtleties.  There was something familiar about it, though.  Looking back, it was probably the Church modes, which anyone who has grown up Catholic knows instinctively, if not consciously.  A half-century after the Second Vatican Council, the formulas, cadences, and other melodic material of the Middle Ages continue to permeate the liturgy, still discernible aurally after more than two millennia.  Beatriz, however, did not adhere strictly to the musical conventions of Gregorian chant.  Perhaps she was not bound by the strictures of the Church or maybe she had learned these conventions imperfectly from hearing them, like a game of “Telephone.” It doesn’t matter right now, though probing troubadour melodies is a great way to lose a weekend.  Trust me.

Even the language was so old it was new.  A chantar was written in Occitan, the medieval vernacular language of what is now southern France.  It is a descendant of the vulgar Latin spoken during the late antique period in the first transalpine Roman province, the province.  We still call it Provence, like when I was a kid and “going into the city” meant Manhattan.  Period.  Occitan itself is the ancestor of the modern dialect still spoken there, Provençal.  Beatriz’s text was a puzzle, French-ish words here, Italian and Spanish-sounding words there.  I could hear the history of an ancient borderland.  The loose, non-metric rhythms followed the contours of both text and music, rising and falling into cadences that were at once archaic and fresh.  I was sold.  Who wouldn’t be?

My chief interests as an undergraduate were playing the trumpet, the fraternity, and what I will call, euphemistically, “an active social life,” but early music stuck with me.  I knew immediately that I wanted to become a musicologist and that I wanted to study medieval music.  At Fredonia, I also had the good fortune of taking a music criticism course with Barry Kilpatrick, one of the most intelligent people I have ever met one of the most perceptive listeners.  Mr. Kilpatrick’s class made me a more sensitive, purposeful musician and a serious critical listener.  It also resulted in an expensive CD-collecting habit, which began when I started listening to all the medieval and Renaissance music I could find.  I played the Tallis Scholars’s album Lamenta—Renaissance settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah—virtually continuously for several months. Then, it was on to the Huelgas Ensemble’s 1997 recording of Manchicourt’s Missa Veni Sancte Spiritus.

huelgas ensemble

Huelgas Ensemble

and a Naxos CD of DuFay Chansons by Ensemble Unicorn.  I kept getting dragged deeper into early music because the sounds were all so new to me.  I was bored with the musical language of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though not with the music of its composers, like Beethoven and Haydn.  Seriously, I almost got into a real, honest-to-god fist-fight with a classmate in the student lounge who derided Haydn symphonies as boring and impugned the composer’s dry sense of humour (there were witnesses).  I wanted new sounds, though, and I found them in old music.

Looking to the past is itself an ancient musical practice.  In the twelfth century, cantors in southern Italy drew on older Byzantine, Old Beneventan, and other melodic and musical styles as they composed Neo-Gregorian chant, as Luisa Nardini has recently detailed in a masterful new study, Interlacing Traditions: Neo-Gregorian Chant Propers in Beneventan Manuscripts. Bach’s music was “re-discovered” by nineteenth-century musicians like Mendelssohn, though it had never been truly “lost.”  The Paris Schola Cantorum that was founded in 1894, in part as an alternative to the staid Conservatoire, looked to the past, while Debussy used modal scales, chant-like melodies, and the parallelism of medieval polyphony to create his distinctive style.  More recently, the celebrated Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, after abandoning neoclassicism and serialism, developed a unique sound in the 1970s.  Tintinnabuli, as Pärt calls it, was influenced by Orthodox and Latin chant traditions, minimalism, and the ringing of church bells.  It was, in turn, my own interest in early music that led me to discover Pärt’s music.  The composer’s Berliner Messe and Passio are particularly illustrative examples of his debt to early music.

Popular music, too, has benefitted by looking to the past for new sounds.  From Led Zeppelin’s use of a recorder for the opening to Stairway to Heaven to the crumhorn solo on Richard Thompson’s critically acclaimed album I Want to See the Bright Lights, the instruments of medieval and Renaissance music have provided a wide timbral palette that is novel to contemporary ears.  One of the most commercially successful singles of the British folk revival was Steeleye Span’s 1973 recording of the sixteenth-century carol Gaudete. Belarussian band Stary Olsa has made a name for themselves with medieval-esque versions of heavy metal hits like Metallica’s One.


Sometimes, reinvention by retrospection transforms an existing work altogether.  Leaving a fuller discussion of this idea for another day, let’s look at one pretty striking example.  I’ll be the first to admit that Britney Spears is not on my list of favourite performers.  I will, however, extol the formidable talents of the professional songwriters that churn out hits for her and innumerable other artists after having the following experience:

In 2006, my brother gave me a DVD/CD set of Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music.  Asked by Playboy magazine for a list of the best popular music of the millennium, Thompson took the editors at their word and began with the medieval rota Sumer is icumen in.  They were not amused, but he developed a concert program from these “greatest hits,” which included traditional ballads, madrigals, and other popular songs from the last thousand years.  In Thompson’s hands, Oops…I Did it Again, a smash hit for Britney Spears that I had previously regarded as insipid—if catchy—pablum, was transformed.  In addition to giving the tune a bit of an edge, Thompson inserts a resplendent, Renaissance-lute-style solo with an idiomatic (for the Renaissance) shift to triple meter.  In fact, just before he begins to play, Thompson comments on the similarities between its chord progression and common sixteenth-century patterns.

To prove that this isn’t a fluke and that the songwriting holds up across genres, we can turn to another retrospective approach.  Max Raabe and the Palast Ochester specialize in recreating the cabaret and dance band styles of Weimar Germany.  It’s a different kind of old sound, but one that indeed turns Oops…I Did it Again into something new.

I certainly don’t want to belabour the point, but just for comparison, we can also see how well the song transfers to a jazz idiom in Postmodern Jukebox’s version featuring vocalist Haley Reinhart.

For me, all these interpretations are vastly superior to that of Ms. Spears, though de gustibus non disputandum est.  Any way you slice it, the song remains…and it’s a hit.

I listen to all kinds of music: French chamber music, Schubert lieder, modern art music from Adès to Zwillich, and everything in between.  I’m just as likely to listen to a Leonard Cohen album as I am to a Bach cantata, or Quebecois folk music, classic rock, jazz, or opera.  I’ve been known to sing along with Handel’s Messiah on road trips (to the exasperation of my wife) but a Journey CD will meet the same fate, only louder (sorry, Colette).  Part of the fun of music for me is the infinite variety of sounds available now.  Ever since that day in 1996, though, the sounds of early music have remained alive, new, continually enthralling.  As old as it is, it never gets old.  And that’s the way I like it.

James V. Maiello is Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Manitoba’s Desautels Faculty of Music, where he also directs the Collegium Musicum.


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