The wonderfully creative and enthusiastic performance by Fortune’s Wheel of secular music of the 13th century trouvères of Northern France and the secular music by the 14th century’s greatest composer, Guillaume de Machaut, took me on a nostalgia trip that has inspired the following review/feature. The nature and quality of Fortune’s Wheel’s performance seems to call for some historical background that will illuminate what was so fine about them and their take on medieval music.

Performance Practice of Medieval Secular Music: A Thumbnail Background Sketch

When I was in high school, I heard the old recording by the Deller Consort of Machaut’s Messe de notre dame , a stunning work and the first complete polyphonic setting of the ordinary of the mass that we know of. The experience of hearing my first double leading tone cadences had me hooked and eventually set me on a path to pursue a career in musicology with a specialty in medieval music. That was a long time ago when both medieval and Renaissance music were pretty much represented in performance by two professional ensembles, Noah Greenberg’s New York Pro Musica and Deller’s group. Then there were the rest of the “Renaissance” ensembles, madrigal groups and choruses in large cities, made up of enthusiastic amateurs, not to mention the real grass roots stuff like the daily after-lunch student madrigal group in my high school (Yes, that’s really true!).

Since then, the performance of early music has come of age, with scores of professional ensembles around the world. Like most maturing processes, the road has not always been easy. Of course, the largest issue to grapple with is that no one here today has ever attended early music performances in their own time, so scholars and performers must extrapolate from what they know to recreate the experience. This means often reconstructing everything from pitches and rhythms in music before 1200 to the musical instruments themselves. Another problem is that scholars and performers have very different approaches to reconstructing the music. Both camps need each other to “get it right” but they have not always thought so.

There are a number of special problems with the recreating of authentic performances of medieval music, especially of music before the 14th century. Until the 12th century, there was, at best, no absolute notation of either pitch or rhythm; at worst, no musical evidence at all, merely texts and a citation in some manuscript that they had been sung. In short, the journey begins with an oral tradition, taught laboriously and precisely in the cathedral schools and monasteries according to treatises describing the “science” of the music of the spheres, of which music on earth could be a mere inexact imitation ( musica mundana , universal music, and musica humana, human music). It was the Church musicians and scholars who created official new music, particularly polyphonic works to embellish and supplement the liturgy, and theoretical treatises on how to perform it. From the few extant manuscripts and treatises, musicologists have had the most success reconstructing religious music.

Until the 14th century, the situation for secular music was worse; most of it is gone forever. When we do come upon sources for secular music, they are collections of the aristocratic music of courtly love, in manuscripts compiled considerably later than the original compositions. For any given piece, we have a text and a monophonic (single) vocal line, including exact pitch notation but no clear-cut indication of either rhythm or meter. To reconstruct the actual sound of these works, these latter elements have to be extrapolated from the text and from the principles of rhythmic notation described in the treatises that deal exclusively with religious music.

When musicologists studied these manuscripts of monophonic secular music, their principal aim was to work only with what they could see on vellum and “prove” by scholarship. The problem of deciphering the rhythm of these melodies was already so overwhelming and contentious that no one gave much thought to any non-notated elements of the tradition. Performances in the 50s and 60s of medieval secular music usually consisted of a rendition of the monophonic (single line) of music, sung straight with maybe a small drum and finger cymbals to emphasize a beat.

By the 13th century, composers were writing polyphonic music for the Church, based on a notational system that involved a set of rhythmic modes based on Classical poetic meters, analogous to the melodic Church modes. Some of this music, the organum, motet and conductus, were written in score so that a reader could actually see which pitches were to be sung simultaneously. Deciphering the modes depended on how the notes were graphically linked together, and notes could only be physically linked if they fell on the same syllable of text. So, if you had a text with one pitch per syllable you were up a tree again as far as figuring out the rhythm. One major clue, however, was that some of the songs of courtly love were interpolated into the music of religious polyphonic motets for which rhythm and meter could be determined according to the theoretical principles described in the treatises on Church music.

Exercises of this type were the meat and potatoes of my graduate education in medieval musicology and performance practice in the 1960s and 70s. Add to that the fact that the official line of medieval musicologists was that groups like the New York Pro Musica didn’t perform the music “authentically” and we, therefore, couldn’t determine what the music must have really sounded like. The modern scholars ignored the fact that probably no two performances of the same piece in the 13th century were alike. Everyone knew that the troubadour and trouvère tradition employed improvised instrumental accompaniment and perhaps even ornamentation of the vocal line, but most medievalists didn’t want to risk inauthentic performance practices. During this period, an occasional medieval musicologist would suggest, for example, that an understanding of traditional North African music could provide a clue regarding the absent instrumental accompaniments for the secular songs of the troubadours in Southern France and Spain. Although Spain was partially ruled by the Arabs of North Africa, there was no way of proving that their music influenced “Western” music. Of course, there was no way of proving that it didn’t.

On a personal note, I felt discouraged that the music I had come to love somehow wasn’t real, but I was also frustrated that musicologists often demurred from discussing improvisational issues for fear of “getting it wrong.”

The real work on making the music come alive was, therefore, in the hands of performers. It is during 70s that medieval music ensembles began to proliferate. And, for the most part, they timidly adhered to the strictures of the academics. But not all of them. Beginning with more precisely notated polyphony of the 14th and 15th centuries, ensembles such as the Early Music Consort of London under David Munrow, the Waverly Consort and the German recording series Das Alte Werk began to experiment with instrumental accompaniments. But there was still no question of major experimentation in the performance practices of the deeper past where evidence was scanty and great parts of the music would literally had to be reinvented.

During the 1980s one of the groundbreaking ensembles that began to add full-scale improvised musical elements, including vocal ornamentation and instrumental accompaniments, was Ensemble Alcatraz in their interpretations of the monophonic popular religious cantigas of 13th century Spain. Since then, many medieval music ensembles have broken free of the constraints of the written page and looked seriously at oral traditions of music from around the world, where in so many cases, simple melodies or modes act as the mere scaffolding for extraordinary complex improvisation. In fact, there is some indirect evidence of this technique in notated religious motets and masses from the late 13th century in which popular songs form the tenor line (a practice continued well into the sixteenth century). These early music performers were operating on what everyone knew but was afraid to implement: that the secular music of the Middle Ages was first and foremost an oral tradition in which the music came long before there were even the resources to write it down. Like their medieval counterparts, the troubadours, trouvères and jongleurs, they would be “authentic” in a different way, by “becoming” jongleurs themselves, immersing themselves in the musical tradition and going on to make up what was missing.

Finally, another crucial missing element for this music is the instruments themselves. There are no surviving playable instruments, and few even unplayable. The instruments have had to be reconstructed from the evidence of medieval painting, sculpture and illuminated manuscripts. There is no standard for any instrument of the Middle Ages. This fact should come as no surprise. Musical instrument invention and evolution has been a continual process – the end result [is] the electronic keyboard, devised to sound like everything.. Ancestors of the modern viol family came in all sizes in a variety of shapes and number of strings, could be bowed or plucked, held right-side-up or up-side-down. It is likely that there were no two exactly alike unless constructed by the same maker.

For more background, a wonderful resource site on music of the Middle Ages, [inactive 12/03], contains historical information, composers’ biographies, discographies and links.

Fortune’s Wheel: The Performance

Fortune’s Wheel is a relatively new ensemble made up of veterans of some of the most highly regarded medieval ensembles, including Sequentia, Ensemble Alcatraz, Project Ars Nova, The Huelgas Ensemble, etc. The group consists of four members, singer Lydia Knutson, instrumentalists Shira Kammen and Robert Mealy and for this performance, guest singer Eric Mentzel. Kammen and Mealy occasionally sing but their role is generally instrumental, accompanying the singers on one or more vielles – looking like a narrow-hipped ukuleles – and/or a small harp.

The program, entitled “Pastourelle,” consisted largely of monophonic secular songs of courtly love, from Northern France. The first half of the concert featured music of the trouvères, the 13th century counterparts of the troubadours of the 12th century in Southern France. The songs survive as texts and basic melodies, as discussed above. Out of this scant evidence, Kammen and Mealy created elaborate rhythmic and melodic improvised accompaniments, based on the mode and melodic elements of the vocal line. In a question and answer session after the concert with a class of Duke students, the two spoke of their original training as classical string players, whose rigid discipline they found constraining and minimally creative. So they defected to the early music camp where they could become the medieval equivalent of jazz musicians.

In the tradition of courtly love, the texts of the love songs were regarded as more important than the music. The melody was, after all, only the vehicle for delivering the laments of unrequited passion, descriptions of the beauty of the beloved lady and pleas for her to have pity on her suffering lover. Fortune’s Wheel takes text very seriously. In order to convey passion, or the artifices thereof, the poetry must be sung with fervor and conviction. One of the highlights of the evening was the anonymous lai of “Bele Doette,” who awaits her lover who has been away at a joust, only to hear from his squire that he has been killed. Knutson performed the eight verses and refrain, singing and acting the eager anticipation of Doette as she awaits her lover and, at the end, as if her own heart would break. This simple, strophic poem became as moving as any Schubert Lied. And like Schubert, much of whose emotive content is given to the piano accompaniment, Mealy provided an equally moving instrumental line on the vielle. Nearly all of the songs of this period have refrains and repeat structures that require real creativity on the part of the performers to keep them from becoming boringly repetitive. Not only in “Bele Doette,” but also in all the other pieces on the program, the group never permitted those repeats to sound stale.

The other works on the first half were equally well conceived and performed, as was the choice of pieces with diverse subject matter and mood. Even though the songs are all monophonic, on several occasions, another singer would improvise a second voice, utilizing the stylistic concepts from the polyphonic conductus (religious syllabic songs) of the same period. Fortune’s Wheel exercised the same kind of appropriate license in elaborating on notated music in “Doucement mi reconfort,” a polyphonic motet originally with three texts all going simultaneously. Although all three voices were written out and are decipherable in the manuscript, Mealy and Kammen took the two upper voices on vielles adding their own ornamentation, while Mentzel sang the simpler and slower tenor line. As Kammen explained after the concert, they take seriously the relationship between the word trouvère and the French verb trouver (to find), as they set about discovering the music from a combination of scholarly and personal resources.

The second half of the program, devoted exclusively to Guillaume de Machaut, took us into the mid to late 14th century. By this timemusical notation had developed to the point that there is little controversy over what rhythms and pitches to perform. The composer himself was truly ahead of his time in compiling six separate manuscripts of his collected oeuvre. In many ways, Machaut is one of the last of the trouvères, composing both text and music for over 150 love songs. Taking off from the improvisatory freedom they had exercised in the music of the preceding century, Fortune’s Wheel concentrated on Machaut’s monophonic pieces, providing them with improvised instrumental accompaniments, now in 14th century style. Both halves of the program contained medieval “chestnuts” that provided a good sense on how the ensemble differentiates itself from other performers of medieval French secular music.

The concert was well attended but certainly not as crowded as other recent medieval music performances in the Triangle. Although Fortune’s Wheel doesn’t yet have the drawing power of Sequentia or Anonymous 4, both of whom have appeared recently at Duke, they are certain to rise in the ranks as time progresses and as they produce more recordings. Their take on an enormously rich musical tradition that some people may have given up on as monotonous and stagnant, makes it worthwhile to revisit the world of the troubadours and trouvères. Fortune’s Wheel’s single release, Pastourelle, contains the complete program they sang at Duke. If you missed the concert, you can still easily purchase it from all the usual sources.