Spanish Old Time Music

Musical Archeology and Historical Musicology: Getting it Right

The further back in history we go the more difficult it is to be certain we are ‘getting it right.’ This is even truer for music since it is by nature ephemeral and reliant upon a wealth of supporting knowledge for its production. It is instructive to listen to the history of recorded vocal music to hear the drastic changes just over the past century. And this among our parents and grandparents, people that we recognize as being ‘like us.’ Imagine the differences we would find going back ten centuries.

In reality, I believe the thirteenth century is just about the furthest limit of our quest if we intend to actually perform the music. The meager information of the past reaches a point that gives us some justification to believe we could approximate the sound of the time. For one thing, we begin to have manuscripts to provide enough melodic material to make generalizations about. Before this we have only scraps and suggestions. Additionally, we have collateral information from other historical sources in greater numbers.

I deliberately chose to concentrate on the ‘Cantigas de Santa Maria’ of Alfonso ‘el sabio’ because the manuscript is the largest body of melodies we have from this early period and, in the late 1960’s, few were performing this repertory. But even more importantly, Iberia was at the crossroads between the European and Mediterranean worlds, thus opening up two different founts of materials. If I had concentrated on England, or France, or Germany, for example, I would have been limited to those regional sources. The possibilities seemed to me to be at their maximum with the Alfonsine repertory.

I had already developed what I referred to as a triangulation method of approaching medieval music. The three points of view were (1) the European historical, musicological information, (2) the European folk knowledge, and (3) the ‘non-Western’ or ethnomusicological analogies. I believed that by converging these three (or more if they turned up) approaches, they would create, as usual in physical triangulation, not an exact point but a region of agreement, of likelihood, within which we could expect our musical solution to lie. This seemed to square (more geometry) with my intuitive observations of traditional folk singers probably sounding more like early music singers than the classical musicians who were performing both.

I had long been interested in Arabic music, particularly vocal styles, and had noticed the similarities with singing all around the Mediterranean. Around 1961 I heard a program that A.L. Lloyd produced for the BBC entitled, ‘Primitive Survivals in European Folk Music,’ which really focussed my listening to European traditional singers. I heard many similarities between Mediterranea and elsewhere in Europe, and even in the older singers in the United States. The obvious question to me was, why do modern performers of medieval European music sound completely unlike any other European singers? It was almost as if the music were being performed by someone from another country or culture. And, of course, that seemed the most likely answer: modern performers are from another culture. And what were the chances they were ‘getting it right?’ I felt they were slim because they were using their eyes and not their ears. They were looking at the writings of musicologists and not listening to traditional singers all over Europe.

But some singers were listening. I had an old recording of Machaut made at the University of Illinois with a young lutenist, Thomas Binkley, and female singer, Jantina Noorman, which is a lovely, conventional-sounding album of my favorite composer. I could not believe my ears or contain my joy, a few years later, when I heard Jantina singing with Musica Resrvata. She had developed several different, very traditional-sounding voices which she utilized in some of my favorite recordings to this day. They were not all perfect but they showed the difference a traditional singing style could make in early music. Opinions were polarized about her voice. Unfortunately, most of the people writing had no background in traditional vocal styles and reacted the way classical musicians had for centuries. Their criticisms echoed the remarks of clerical writers from the medieval and Renaissance periods, which seemed to me to validate even further her attempts. More recently a number of singers, who shall remain nameless, have affected a ‘gypsy’ or other folk quality but do not have the artistic facility or the traditional sensibility to carry it off. But, as the old legal principle goes, the misuse of something is no argument against its use. Eventually, someone will ‘get it right.’

Fortunately, there have been more efforts in the instrumental field. A number of players of traditional instruments have lent their skills to medieval music but the trend has not been universally successful. There is still not a dedication to professionalism in medieval performance which would approximate the level of guild players or even folk professionals in the middle east today. But the public embraces instrumental performers more naturally than vocalists and the day may come when the novelty of early instruments wears off and idiomatic style will be expected. I remember a recording from the 1960s of a bagpiper using classic piobrach in performing some medieval dances. The effect, though slightly stilted, was revolutionary.

One would think that Spanish early music groups would be leading the way in exploring performances of the Cantigas. Though there have been many attempts, and some flashes of insight, on the whole they have followed as much as led. Even though many of the traditions were dying out when Alan Lomax collected in the 1950s, surely there must still be Spanish players who could energize a new generation of performers. Most of the problem is attitude. Until classical musicians set aside their education to reach out to folk musicians with humility and humanity they will not be able to learn. Until we understand the rationale of oral, traditional societies we will not approach the reality of the Middle Ages. [An old Musical Heritage Society recording of Cantigas illustrates the walls that divide us from medieval style. A Spanish instrumental ensemble, playing in typical Collegium Musicum note-for-note technique, and a thin, colorless, Classical, Early Music tenor, were accompanied by a boys choir from the Chapel of the Valley of the Fallen. They did their best to emulate the sweet insipidity of the Vienna Boys but occasionally the veneer cracked. You could hear the real boys’ voices, starting to sing like they would have outside, on the streets, strong and vital, singing children’s rhymes and scandalous coplas. Then, because the padre was frowning, they remembered themselves and returned to the chapel setting. Every time I heard the possibility of what they could have sounded like, I wept.]

The largest hurdle that modern musicians have to overcome in approaching medieval music is that we are members of a literate society. And even though writing had existed in Europe for many centuries and there was an elite literate class in Christian Spain (as in Muslim Andaluz) the majority of the population, including most musicians, still lived in an almost exclusively oral world. Much recent scholarship has shed light on the differences between attitudes and worldviews of traditional oral cultures and modern literate societies. So that we need not use the prejudicial or condescending terms ‘illiterate,’ ‘pre-literate,’ ‘non-literate,’ there is even a positive term ‘orality,’ to describe human cultures in the 10,000 years before the internalization of reading and writing. Such integration was not accomplished in Western Europe and America until the Industrial Revolution. And it is important to understand that orality was not just literacy without the graphics, it was a way of looking at the world which differed in almost every respect from the way we see it. The subject is explored in greater detail in my dissertation, ‘Literacy, Orality, and the Cantigas: Toward an Ethnomusicology of Medieval Europe.’ I am also planning on writing a more general account of my ideas on medieval music.

As important as understanding the intellectual, cultural background may be, it is just as vital to get the details right. And this is an area which has been much more exhaustively studied, though it hasn’t seemed to make the transition to practical use. As an example, let’s look at percussion. Most early music groups still put a drum in the hands of whoever isn’t doing anything else, and it shows. Drummers were one of the most exclusive guilds during the Renaissance and it is likely that derived from medieval practice. Percussion techniques in the Middle East today are extremely sophisticated and those are presaged in medieval manuscripts. It is true, as Curt Sachs pointed out long ago, that European drumming traditions are much simpler than their Middle Eastern, Mediterranean counterparts. But early music percussionists need to take their job as seriously as any other member of the group. And fidelity begins with the instruments.

Most European drums were of the tabor type, rather like a modern side drum, with simple wooden shell, skin head, and rope tensioners. So far, so good. But there is one feature which is shown in almost every single illumination but which is missing from nearly every modern reproduction (or, at least, is hardly ever used). And that is a snare! Every medieval and Renaissance group seems enamored of the rotund, hollow, booming sound of the drum which is completely unlike anything that would have been produced by an authentic instrument. Even kettledrums and nakers are frequently shown with snares. The simple rhythms of early dances sound much richer with the sizzling sustain of the snare.

In the Mediterranean world, including Spain, such drums were less important than their slimmer cousins, the frame drums. Once again, most groups that use tambourines or other frame drums have not done their homework. Frame drums are invariably depicted in medieval manuscripts played in the identical position they still are today. That is, balanced on the left hand and played with the left fingers and the right hand. That is completely different from the modern orchestral, 19th century Gypsy, tarantella, rock and roll position. And it plays different music as well.

All our tabors have snares, some on both heads.
Timbrels, round & square, some with jingles.

My original idea in approaching medieval music was influenced by the fact that my favorite composer was Guillaume de Machaut. I had transcribed all his polyphonic music I could find from Deutsche Gramophone LPs back in the 1950s and 60s. (That was a challenge, back before I had access to a tape recorder, but it served to hone my ear and familiarize myself with the structure of his music in a way I could never have done if I had known someone had already done the work!)

I realized, as I struggled with the strange, archaic mentality involved with the rhythms and intervals, that they were strange to me only because I was living in a musical world six hundred years later. In wondering how one could approach the music in a way which would approximate the original, it occurred to me that it would have to be from the other side, earlier. I decided to set up an experiment: gather a group of musicians who would familiarize themselves with the earliest forms of music we had (from, roughly the 10th century) by playing it and, in an evolutionary way, gradually add ‘new’ ideas and techniques as we journeyed forward in time until we got to the 14th century, at which time we would hear Machaut as a logical step in musical devolopment. Of course, as I later discovered, this is the program behind most Music History classes, but my idea was for the musicians not just to hear it, or read it but to play it, to immerse themselves in it, so that it became a true musical, creative, and perhaps even, re-creative, experience.

As in the best laid plans of mice and men, they changed. When I arrived in the 13th century, I found myself immediately at home and hopelessly in love. A combination of bountiful resources in the manuscripts of the Cantigas and almost limitless possibilities at the nexus between the European and Islamic worlds made it immediately clear I would never reach Machaut. I am still enraptured by his mass and secular works but I have never regretted my choice. My study group became, officially, The Alfonso X Memorial Medieval String Band, Santiago de California.