Sweet Lady Fair – Douce Dame Jolie

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Video: Douce Dame Jolie, Guillaume de Machaut XIVc. Performed by La Morra in 2015.

Sweet Lady Fair – Medeltidens Musik.

“Why do they do it mother?”
Liliana’s eyebrows arched and she raised her gaze from the tapestry which she was pricking beside the casement.
“Why do they do what, child?”
“Why do men always sing of how we torment them with our beauty, but neglect them and repel their advances? Did you not yield to Lord Brenner?”
The older woman’s eyes crinkled into a smile as she remembered fondly.
“Aye, I did. In the fulness of time. I would not make myself too easy a prize for your father. Nor should you when young men seek you. Does Ethelgyth not tell you the sweetest fruit is always on the highest branches?”
A gentle blush colored the cheeks of the young lady Orla. “Mother! I no longer climb trees in the orchard. I study needlework, and good housebondry, and are you not pleased with me?”
“I am, daughter. I am. Ethelgyth, help me explain!”
The nurse, old enough to have tended the young Liliana once, and now charged with the governance of her daughter Orla, sets aside the distaff with which she has been spinning.
“There is a sacred gift young lady, which a woman can give only once. And it is meet in the eyes of God and holy church that we give it only to our housebondman. Custom dictates that we give it on the night we are wed.”
Orla’s eyes widened momentarily, and a deep crimson blush overtook the gentler color of her cheeks that had not yet settled.
“I think I understand now.” she mused softly. “And we must guard our gift as valiantly as the squire who would be a knight upholds the code of honor.”

The Treble Viol

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The painting is a detail from “The Marriage at Cana” by Paolo Veronese (1563).
Video: La Bernardina, performed by Ernst Stolz

Meet The Instrument: The Treble Viol

If you’re new to the history of music before Bach your inner autocorrect might be asking “shouldn’t that be ‘viola’ or ‘violin’ ?” The answer is that the violin used by modern orchestral musicians is a much newer design of instrument. The viol is similar enough that if instruments could evolve through reproductive mutations it could almost be a cousin of the violin, but unlike the violin, the fingerboard is fretted (like the lute, authentic instruments have lengths of gut tied around the fingerboard rather than metal frets like a modern guitar) and the pegbox, rather than the familiar scroll of the violin, often has a fanciful carving of the likeness of a young woman, a lion or any other visage that takes the fancy of the carver. And if you play the violin yourself, notice how the player holds the bow – it’s a different shape to a modern violin bow and held differently, using the fingers to control the tension of the hairs.

The golden age of the viol was around the end of the 16th century when domestic music-making was a family pastime and many people owned a “chest” of viols ranging from the small treble viol, through the viola da braccia to the adult-sized viola da gamba. Among the great composers for the instrument were William Lawes, tragically killed in the battle of Rowton Heath during the English civil war in 1645. As one of his contemporaries expressed the thought: “Will Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws”. A contemporary of Lawes, Tobias Hume, also claimed to have served as a soldier though he retired before the civil war broke out. Very little is known for certain of his life but that he usually introduced himself as “Captain Hume” or “Colonel Hume.” Like so many talented musicians, Hume ended his days in desperate poverty, having obtained admission to the newly-founded Charterhouse: an alms-house similar in many ways to a modern assisted-living facility.

The last of the viol composers who deserves mention is the equally shadowy figure of Jean de Sainte-Colombe who often led an ensemble which included his daughters and sometimes his students. He was a prolific composer and much in demand for performance, though as so often happened in earlier ages, his works were esteemed of greater value than the details of his life.

The View From The Benediktbeuern Scriptorium

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The View From The Benediktbeuern Scriptorium

monk-copyist-world-of-the-medieval-music-250pThe view from my own writing desk is literally of five tonsured scalps, each man bent over the manuscript, or signature of a manuscript that he is working on. To see his lamentations you would think brother Johann who does most of our binding had been ordered to scourge our Lord afresh, when all he is really asked to do is to remove a few signatures at a time so that as many of the brothers as are not already occupied with other documents can divide the work of a single manuscript among them. When each signature is completed, it is returned loose to the binding and when the entire book has been completed, the binding is replaced as good as new, notwithstanding Johann’s protests!

Brother Emmanuel who keeps the scriptorium organized also holds the key to the great chest in which are stored the most precious of the materials used; lapis lazuli from far India, vermilion made from grinding dried beetles, and gum arabic brought by traders from the holy land. And gold leaf brought all the way from the goldsmiths in München. I was only a young novice when the delivery was made, but I remember it well as a day of quite some excitement in the abbey. For it is not every day that the monastery is visited by Bishop Clemente in his carriage, with four men-at-arms to deliver valuables to the safekeeping of his poor brothers. Of course, you must understand, when I say we are poor, we rejoice in the simplicity of our way of life, emulating the example of our Lord as closely as we may. And while I take great pleasure in spending my few free moments inspecting the lovely paintings of brother Andrew, which really become magnificent when he adds the gold leaf to their decorations, there is also excitement about starting work on a new document: will it be a testament? A document of law that requires the utmost care in working with a clear hand. Perhaps a small but decorated breviary for a wealthy patron? If there is an aspect to our work that saddens me, it is when we must sharpen our pen-knives afresh to remove the upper layer of a parchment to prepare it for another use. The thought of destroying the work of another brother or sister, even though I may never know them brings a tinge of sadness. Will my work be carefully sliced away someday to make a new surface for some proclamation? And will the clerk who prepares the parchment feel the same misgivings? Brother Emmanuel chastised me once, to remember that my treasure awaits me in heaven, but even so, I should like to think that I had left something of myself in this world, even as little as a maniculum pointing the way for those who come after me.


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Medieval Music Journal


Medieval Music Journal

From hand-copied manuscripts, sometimes blighted by the errors of a less-than-perfectly literate clerk, to the rapid movements of the letterpress, and now to the blinding speed of the electron, what a distance we have come! And yet, for all our progress in technology, the human heart still hungers for beauty; for paintings rich with color, for tales peopled with the wickedest villains and heroes and heroines of unparalleled virtue, and of course, for music. Music that comforts the mourner, that stirs the feet to dance, that lulls the baby to sleep and carries the soul of the dying to the gates of heaven!

For it is in music, the language without words, that we first hear the voice of our mother, or our father. It is in music that we give expression to that which cannot be spoken, as witnessed by the dancing even of those who have no skill upon an instrument, or to sing. And it is through music, that first, visceral magic, that a great multitude joins in one intent, through music that we can travel in our fancy to another land, or to another age, beyond even the bounds of our little world.

It is our challenge, and our delight, as the creators of the Medieval Music Journal to offer to you the work of dedicated hands that your soul should not go unfulfilled. For your edification we have sought the work of the most talented artists, the most skilful carvers, musicians whose fame has been established in every corner of the world together with those who have yet to be recognized for the quality of their work. May it please you, to whom these words are presented, to look favorably upon our labors that those fine qualities which you have endeavored to maintain within your esteemed self and to disseminate to those about you should continue to bear rich fruit for he generations to come.