Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities—The Medium

October 1, 1970

This paper was part of a panel entitled "Performance and the Laborde Chansonnier: Authenticity of Multiplicities" which was presented for The College Music Society at Baldwin-Wallace College, November 8, 1969. The moderator was Robert Austin Warner. The other panelists were Gwynn S. McPeek, David Crawford, and John W. Grubbs. Their papers also appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 10.

No matter how useful knowledge of the ideal performing group for early music may be, the only practical concept for most performers is to begin with whatever is available, generally a heterogeneous group of vocal, linear instrumental, and percussion players. The idea of medium in early music is not as simple as in music whose tradition performers know intimately; it is complex. Three things are important in considering each member of the performing group. What is his instrument or vocal type? What does he play? This may seem primary, but equally vital is the question of technique. Can he count? Can a singer put aside his rich nineteenth-century voice in favor of dexterity and clarity? Yet, as important as are instrument and technique, attitude is even more important. Is he willing to experiment? Is he willing to try new styles of interpretation? For my part, I would rather work with a student of willing and open attitude than with the most perfectly trained performer who is riveted to a single style.

Medium is means. The important question is: the means toward what? The vital goal is sound, fabric. Balance of elements is perhaps the key to the sound of any style; by this I do not mean equality or blend, but the basic idea of how to mix sounds in creating a totality. Perhaps it is really an imbalance, or a balance of unequal members. The Renaissance consort, for example, incorporated an ideal of unified sound; the concertato principle of the Baroque was virtually a definition of an ideal of balance—an asymmetrical interaction—of sound sources.

The balance in a Burgundian chanson is basically that of a solo vocal line with other lines, most likely two, and most likely instrumental. Any discussion of particularities brings some interesting problems to light.

Notation of the songs was generally without specification of instruments—sometimes even without a clear difference between vocal and instrumental lines. Most notation used the tenor clef, yet the pictures showing performance of the chansons depict an amazing array of instruments, alone and with a singer. These often include percussion instruments, though no percussion parts are found.

Variety of instrumentation is suggested in two directions: first, within a single picture, each instrument is likely to be one of a kind; and second, each picture is likely to represent a unique combination. The variety of instruments included many treble types—sopranino recorders, mandolins, ladies bursting forth in song; which indicates that performance was not restricted to the tenor register. The variety also indicates that performance must have been very much a "do it yourself" arrangement.

It seems to me more important to aim for a Burgundian sound than for a musicologically correct Burgundian instrumentation. The sound ideal is light, clear, various. Variety of timbre and clarity of line are inseparable, the one supporting the other. The lines should be separate but equal, the solo predominating by its content and tessitura rather than by an edict of dynamic differences; the concept of primus inter pares is within the music, and is more the province of the composer than of the performer.

The pursuit of Burgundian sound depends upon willingness to experiment, within the goal of maintaining independence of line by quality and tessitura. That balance is crucial; the authentic instruments are not. It is the difference between perfection and accuracy.

Be fearless. Picture the fifteenth-century producer. He must have resembled a twentieth-century collegium musicum director, often bluffing through with what he had, disagreeing with other directors, with the theorists, with the performers. We have enough theoretical writings from that period to know that for every two theorists there were three opinions.

Relax. Perform the music because it is beautiful, not to plug up a missing century in your performance schedule. Listen to the musicologists, read what you can, but then forget musicology and remember only the music.

I would like to close with three quotations, one from the Old Testament (Ecclesiastes 12:12), one from a Russian peasant in answer to a question, and one from a fourteenth-century housewife making sausages. The sage of the Old Testament wrote "Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a sore unto the flesh." The Russian peasant, an old man who was asked if he slept with his beard above or beneath the quilt, said "I never slept well again." And the fourteenth-century housewife, asked if another recipe for sausages was better than hers, replied, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating."

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