Voice, Stone, Wood and Air as One

I love Early music.  I love its level-headedness, its lack of mood swings.  It’s everlasting YES.

Part of the reason I listen mostly to Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque music  throughout the day is because, besides its being soothing and immensely reassuring, it doesn’t distract me from my work.  I am a literary translator, and I spend most of my waking hours like the 21st Century version of a Mediaeval scribe, hunched over my laptop, a shelf full of heavy dictionaries behind me, perhaps one or two lying open on the messy table, writing in somebody else’s voice, trying to read their thoughts, second-guess their intentions, and “Englishing” them.  I need music in the background to centre me, calm me and, above all, music that will not distract me.  I cannot work with passionate music that throws tantrums, asks questions, is emotionally egocentric, or demands that I get up every couple of minutes to either turn up or turn down the volume. I need music content in its serenity, stable, with certainty that will provide a sturdy, friendly support to the doubts and anxieties that go hand-in-hand with trying to pass for somebody else in another language.

So, day in, day out, I am accompanied throughout the day by friends like Léonin, Pérotin, Josquin des Prez, Salamone Rossi, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Mouton, Guillaume Du Fay or Gilles Binchois and – if I am in the mood for something a little more modern – J.S. Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Von Biber, Hume, Tartini or Thomas Baltzar.

*   *   *

One piece I often listen to is Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre-Dame.  I’ve had a splendid recording by the Hilliard Ensemble for Heaven knows how long but, like most Mediaeval music, one hardly ever has the opportunity to hear it live.  Then, last Friday, I went to a concert of Lent-appropriate music – mostly Early – at Norwich Cathedral.  The  programme included the Kyrie from Messe de Notre-Dame.

It was a revelation, like hearing a completely different piece of music. Like going from a monochrome, mono-dimensional photograph to a colourful bas-relief.  A rich embroidery, an illuminated manuscript, that takes shape before your very eyes.

Although I knew, of course, that early polyphony was intended for the arches and high vaults of Gothic architecture, hearing it for the first time in Norman-Gothic Norwich Cathedral vividly brought home just how flat and colourless it sounds by comparison on CD.  You suddenly realise that this music was intended to come alive when human voices, stone architecture, wood carvings, stained glass and the air itself join as one despite their separateness.  Like a murmuration of individual starlings that form a single, shapeshifting form that swirls, shrinks then spreads across the evening sky.

I hadn’t until then been so keenly aware that it’s the counter-tenor part that is the guiding force that holds everything together and gives energy to the whole piece, like a golden thread weaving through the blue of the tenors, the deep red of the basses, and the purple of the baritones.

The human voices are released into the air, which carries some notes to the wood carvings, as though contact with the latter would give them a richer, earthier sound.  Other notes it sweeps up and hurls against the white stone pillars so that they might bounce off them with more brightness and brilliance.  Others again it slides over the bright-coloured stained glass windows, and lifts them slowly up to the fan vaulting, where they quiver before spreading like a gossamer cloak over the entire cathedral.

And, as I sit in the wooden pews where, nearly a thousand years ago, Benedictine monks sat, listened and prayed, I am in awe of this miracle of mathematics, in which human voices, stone, wood, glass and air all come individually alive by coming so perfectly together.

Scribe Doll

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13 Responses to Voice, Stone, Wood and Air as One

  1. You really know how to make an aesthetic experience come alive for someone else through words! Our local classical radio station is having a fund drive, and when that is over they will ask for suggestions of music to be played–you’ve given me an idea of what to ask for, as it is not a period or a series of artists I’m familiar with by name. The closest I come to it is listening to Gregorian chants while working on stage sets when I was a theatre arts student way back when. Thanks for your post.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Oh, you must let me know when they’ve played it, what they played. Good luck!
      Thank you for commenting :–)

      • One of the things they played which I thought you might be interested in because of your interest in Tallis is something by Vaughn Williams called “Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” At least, I think that’s what they called it. It is a very beautiful piece of music, but it doesn’t sound very much to me like Tallis. They were very strong on the Bach, Vivaldi, but not so much on the ones you mention above. Oh, and Handel, they did a lot of him. The really earlier stuff they tend to do a lot of English choral works and they seem rarely to do earlier music from other countries as you mention above. I’ll see if I can’t get back to them about it, but since I was unable to contribute to their fund drive, I’ll have to wait till that’s over so as not to appear indecently demanding!

      • Scribe Doll says:

        I must admit, I find Tallis a little hard on my ears on CD, and much better when live, in a space where the high-pitched sounds aren’t as concentrated. The people I mention are hardly ever played. In fact, I discovered them thanks to THE EARLY MUSIC SHOW on BBC Radio 3.

  2. What lovely description! I know exactly what you mean about the difference between listening to a recording and hearing the same piece performed live. There’s a reason performance spaces are described as acoustically live or dead – a live space interacts with the performance, almost like an instrument itself.

    During my visit (the first of many, I hope!) to London a few years ago, I attended an evening concert at St. Martin in the Fields. The program was Vivaldi and Telemann, all familiar pieces, but it was as if I had never heard them before. The music became a living thing, moving in and around the space like a flock of birds. It was magical, in the truest sense of the word. Thanks for bringing me back to that wonderful evening with your post. 🙂

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Oh, I used to love going to those candlelit Baroque concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields! Aren’t they magical? I would buy the cheapest seat, at the back, so that I could sit and scribble at the same time without attracting attention.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Sue Cumisky says:


  4. dechareli says:

    De Prez… there is a post waiting to be let unleashed. 😄 Have you tried the viola pieces by Marin Marais?

  5. Lucky you, to have Norwich Cathedral close by.
    I sometimes listen to sacred choral music – on yourtube.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      One of my criteria for choosing a place to live was that it should have a place where I could go for a well-sung evensong :–) When I loved in London, I often attended the Temple Church.

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