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.
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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.