Sunday, June 01, 2003


"As long as we understand that we are inventing this music as we go along, on the basis of slivers of evidence, we will not feel let down." James Fenton

Hardly unknown to those with a passing interest in musicology, James Fenton explores the making of the Medieval mind -- or, more strictly, our making-it-up -- in an entertaining sketch article in The Guardian (31 May 2003). He outlines the surprise discovery of dissonance, the swing of interpretative fortunes from the use of florid instrumentation (assisted by misleading derivations from ancient illustrated manuscripts) through to the re-instatement of vocal polyphony. An Early Music version of scat singing even makes an appearance. By-passing the contributions of the famous and tragically demised young talent David Munrow, Fenton traces the revival in interests in this (undefined) era to the early part of the twentieth century:

"The first [modern] French [Medieval] concert was given in 1914, just before the first world war, and the first German performances followed in the 1920s. During the Nazi period, many of those who had studied early music were forced to flee to the United States. In 1946 Paul Hindemith put on a concert at Yale using instruments borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. How the players worked out how to play these instruments is, no doubt, something of a story. The fact that they were using instruments at all to accompany medieval vocal music was due to a venerable misapprehension which Daniel Leech-Wilkinson [author of 'The Modern Invention of Medieval Music'] traces back to that grandest of high Victorian composers, Sir John Stainer."

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