Tuesday 9 July 2013

The Passion of Reason - five centuries of 'Scientific' music

The Passion of Reason - 5 centuries of Scientific Music: Sour Cream: GLOSSA GCD P31102
This is a fascinating if slightly frustrating pair of discs. Recorded 20 years ago by the trio Sour Cream, consisting of Frans Burggen, Kees Boeke and Walter van Hauwe, the set's title is The Passion of Reason and it explores five centuries of 'scientific' music. The three players essentially form a recorder trio (with other instruments occasionally mixed in) and using these instruments they explore music stretching from Guillaume de Machaut to Johann Sebastian Bach, taking in on the way names as various as Antoine Brumel, Robert Fayrfax, John Bedyngham, Heinrich Isaac and Clement Jannequin

The CD booklet includes an extensive article by Kees Boeke, who also conceived the programme. The article explains some of the background to the music on the disc. In the medieval period, certain types of music were regarded as belonging to the branch of the liberal arts known as the quadrivium, consisting of arithmetics, music, geometry and astronomy, the sciences ruled by number. (Music which involved words could also be regarded as a branch of rhetoric). In scientific music (as opposed to music as entertainment) the four branches of the quadrivium were viewed as coming together in the conception of music. This can be tricky for us to appreciate, but Kees Boeke quotes serialism as a modern example.

The influence of the other branches of the quadrivium was various, astronomy gave the pythagorean theory of the harmony of the spheres, arithmetic (i.e. numbers) controlled mensuration and rhythm, and geometry influenced compositional techniques with the use of canon, augmentation, diminution and inversion.

Where the article loses me is when it talks about musica speculativa being 'a science embodying beliefs insusceptible of proof and attempting to gain insight into the nature of the ultimate by intuitive or a priori means. In other words a theory where one on purpose designs a number of causes without precisely knowing their (musical) effects.'


Perhaps more frustrating is the lack of any explanation on how this relates to what we are hearing. We are presented with a list of pieces with their composers, with no other details. Nor are we told what instrumentation is used on each piece, though clearly the players vary the types of recorders used. (See my update below for the full explanation of this, it is clear that the set when originally issued in 1995 had full documentation.

A number of the pieces come from the Baldwin Ms, a set of part books copied and owned by John Baldwin, a singing man at St. George's Chapel, Windsor c. 1575-1581. This is one of the most important sources of Tudor church music, mixing printed and manuscript sources. This does give the programme a rather English slant, as if musica speculativa was of prime interest to English composers, perhaps it was. Also, the programme does rather a leap at the end, jumping a century to reach Johann Sebastian Bach.

The music is testimony to numerological and other concerns which no longer seem relevant in our age, but which are fascinating nonetheless and, as the comparison to serialism makes clear, are not far beneath the surface in contemporary music. In fact, the sense of creating a set of rules and seeing what happens (which is, I think, the explanation of the musica speculativa quote above), starts to sound very like the work of John Cage.

The music on the disc is complete delight. This is polyphony for its own sake, music to satisfy the scientific soul. As anyone who has heard one of Robert Fayrfax's great masses can testify, the complex polyphonic structures with their long melismatic sections, satisfy on their own and leave their sacred purpose far behind. As might be expected with the players involved here, the technical aspects are superb and you get no sense of the players struggling with their instruments.

They are joined by lutenist Toyohiko Sato and vocalist Isabel Alvarez on a few tracks. Alvarez has a lovely clear expressive voice and a technique which matches the players. But I have no idea what she was singing about and the booklet does not tell us (see update below for an explanation of this).

The set has been handsomely produced by Glossa in a fold out card holder. Highly recommended for anyone who loves the interplay of polyphonic lines.

Update: If you are interested in this topic then a correspondent recommends The Pythagorean Plato - Prelude to the Song Itself by Ernest G. McClain the Professor Emeritus of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, retired since 1982, you can find a PDF on Ernest McClain's website

Update: Kees Boeke has been in contact to let me know that the re-issue by Glossa did not involve him and that the record company seems to have dropped most of the article which originally accompanied the disc. Kees Boeke has very kindly supplied me with the article, which makes fascinating reading and does help to put each piece into context. Glossa would do well to think about including a version of it in the Cd set.

The Passion of Reason - Five centuries of 'scientific' music
Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377) - Ma fin est mon commencement [5.01]
Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377) - Hoquetus David [2.55]
Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377) - Sanz cuer m'en vois [1.32]
Solage (c.1380) - Fumeux, fume par fumee
Antoine Brumel (c.1460 - 1515) - Tandernack [2.21]
Thomas Preston (died 1559) - Upon La Mi Re [4.14]
William Cornysh (died 1523) - Fa La Sol [6.48]
William Cornysh (died 1523) - Catholicon a [1.55]
William Cornysh (died 1523) - Catholicon b [2.02]
Robert Fayrfax (1464 - 1521) - That was my woe [2.39]
Christopher Tye (c.1505 - 1572) Sit fast [6.49]
John Bedyngham (died 1460) - Salva Jesu [3.09]
Anonymous (Baldwin ms) - Kyrie [7.06]
Anonymous (Baldwin ms) - Kyrie a [3.13]
Anonymous (Baldwin ms) - Kyrie b [2.36]
Anonymous (Baldwin ms) - Kyrie
Nathaniel Giles (c.1550 - 1633) - Salvator Mundi [3.30]
Thomas Preston (died 1559) - O Lux [2.21]
William Newark (c.1450 - 1509) - The farther I go
Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 - 1517) - Fortuna Desperata [2.52]
Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 - 1517) - La Morra [2.28]
Heinrich Isaac (c.1450 - 1517) - Si dormiero [4.49]
Johann Walter (1496 - 1570) - Canon
Clement Janequin (c.1485 - 1558) - L'Alouetta [2.03]
Trebor (c.1380) - En seumillant [10.02]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Eclipse (Kees Boeke 1983) [12.04]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - 4 Goldberg Canons [1.50]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Canon per augmentationem [5.13]
Sour Cream
Frans Bruggen (recorders)
Kees Boeke (recorders and viola da gamba)
Walter van Hauwe (recorders)
Isabel Alvarez (voice)
Toyohiko Satoh (lutes)
Recorded at Studio Neri, Montevarchi ndi Arezzo, Italy, June 2013
additioal recording at Studio van Schuppen, Renswoude, the Netherlands, July 1994
GLOSSA GCD P31102 2Cds

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