Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A Generous Collection of 17th-Century Dance Music

The original title page of Praetorius’ Terpsichore publication (from IMSLP, public domain)

This coming Friday Ricercar will release a recording of selections from what may be the most extensive collection of early French dance music. Entitled Terpsichore, the collection was compiled by the German composer Michael Praetorius. The table of contents lists 312 entries. However, since the very first entry contains twenty tunes, the total number of such tunes is far greater than the number of entries. The Ricercar recording, which is currently available for pre-order from, has 37 tracks; but, like the Terpsichore volume itself, there are tracks that offer several short tunes in succession.

Whether or not Terpsichore is the first published volume of an ethnomusicological study (What else would you call the efforts of a German composer to collect French dance music?), it is certainly one of the earliest. In fact many of the entries in this collection probably originated with the sixteenth-century French violinist Pierre-Francisque Caroubel; and Praetorius marked those pieces as such. However, there are also entries explicitly marked as being of uncertain origin, while others bear Praetorius’ own name, possibly because he was responsible for transcribing them. Most likely, there is far for musicological detail behind this collection than can be reduced to the booklet notes provided by Jérôme Lejeune (translated from French into English by Peter Lockwood).

Most interesting is probably the absence of any information about instruments, given that all the music in Terpsichore is instrumental. The author of the Wikipedia page for Terpsichore observes that some performers have turned to another Praetorius publication, Syntagma Musicum, for thoughts about which instruments are appropriate for which dances:

A page from Syntagma Musicum illustrating several instruments (from Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

However, that same author also thinks little of taking this approach.

This new recording brings together several different instrumental ensembles. Much of the effort comes from a group called the Ricercar Consort, whose Director is Philippe Pierlot. However, there are two different string ensembles within that group, one a consort of viols, led by Pierlot, and another a consort of violins led by François Fernandez. There is also the La Fenice ensemble, whose Director is Jean Tubéry, which provides early instruments from the wind and brass families. Finally, there is La Bande des Luths (consisting entirely of lutes of different sizes), whose Director is Philippe Malfeyt.

This is an imaginative approach to making sure that the resulting recording is an engaging listening experience, rather than merely a “historical document.” Some may still feel that a single CD whose duration is almost 75 minutes is too much of a good thing. However, the production teams behind this recording have put out an admirable effort when it comes to pacing the sequencing of the tracks and coming up with novel approaches as the individual tracks unfold. At the very least, this album has put considerable imaginative thought into how to draw and hold the attention of those who may be sampling the “early music” repertoire for the first time.

No comments: