Thursday, September 13, 2018

Graindelavoix’ Gothic Perspective on Music

Tomorrow the Spanish Glossa label will release its latest recording of the a cappella choir Graindelavoix, led by Director Björn Schmelzer. I first encountered this ensemble in May of 2016, not too long before lapsed into its extinction. On that occasion I was writing about the group’s recording of the earliest known complete setting of the Ordinary of the Mass attributable to a single composer. The composer was Guillaume de Machaut, and the setting is known as the Messe de Nostre Dame.

The title of the new album is The Liberation of the Gothic, and it involves a period that is roughly 150 years later than the time when it is believed that Machaut composed his Mass setting. During the period between these two recordings, Graindelavoix has undergone some changes. The Machaut setting was sung by a ten-member all-male choir. On The Liberation of the Gothic there are only eight vocalists, including two women in the soprano range: Anne-Kathryn Olsen and Carine Tinney. The male vocalists are altos Razek-François Bitar and Tomàs Maxé, tenors Albert Riera, Andrés Miravete, and Marius Peterson, and bass Arnout Malfliet. The central selection is another Mass setting, the Missa Ave Maria by Thomas Ashwell, flanked on either side by Marian hymn settings composed by John Browne, beginning with a “Salve regina” and concluding with a “Stabat mater.”

As always, for those who cannot wait until tomorrow, is processing pre-orders for this CD. However, it is worth noting that, on the same date, an MP3 download page will also be enabled. I mention this because the download version includes a “bonus track,” “Rex virginum amator,” a polyphonic setting of a Kyrie chant taken from the Las Huelgas Codex, a manuscript that probably predates Machaut’s Mass setting by about half a century. (Schmelzer included a Las Huelgas sequence between two of the movements on his Machaut album.)

The “liberating” Gothic architecture of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (photography by Oldmanisold, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)

Back when I worked for the campus radio station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I would occasionally encounter early music albums that included the adjective “gothic” in the title. However, the only form of gothic music that Wikipedia recognizes is gothic rock; and the adjective “gothic” never appears on the Wikipedia page for Renaissance music (the period during which Ashwell and Browne were active). Grove Music Online is a bit more productive. While there is no explicit entry for gothic music, searching for “gothic” turns up entries for music from both the middle of the fourteenth century and the fifteenth.

Schmelzer’s choice of title was inspired by John Ruskin’s writings about Gothic architecture and how it “liberated” construction from the constraints of Romanesque architecture, allowing for structures that were taller, lighter, and stronger. The final paragraph of Schmelzer’s essay for the accompanying booklet takes Ruskin’s thoughts to the next level:
According to John Ruskin the liberation of Gothic does not only concern lines, ribs and folds, freed from their submission to structure and turned into structure themselves, making structure and ornament indistinguishable. It concerned also the workers, not submitted to repetitive, mechanical work but investing in continuous and infinite variation. Should we not also include the singers of English polyphony here, for whom no contradiction existed between individual involvement and textural totality?
The booklet page for the track listing describes the music of Ashwell and Browne as “florid polyphony.” It is through such a “florid” approach to embellishment that Schmelzer’s blurring of boundaries between structure and ornament is realized. It does not take the attentive listener long to be drawn into the richness that emerges when those boundaries are blurred. Such floridity is further reinforced by parallel richness encountered in the very sounds of the voices themselves. One might say that, in Schmelzer’s approach to performance, the beauty of the voices (bel canto?) themselves is as significant as the many aspects of florid execution that have been committed to marks on paper.

This recalled what struck me the most when listening to Schmelzer’s account of Machaut. In my article I speculated that performance of Machaut’s “text” (such as it was) “involved not only individually improvised embellishments but also improvised counterpoint, often leading to original harmonic progressions.” On this new album spontaneity of performance is probably not as extreme; but, if it is no longer occupied with the notes being sung, it can still take liberties with the coloring of the voices doing the singing.

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