This is the second in a short series of posts about my trip to the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference in Maynooth during July 2018.

Friday morning dawned slightly overcast, which was a bit of a relief, as it was very warm!  There were fewer things on the schedule that morning that I wanted to see, so I decided to explore Maynooth a bit. I went for a wander up the main street, and took some time to explore the ruins of the castle.  It was built in the early 13th century by the Fitzmaurices and besieged during the Revolt of Silken Thomas in 1534.  


One paper that I did want to see was on ‘Tune indications in 16th century Dutch songbooks’, by Clara Strijbosch.  This was an absolutely fascinating paper looking at songs in the vernacular.  Clara sketched the rise of the tune indication in 16th century Dutch songs, looking at where the technique came from and why did people did it.  She identified sixteen 16th century booklets containing songs with tune indications.  She suggested that the practice originated in the religious song books, while the first vernacular songs with tune indications are from Devotio Moderna women’s houses, begining c1539.   These were songs to secular tunes.

Sometimes the printed songbooks included the melody, but also a tune indication, then several sets of lyrics to each tune.  They were organised by tune.  These printed books give us a huge amount of tune names, albeit sometimes without the music.   Some of the secular song books were very popular, for example, there is one complete copy and two fragments of the Antwerp songbook. The full copy has two tune indications with more than 200 songs, while one fragment has no tune indications and the other contains two tune indications for all 13 songs in it.  During the period of war with Spain and religious discord, from 1540 to almost 1590, there are almost no songbooks.  Clara argued that this was simply not the right time to publish secular song books.   There was one exception: the Beggars Songbook (1581-90).  This book contained political songs, of which only 6 have no tune indications. 

By 1590, there was a sort of peace, the city of Antwerp had fallen and many of its printers had left for Amsterdam.  This was marked by appearance of a series of secular song books, all with variations on the title of The Amsterdam Amorous Songbook.  The first version has tune indications for 70% of the songs, while by the time of the 3rd edition the figure had risen to 95%.  Clara acknowledged that print had a much larger audience, however, not everyone was there when someone was singing,  so tune indications only work with well known songs.

Alba amicorum, on the other hand, are handwritten poetry books written during the period when nothing was printed.  10% of the books have songs in them and they were all put together by women of the lower and middle nobility.  They contain 500 Dutch song texts and 300 French, without notation, but they often contain tune indications.    Some of these tunes were English, for example, ‘Sweet Robert’ comes from an English jig, while ‘Fortune my Foe’ is one of the most popular.

Clara also mentioned the Dutch song database which contains more than 20,000 Dutch songs though not all are from the Renaissance. I was fascinated by this, and although I’ve only managed a quick glance at it so far, I must allocate a longer stretch to investigate it, especially as there was so much cultural exchange between England and the Netherlands during the sixteenth century.  It was really interesting to hear about Dutch ballads, and, again, I was struck by the similarities between Dutch and English ballads, just as I was when working with Massimo Rospocher on the links between English and Italian ballads.

I took an extended lunch break to explore the college grounds.  Behind Logic House, where the conference was being held, there are some beautiful gardens.

After my lunch break, I made a point of going to one session that I knew very little about – medieval trouvère song.  The first paper was given by Joseph Mason on ‘Invention in Trouvère Song’.  He noted that contemporary sources describe how a singer might make, play, or find a song.  This act of ‘finding a song’ assumes that the song pre-exists the composition, thus challenging the modern notion of composition.  The Latin term inventio is the equivalent of the French trouver – to find.  Inventio was part of rhetorical teaching and had a close relationship with memory in the five pillars of rhetoric, helping the scholar to store information and access the memory.  In trouvère song, the composer was said to have ‘found’ the bits of the song in their memory.  Once the poet had found the things they needed from their memory and gathered them together, they needed to arrange them and add style using various methods of amplification.  Joseph gave examples of songs in which affective embellishments were added to the melody in order to slow the melody down.  This had the effect of amplifying the tune and making it easier to remember.

The next paper, ‘“Per vers o per chanso”: language, gender and performance in the Troubador tornada’, was given by Anne Levitsky.  She showed how Alain de Lille  sought to reinforce the gender binary system, trying to uphold the male as the most perfect example of the human being. Alexandros Maria Hatzikiriakos then talked about ‘Song and voice identity in Vitsentzos Kornaros’ Erotokritos’, suggesting that it was a significant example of the hybrid culture of the Cretan Renaissance.  The story is taken from Paris et Vienne, which circulated Europe in many languages, but it is a more elaborate retelling of the story, not a translation.  Music and song play key role in shaping the identity of the protagonists and tell us about the soundscape of Crete.

As there were only 3 papers on the medieval song panel, I was able to scurry down the corridor to hear Karl Kugle on ‘Sounds of power, powers of sound’.  He talked about the motets in the Chantilly codex.  One motet crossed the whole of Europe through the Royal and court chapels, church councils, monastic settings, papal councils.  He speculated that it perhaps had links to England as it’s in a metre that was more commonly used in England than on the continent and the repeated notes in the tune were a common feature of English motets. He suggested that the motet carved a trajectory through the musical space of the hexachord system in order to exert social control.



After the coffee break, I went to a workshop: ‘Space place sound and memory – immersive experiences of the past’.  James Cook and Kenny McAlpine described how they are using game technology to recreate performances from the past in the spaces where they took place. They wanted us to think about several questions:

  • What can the technology teach us about the past?  Our sources are limited and that on-screen versions of the past create a parallel world. It is tempting to be flippant and suggest that technology can teach us little about the past. But the past we inhabit is subject to constant reinvention and often we know little. The technology can allow us to experience something of presence, but it is based on imaginative leaps, grounded in detailed scholarship.
  • Can it help us to understand or enhance performance practice? The technology has been used in medical and astronaut training so logic suggests yes, as it will allow musicians to try out performances in the best reconstructions of the appropriate space.  It has the potential to give us an unparalleled insight into particular performance contexts – the ‘aura’ of the past. Musicians could have a richer understanding based on experience not just scholarship.
  • Can it bring in new audiences for early music? It’s a bit specialist but should move us beyond the current audience, because people like to try new things. Thankfully there is no smell! The question is whether we can convert new technology users into an audience who will attend concerts longer term. The danger, of course, is that the audio might just be a soundtrack.
  • Can it bring new people in to museums and cultural sites? There has been a resurgent interest in heritage in recent years, so they hope to capitalise on this.  The team can imagine all sorts of uses, for example, demonstrating change over time. Nevertheless, the general public might be unfamiliar with a scholarly interpretation of the music and therefore its appeal could be limited.
  • Where might we go in follow on projects?   The varied audience to their public lectures demonstrates that  there is novelty value which they can build on.  In a more scholarly environment, the technology has a significant value in teaching practice because we can test approaches in a lab-type environment exploring different acoustics, instrumentations, voices etc. It even has the potential to solve some scholarly disputes.
  • How does it fit in to trends in medieval and Renaissance music scholarship? One of the interesting points that the team made was that big drama series set in the medieval and Renaissance periods, for example, have had more freedom to present whatever music they like because most people know so little about it compared to, say, the 1960s, where the television audience would be quick to spot something that they thought was wrong. This has led to the suggestion that there are multiple parallel interpretations rather than accusations of anachronisms.   The current trend is for the intersection of creative and scholarly practice.  


They pointed out that musical instruments are usually displayed as objects, completely divorced from their function, which, in itself, is about sociability.  Reflecting on this later, I wonder how, or even if, wearing a virtual reality headset and interacting with avatars really reflects the sociability of music-making and audience participation, but still… They rightly commented that performance is an experience for the players and the audience.   Even a recording removes the sense of participation.  They gave the example of a mass cycle is envisaged in a particular surrounding with, for instance, acoustic and lighting properties which you simply don’t get from a recording or even a concert hall.  Their project is trying to address this.  Nevertheless, they have faced some problems, because in video games, audio is usually an afterthought – it’s all about the visuals.  Their approach focussed on a virtual auditorium that gives a sensory experience.  


Using Lidar surveys, they have been able to create the chapel at Linlithgow Palace a model of the chapel as it is now and the sound for that space. They then began to reconstruct the chapel as it was, with some excerpts of the Mass Proper using acoustics based on the space as it probably was, with roof, altar, curtains, statues etc. After a description of these technical processes involved in modelling the and its acoustics, Adam Whittaker, the workshop’s respondent, tried the VR headset, with the audience being able to see what he was looking at. After giving us his response to the project, Adam opened the floor for the plenary discussion and invited us to try the VR headset ourselves.

The workshop was the final session of the day, and before the conference dinner we had the pleasure of another concert, this time given by Schola Gregoriana Maynooth with Uilleann piper Michael Vignoles and organist Raymond O’Donnell as their special guests.  It was an absolutely glorious evening.  The ladies of Schola Gregoriana Maynooth sang some of the Hildegard of Bingen chants that I studied as an undegraduate.  I’d never heard them sung live before.  I’m fond of the Uillean pipes, and Vignoles’ performance of Easter Snow was gorgeous.  If you’re interested, there’s a lovely little clip of Liam O’Flynn discussing the pipes and piping tradition on YouTube, and Easter Snow appears at about 3.20.

I skipped the conference dinner.  In fact, if I’m honest, when I booked the conference itself, my flights and my accommodation, I decided that I couldn’t really afford to attend the dinner as well. So after the concert I went into Maynooth and had a lovely meal with a new acquaintance, Eleanor Hedger, sitting outside one of the restaurants on the main street, listening to the duo singing in the square and discussing our research.  It was a beautiful, warm evening.