August 2020


This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Virtual Medieval and Renaissance Music conference, which should have been held in Edinburgh.  For me, this was one of the unexpected boons of the Covid-19 pandemic – I wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, but I was really glad of the opportunity to take part online.

On Friday morning, I moved on to Thursday’s panel on Hymns, Psalms and Songs with Antonio Chemotti’s ‘From Silesia to Pennsylvania: interdenominational circulation of vernacular hymns’, which looked the use of vernacular hymns in Silesia.  Although its known that motets, for example were used by both Catholic and Protestant communities, vernacular hymns tend to be much more closely associated with one community.  Nevertheless, Chemotti showed that the hymns in Valentin Triller’s hymnbook were used by both Catholic and Protestants of all shades, without concern.  The book attacked some of the beliefs of one of the Schwenkfelders (a radical spiritual movement in Silesia) and was squarely Lutheran in quality, nevertheless it appears to have been used by them.  I was particularly interested by his evidence that some hymns were collected by a Schwenkfelder in America who was only interested in the hymn text, not the 3 part settings, while another removed the dedicatory passage which was particularly anti-Schwenkfelder – fabulous historical detective work.

Next came Timothy Duguid’s ‘“Rangy” Psalm Tunes? Singing Scottish Psalms in the Early Modern Period’, which provided an interesting contrast to Sam Arten’s paper.  He concentrated on the Scottish Psalm Buik of 1554, which was influenced by Genevan psalms as well as the English metrical psalms.  The tunes were simple both melodically and rhythmically, but Duguid argued that untrained singers today would struggle to sing them because of their tessituras.   His starting point was that in larger congregations used the psalter as written, singing the prescribed tune for each song, but that rural congregations may not have done (there is more evidence for what went on in places like St Andrews). He argued that because of issues surrounding literacy and clerical provision, not all congregations would have been able to learn all 104 tunes, however, recent research has shown that 82% of post-reformation Scottish churches had someone with clerical training at university, and this would normally have included musical training.  He pointed out that it was common for someone to be able to learn a tune and song after only hearing it a couple of times.

Using computational analysis of the tunes, he went on to look at whether the melodies’ tessitura affected how ‘sing-able’ they were.  Pitch standards have changed several times, so it is difficult to pick an appropriate pitch for an accurate modern performance.  Nevertheless, the fact that many of the settings would have required men to sing at one pitch and women and children at an octave higher means that untrained women and children would have struggled to reach the top notes.  the jury is still out on whether physiological changes have lowered vocal ranges over the intervening centuries, but there is evidence that somehow they made it work.  There are several practical solutions, such as individuals automatically switching octaves when the music went too low or too high, or that the precentor simply picked a pitch that suited most of the congregational. In practice, that means that the pitches in the psalm book don’t necessarily relate to what was actually sung (to me, this seems like common sense – especially in domestic settings where people might not have had anything on which to play a starting note – but then it’s what I’ve done with all sorts of songs in all sorts of settings for the last 30 years or more).

The final paper in the set was given by Barbara Dietlinger, on ‘Fathoming a New Reality in Song – the Birth of the Dutch Republic’.  Music and poetic texts were among those printed materials which marked the Peace of Műnster, but while official text were simply celebratory, the songs emphasised the contestation around the peace as well as celebrating, as not all the provinces of the new Dutch Republic supported the peace.  She took two songs as her examples.  In her first song, the Wedders Liedt, it was not only the words that were partly critical (the peace would be bad for the economy but good for Christianity), but the tune gave the song an underlying tone of support.  It had been used for songs about one of the biggest victories of the Dutch Revolt at ‘s-Hertogenbosch.  Sadly, the tune itself seems not to survive, despite its popularity. The second was a drinking song was from the play Hollants Vree-tonneel, in which the singer, Morio, points out that there are two sides contesting the treaty.  After the song, he allows the audience to disagree with it.  But of course as a drunkard, Morio himself undermines this view, while the play itself is broadly positive.  What both songs do, then, is show that politics was more contested in the Dutch Republic around 1648 than the official publications would have us believe.

For my last paper before breakfast, I picked out Ellie Chan’s research on ‘“Sweet” and “Spic[y]” Music in Sixteenth Century Britain’, which explored how the words ‘sweet’ and ‘dulcis’ were used.  She revealed a tension between uses which relate to expression and consonance. However, she also pointed out that inbuilt in the concept of sweet was the opposite, bitterness or sourness, and therefore also brought to mind dissonance. Sweet also verges on lascivious at times.

After breakfast and PE with Joe Wickes, I went to Music and Culture in Renaissance Nuermburg II.  The first paper was Sonja Tröster’s ‘Humanism, Music and Lighthearted Drinking Sessions —Wilhelm Breitengraser in Nuremberg’, which examined humanist circles in early sixteenth century Nuremburg.  The next paper was on ‘Buchtrucker(in) –Women and the (Music) Book Trades in 16th-century Nuremberg’, by Susan Jackson. She noted that 5% of the book traders were women, but that this figure doesn’t include the many wives and daughters who would have been less formally involved.  Two of the women produced large numbers of music prints, contributing to the transmission of some of the most important an influential music of the time. It was interesting to hear about how one of the women stuck to her first married name for some years after she married for a second time, presumably indicating that name recognition was important to her reputation. The final paper of the three was Elisabeth Giselbrecht speaking on ‘Music as Pedagogical Tool’.  The first book she mentioned used musical notation to indicate the emphasis on long and short syllables in the pronunciation of Latin.  Others included pitch to assist further in the process of pronunciation.  What is interesting here, as Elisabeth noted, is that it relies on students already being musically literate, at least to the level where they can understand the difference between a breve and a semibreve on the page.

At this point, I had to abandon ship to scan a chunk of my daughter’s homeschool work for her to submit… such is virtual conference attendance.

This is the third in a series of posts about the Virtual Medieval and Renaissance Music conference, which should have been held in Edinburgh.  For me, this was one of the unexpected boons of the Covid-19 pandemic – I wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, but I was really glad of the opportunity to take part online.

It took me until the following afternoon to get back to MedRen, when I picked up the Music for the Dead in the Early Modern Period panel with Sanna Raninen’s ‘“In dust and sand and dark soil” –Funeral Songs in Swedish Prints and Manuscripts at the beginning of the Reformation’. There could be singing at the funerary procession and at the graveside in post-Reformation Sweden, which interests me as I’m still hoping to work on the English epitaph ballads I’ve found and how they might have been performed.  Sanna talked about how some of the Latin responses were sung in pre-Reformation times, but there were also responsories in Swedish which were new to the post-Reformation tradition. She pointed out that singing in procession was often done by schoolboys and their teachers.  Manuals written after the Reformation sometimes refer to appropriate repertory by name, and suggest appropriate points in the funerary services where singing might occur – for example when sprinkling soil on the grave. 

The final paper in the set was Andrea Puentes-Blanco on ‘Music and Liturgical Practices of Funerary Rituals in Counter-Reformation Barcelona’.  She had interesting things to say about the effect of funeral processions on the city soundscape, and indeed on the differences between public and private funerals. Her paper stressed how many people from all levels of society were involved in funeral processions for bishops.  She also talked about the burials of Our Lady, which had particular norms which had to be performed, including the singing of polyphony.  These services were popular across all social spectra throughout Barcelona.  There are still many questions about the contexts and types of litanies which were sung at funerals.  Some of the responses were sung, at least in part, by the entire congregation, with polyphony for the verses and chant for the refrain. 

My next virtual visit was to the panel on Music and Politics.  Tim Shephard’s introduction examined some of the key ways in which music played a part in politics.  He started by describing an image in Andrea Alciato’sEmblemata (1531), in which a lute symbolises the harmony between the various Italian states.  This idea harks back to Plato and Pythagoras, in which the universe is fashioned by demi-urge (or god) and creates a perfect sound or divine harmony through the mathematical principles of the intervals.  By Alciato’s lute, the god’s role is taken over by the terrestrial governor, and it represents the ability of a wise prince to bring harmonious concord to the disorderly multitude of opinions among his subjects, whereas a republic has no way to bring these views into harmony.  He looked at the ways prudence, piety, magnificence and liberality intersected with the prince’s power and his training in music.  The need to show off these virtues to their subjects was a central part of creating display. For example the need to show off piety meant the creation of royal chapels and the polyphony that was performed there, while magnificence and liberality meant large amounts of conspicuous expenditure were morally justified.

The next paper was ‘Imagery and Instrumental Music at the Court of Maximilian I’, given by Helen Coffey. She examined images from the Triumphzug, a literary commission by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian,in which a number show instrumentalists. While we know that he had a number of musicians in his employ, they don’t square with the number shown in the illustrations – there are nearly twice as many on paper than in reality. Her paper concentrated on the images of brass players, looking at how they were portrayed and comparing this to the records of what they actually did at the emperor’s court.  Although the images show more instrumentalists than there really were, there are elements of reality in the situations in which they are playing.

Finally, Vincenzo Borghetti talked about ‘The Arrival of a Queen and the Departure of a Prince: Music for Maria de’ Medici and Heinrich Posthumus Reuss’.  He opened by looking at the image of a Playmobil set, and contemplated why musicians are seen as an integral part of early modern kings, their courts, and their expressions of power.  He examined Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of the arrival of Maria de Medici and Schutz’s music for Heinrich Reuss’ burial.  The Disembarkation at Marseilles is one of a series of paintings tell the queen’s story, emphasising her triumphs and her trials, and they were commissioned by the queen herself.  Because the king did not go to meet her on her arrival, she was free to present the occasion without any reference to him.  Instead, it is full of musico-political imagery and sounds including trumpets on the ship and waves in the sea.  The queen is at the centre of the sounds, so she brings order to them.

This is the second in a series of posts about the Virtual Medieval and Renaissance Music conference, which should have been held in Edinburgh.  For me, this was one of the unexpected boons of the Covid-19 pandemic – I wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, but I was really glad of the opportunity to take part online.

Over lunch on day 1, I listened to Samantha Arten on ‘Singing The Whole Booke of Psalmes’and its links with ideas of order and disorder.  She suggested that the book’s success lay mainly in its audience’s failure to use it as it was intended. Her practical demonstrations were really helpful and really demonstrated why you need to try out singing the music rather than just reading them. For example, she suggested that we sang along with her in a performance of Psalm 2.  Obviously, as I was eating my lunch at the time, I didn’t, but throughout her singing I was wondering why she hadn’t cropped her photos of the psalm book so that we could see the tune on the right hand side of one page at the same time as the word on the left hand page of the next image (ie, on the reverse side of the page with the tune). But that was precisely her point – in order to sing the tune the first time, you have to flip back and forth in the book to read the music, or learn the tune.  The problem wsa compounded by tune references which related to music printed at points further away in the book, since multiple psalms were set to the same tune but the music was only printed once.  As she said, that’s hardly an insurmountable problem, given the number of times the tune would be repeated, while we might also remember that people were used to learning tunes by ear (indeed, we still are).  She outlined other practical difficulties faced by people with different editions of the book, where tune directions changed or migrated, which would effectively mean that people had to jettison the ‘suggested’ tunes and simply find a single tune that fitted and which everyone knew. 

She then moved on to look at reader annotation which shows how readers actually used their copies.  Some corrected mistakes in the texts, while others added alternative musical directions or information.  There was also evidence of uses completely unrelated to the content, such as baptism records.  It was particularly notable that only one of the many copies she has studied contained a correction to the psalm tunes. She suggested that the readers saw the book much more as a devotional text than a music book, although this left me wondering about those who learned the tunes by ear.  Granted, this probably means that most people weren’t using it as a way to learn to read musical notation, as she has already demonstrated that it was intended, but it still doesn’t preclude readers singing the song.  But she also pointed out that it might well mean that Temperley was right when he suggested that most people did not use the printed ‘proper’ tunes, but instead a smaller group of ‘common tunes’.  One of her most interesting conclusions was that the ability to substitute one tune for another requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of musical metre, even if people could explain it or express it.

Given my interest in Thomas Cromwell, I made a point of listening to Magnus Williamson on ‘Taverner after Oxford’, which presented new evidence for Taverner’s whereabouts during his ‘lost years’.  I had to make a note of Williamson’s comment that some of the documents in Lincolnshire archives have not yet been fully explored in relation to the Pilgrimage of Grace. And of course I’m interested in Mary I, so I had to listen to Anne Heminger’s examination of ‘Civic Processions and the Performance of English Catholicism under Mary I’.   They were part of a struggle to define England’s identity, and Anne suggested that Mary’s processions asserted Catholicism as the officially sanctioned orthodoxy and helped to bind the viewers together in an explicitly English community identity.  Public processions under Henry VIII, involving the whole of London as either viewers or participants, were held only a few times a year, while smaller processions by parishes or guilds were more common.   Although the large scale, general processions were stunning, but the king himself was not a participant.  They included hundreds of voices singing polyphony in procession, and this would have been audible over a wide area, presumably.  Edward VI’s government forbade processions because they were seen as papal, but instead, music played a critical role in the widespread adoption of religious reform.  Instead of processions, the public expression of religious belief came in the form of sermons at Paul’s cross.  Mary reinstated public processionals using the Te Deum and the processional hymn, Salve festa dies—seven versions of which appeared in the Sarum processional – for significant political events, allowing people to worship in public.  It also allowed them to link past performances to current events. Anne argued that this indicated a desire to strengthen the connection between the English Catholic past and her hope for the nation’s future.

Having listened to the papers on early modern England, I moved on to the panel on Music for the Dead in the Early Modern Period, and managed to squeeze one of them in before the keynote ‘watch party’. Ascensión Mazuela-Anguita talked about ‘Music to reach heaven: Sixteenth-century Barcelonan convents in urban life’, suggesting that the frequency of the adjective ‘celestial’ being applied to nuns voices suggests that their voices were particularly associated with the angels.  There were, however, concerns about the way women’s voices attracted men, who might be able to identify individual nuns by their voices.  Their voices were also seen to make a connexion between heaven and earth, making them particularly important in post-mortem masses, which helped speed the soul of the dead through purgatory and on to heaven.  In some cases, nuns left provision for thousands of masses after their death.  Similar patronage was linked to popular religiosity as many people from all levels also endowed masses for their souls, or those of their families.

Interestingly, this paper connected really well with Professor Laurie Stras’s keynote, ‘What Does it Mean When a Woman Sings?’  Laurie, who was recovering from Covid-19 at the time she recorded her paper, pointed out that she is a firm believer in practising and performing the music that she studies.  She noted that she has been challenged over this when they move from women’s music to that from male spaces, and that this is in part because the focus has been on technique rather than meaning.  She wanted to think what informed ‘meaning’ when the music was new, and compare it to what it means now.  Her observations were based on Franco-Flemish and Italian polyphonic music from the late 15th to early 17th centuries, and obviously there were differences in different locations and confessions. 

The problem that some people have with women singing polyphony comes from Christian traditions, even though women sing throughout the Bible, and two songs by women are central to the Catholic tradition.  No-one objected to nuns singing unison chant, because unlike polyphony or extemporised chant, it didn’t require knowledge – and it was knowledge, not desire, which was the problem with nuns singing.  As long as it was unison chant, nuns could sing the most erotic texts.

For noble women, the issues were slightly different.  They were trained from an early age to be ready for display at court and on the marriage market.  Castiglione’s ideal woman should only perform modestly and at someone else’s request, while it was unseemly for women to exert themselves in order to learn how to do this.  Any display of this agency is immodest.

She made some interesting points about how these issues have still not been resolved.  Einstein, for example, thought that louche women were the enemy of the composer’s intended meaning.  The discussion of the inclusion of girls in cathedral choirs, the lack of volunteers to be castrati and the timbre and pitches of modern voices was absolutely fascinating.  The Live Question and Answer session discussed some ideas around the need to restore women’s voices to the soundscape.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Virtual Medieval and Renaissance Music conference, which should have been held in Edinburgh.  For me, this was one of the unexpected boons of the Covid-19 pandemic – I wouldn’t have been able to attend in person, but I was really glad of the opportunity to take part online.

The conference’s introductory video opened with a view of James Cook’s floating head in front of some visuals to give a flavour of where the conference would have taken place if it had been in person. Other organisers talked about the practicalities of the virtual conference too. MedRen had been organised with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous sessions to allow people from all over the world to take apart and to accommodate those people who have caring responsibilities during the day. All papers were pre-recorded and for many panels there were scheduled live question and answer sessions. But as an alternative, you were able to post a question in the chat box at any point during the conference.  Several live ‘watch parties’ were also scheduled to allow those who were able to watch the concerts and keynote alongside others.

As I never know quite when things are going to crop up and get in the way at the moment, I headed straight for the sessions that were most relevant to me – so I started with the first panel on early modern English music, overlooking for a moment that Ross Duffin’s paper onThe Gude and Godlie Ballatis Noted / Tunes and Contrafacts in Early Modern Britain’ was about Scottish song!  The strongly Protestant Compendeous Buke of Godlye Psalmes and Spirituall sangis, also known simply as the Gude and Godlie Ballatis, was first published in Edinburgh in 1565 and reprinted for decades afterwards.  It contains psalms and ballads, and although it doesn’t contain printed music, there are tune directions scattered throughout the volume.  I’m fascinated by the fact that the songs, meant for singing, haven’t really been analysed as ‘songs’ up to now.  Ross gave an excellent account of the methodology that both he and I (independently, I might add) have come to for suggesting melodies for songs that have no tune indication.  Although few tune directions were given in the book, this fact in itself suggests that they were obvious to the audience. His presentation then went on to reconstruct some of the songs, using tunes from, for example, Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes of 1535, and particularly the Forme of Prayers (the Scottish Psalter) of 1564.  There were also lots of lovely, sung, musical examples.  What was really interesting, and is emerging more and more in early modern ballad scholarship, is the way that tunes circulate across Europe… (Una McIlvenna and Clara Strijbosch, I’m looking at you!). I was also fascinated to hear Ross suggest that the song set to ‘Balulalow’ in the Gude and Godlie ballatis might be the original, and as such the lost tune could therefore be the 1539 setting of ‘Von Himmel Hoch’. 

Next, I listened to “Singing Jane Shore: Music and Propaganda in Richard Legge’s Richardus Tertius”by Joseph M. Ortiz.  He argued that Hymen’s performance at the end of As You Like it functions not only as a dramatic performance of a textual form of instruction, but as a theatrical didactic performance – that is, a dramatic enactment of a dramatic enactment.  Unlike settings of religious texts or vernacular poetry, songs in university drama are laden with classical imitations, so they were a pedagogical tools for humanists learning which translate classical texts into auditory forms.  Each of the three plays which constitute Richard Legge’s Richardus Tertius ends with a song, and they bear no resemblance to the Senecan models.  They aren’t commentary, or allowing time for costume changes. Taking the example of the song about Jane Shore from the end of the first play, he argued that the meaning of the song contrasts with the sentiments of the characters who sing it. It is a formal event, rehearsing a conventional morality in the performance of its propaganda. Turning to the songs in Thomas Heywood’s Rape of Lucrece, he suggested that this might explain why the bawdy songs seem so at odds with the tragedy of the play. Heywood capitalised on his classical training by using it to write the play, but recognised that the performance of song allowed the expression of scepticism about that learning.

From there, I jumped to Day 3, with Music in Early Modern England II.  The first paper was fascinating, and something I’ve been interested in for quite a while although I’ve not done much work on it: Katherine Butler talked about ‘Rounds and Catches in Sixteenth-Century Society’.  They have received little scholarly attention, and although they are often associated with drinking culture, they are a very varied genre. She gave a preliminary round up of sources and offered some thoughts on by whom and where they were being sung.  The singing of a catch in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night fits the stereotype of these songs being sung by commoners, often in alehouses when drunk.  However, by placing it in the context of other evidence, she showed that the reality was that the social positions of catch performers were far wider than just tradespeople, nor were they exclusively associated with drinking.  She talked at some length about Thomas Ravenscroft’s Pammelia, as well as some lesser known examples, suggesting that there was a common repertory in the early 17th century.  She argued that some of the rounds and catches were aimed at royal events, or were complex rhythmically or with 8, 9 10 or even 11 voices.  Some were on religious themes, and although its not clear whether the rounds and catches were ever sung in the context of church services, it seems that some were associated with bellringers.  She speculated that, as several rounds and catches begin by singing through the hexachord, that they may have been used in the training of choristers.  Overall, she commented on their ubiquity in early modern England.

The second paper in the trio was given by Nicholas Smolenski on ‘Propagandistic Sensory Rhetoric of Charles I, 1647–49’.  He opened by talking about the sensory landscape of Charles I’s execution, before turning to how the sensory rhetoric was manipulated by royalists in the face of parliamentarian attempts to break the link between the king and his subjects by supressing the sensory experiences.  He then looked at the king’s posthumous reputation through its sensory rhetoric.  I was fascinated when he noted that the king’s reported ability to heal scrofula also had resonances beyond healing the disease itself.  As the swellings are most often around the eyes, by healing this disease he is also restoring their sight. 

The final paper of the three was Samantha Bassler’s new research onFeminine Voice, Sound, and Disability in Elizabeth Tanfield Cary’s The Tragedie of Mariam (1613) and Mary Sidney Herbert’s The Tragedie of Antonie (1592)’.  Working on the premise that music, gender and disability constantly occur together in early modern English music.  Music is often seen as healing, or as quite the opposite, and damaging, while women are particularly susceptible to its effects as well as madness.  She wanted to look at less familiar texts than Shakespeare, and her focus on women writers is fairly new to musicology although it’s been looked at by literary scholars. Whilst I was already vaguely familiar with Mary Sidney Herbert, I’d never heard of Elizabeth Tanfield Cary – and what an amazing woman she sounds to have been! She certainly achieved her aim of piquing my interest in her.