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.