Looking down, and south, from the A685.   © Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Looking down, and south, from the A685.
© Copyright David Medcalf and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I seem to have been doing a lot of travelling lately, whizzing up and down the country on the pendolino and tootling across country on local trains.  I am, in the words of Doctor Seuss, a north going zax so frankly the journey through the valley in the Lakes where the west coast mainline and the M6 run alongside each other was infinitely preferable to the more familiar journey south towards London, although passing a trainload of mummified cars wrapped in bandages on a siding outside Oxford was a novelty.  The reason for all this travelling was academic, for once.  Early summer is conference season.  My twitter feed has been full of conference tweets for several weeks, which can be really interesting.  Several twitter hashtags have looked interesting enough to cause me to find out what the conference was that I was missing, and some of them I’ve really wished I could attend.   It’s a while since I gave a paper at an academic conference, so it was good to get back into the swing of things with trips to Reading and Newcastle.

Reading’s Early Modern Studies Conference was great fun. 410px-Codex_Mendoza_folio_2r Last time I went to Reading University I was on a two week accountancy training course and I hated every minute of it.  Reading was nothing like as unpleasant as I remembered it being, which just goes to show how much your experience colours your memories of a place.  The accommodation was lovely, although the lack of full wifi coverage if you couldn’t (like me and several other people) log into Eduroam was a distinct drawback. Because of my graduation, I wasn’t able to attend the whole conference, but on the Monday afternoon I very much enjoyed Maria de Jesus Crespo Candeias Velez Relvas‘s paper on ‘The Perception of the World in the Sixteenth Century’, as it took me back to undergraduate days of studying The First Hundred Years of the Spanish in the Americas and writing my dissertation.  I still find the impact of the Spanish conquest on the mainly oral tradition of the Aztecs and Inca’s fascinating and I recently downloaded the digital Codex Mendoza app!

The parallel sessions on Monday afternoon were all in seminar rooms, so I was somewhat surprised to find myself delivering my paper on Tuesday morning in a large lecture theatre.  My panel consisted of Richard Hoyle talking about ‘The King and the Poor Northern Man’, myself on ‘Ballads and the Public Sphere in Sixteenth Century England’ and Jonathan Arnold on ‘Music, Morality and Meaning: Humanist Critiqus of Musical Performance in Early Modern Europe’.  It seemed to go very well. I had to leave Reading mid-afternoon on the Tuesday in order to get home for my graduation, so unfortunately I missed Jennifer Richards’ plenary that evening.

One of the interesting things about delivering a paper to most conferences and seminar series is that people seem surprised when I sing a verse or two of a ballad. Not so at the Voices and Books conference, where breaking into song mid-paper is normal!  I have really enjoyed all the Voices and Books meetings that I’ve attended, and they helped to cement the idea that I had early on in my ballad studies that we need to think of ballads as songs that were sung and read aloud.  It is a truly interdisciplinary network, with supportive scholars from music, history, drama, literature and language all sharing ther ideas and bringing their expertise to the table.  I can honestly say that I’ve come away from the conference with more ideas than I could possibly carry out in the rest of my working life, so I want to say a big thank you to the ever-smiling network organisers Jennifer Richards and Richard Wistreich for all their hard work and their inspiring example!

Voices and Books his was a really busy conference with parallel sessions and plenaries filling the days, leaving little space for tea and the wonderful food that was provided.  Having started the second day of the conference at 9.30am, I left the conference dinner the moment that I finished my main course through sheer exhaustion (in a good way) at 9.30pm, and, disappointingly, before the chewy strawberry pavlova.  My family would testify to how tired I must have been to walk away from a meringue!  And, by the way, the conference also had far and away the best food of any that I’ve ever been to, what with Thai beef salad; wild rice with currants, chickpeas and herbs; mini Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish; lemon posset; and dipped strawberries.

There wasn’t a single session that didn’t include fascinating papers, but the plenaries were particularly excellent. Heidi Brayman Hackel spoke on the relationship between hearing and speaking and the the role of the dumb-show in early modern drama.  Anne Karpf was truly inspiring when she talked about restoring the voice, pointing out that even oral history tends to priviledge the recorded or transcribed voice over the act of speaking itself, making me wonder again how to weave in to my  studies the ballads collected from the oral tradition.  I was struck by her comment that the first voice we hear is the maternal voice which we hear in the womb and can even feel its vibration – it made me wonder if the maternal lullaby works in a similar way to skin-to-skin contact for babies? Perry Mills, talking about performing early modern drama with a company of boys, reminded me of everything I miss about teaching.  And then, of course, there was Christopher Marsh and the Carnival Band demonstrating how to write a hit song in the seventeenth century – the first plenary session any of us had been to with a beer break in the middle!  Apparently the Carnival Band had been given free reign to interpret the songs  as they saw fit, and I noticed that they had chosen to accompany them using major and minor keys rather than modal harmony.  Apologies also for the state of my photographs of them, as my camera didn’t cope well with the limited light!

On Friday I talked about ‘Reinterpreting  the Sixteenth Century English Ballad’, giving a brief airing to my theories about tonality and knowingness, but my main point was that ballads were good for spreading news because they were passed from person to person and used tunes that were easy to pick up and remember.   I decided to demonstrate this by having my very own Gareth Malone moment and getting the conference delegates to sing!  I had been having kittens prior to the conference – as a teacher I used to get children to sing all the time but I’ve never tried it with adults, and if they didn’t go for it and join in I would end up looking rather daft.  Fortunately, they almost all joined in with varying amounts of enthusiasm and learned the first verse of ‘The Hunt is Up’ very  quickly.

At the conference dinner on Friday evening, Jonathan Gibson asked if I might be able to sing a verse of a ballad during his paper the following morning, which I was pleased to do.  So  after retreating from the dinner I went back to my hotel, where I attempted to learn the tune of Wilson’s Wild, while feeling the bass and vocals of ‘I-I-I-I-I’m not your stepping sto-one‘ vibrate through the floor.   On the final day I particularly enjoyed Jonathan’s paper, Naomi Barker on traces of orality in Italian keyboard music and John Gallagher‘s paper on the teaching of foreign languages.  I’m very interested  in the idea of learning a language through singing its songs, so that’s something we’re both going to look out for.

So I’m home, brimming over with ideas, just as my institutional login is about to run out.  Ho hum.

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This morning I lifted my thesis from the bookshelf and looked at it for the first time since I put it there in September.  I have to admit that there is a certain amount of pride just from in holding it in my hands.  It’s a substantial piece of work and represents a good three years of my life, so I feel justified in taking some pleasure from the simple fact of its existence.

Reading through it, however, has produced some wildly conflicting emotions.  Actually, so far I’ve only got to page 57 of 328, but I can already spot the bits I worked on at 2 in the morning!  I’ve been thinking through the sorts of questions I might ask if I were my examiner and preparing to justify some of the decisions that I made in writing about ballad music in my first chapter.  But along the way there have been some occasions when I thought what I’d written would sit comfortably alongside other works of early modern history, and other moments when I cringed at the way I expressed myself!  Most of all, it has brought home to me how much easier some of my points could be made with recordings of the music, so that has to be a way forward for the future.  It’s much easier to hear what I mean that it is to see it, when it comes to the musical examples.

After last week’s musical musings, I had great fun on Thursday discussing the terminology of sixteenth century music with my music supervisor. I freely admit to butterflies before the meeting, but in a change of insect metaphor, I came out buzzing. I think we have come up with a solution concerning how to talk about the music. English musicians in the sixteenth-century (well, trained ones at least) would have talked in terms of hexachords, but I think the modern audience for that terminology is far too limited to make it practical for me! I’m still puzzled by the notion that the church led the way in moving to a major and minor tonality, given that the ballad tunes are mainly in the major and minor modes and never in any of the more, shall we say, obscure modes. I accept that there is an argument that those modes may only be obscure to modern ears because we are accustomed to hearing music in major and minor keys – sixteenth-century ears may have found the modes that we consider obscure to be much more familiar. But if that were the case, why are there so few (or even ‘no’) ballad tunes in those modes? The sources are mainly late sixteenth-century or seventeenth-century… not so far removed from the date of the ballads themselves?  I still think that the ballad tunes foreshadow the changes in art music that were to come later, My supervisor thinks that it’s a chicken and egg situation and that there is no way of knowing;  I’m not sure how to go about trying to prove it, or even if it is possible to prove it.  Or, for that matter, if anyone else has already suggested it so I’d be happy to hear from anyone who has any thoughts on this matter.

earlymodernballads@aol.com

Last week, during my panel meeting, one of my supervisors pointed out that my use of the phrase ‘based on the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant chords’ to describe a seventeenth-century tune was anachronistic, but conceded that finding terms to describe Renaissance music was difficult. We arranged to discuss it further next week, but in the meantime I’ve been wrestling with technical details and grand plans, trying to work out how best to describe my musical examples.

If I’m honest, despite the fact that I used to teach music, modes have always scared me. At the sight of anything modal, my brain goes into panic mode and simply says ‘I can’t do this’.  Teaching to GCSE level really only involved acknowledging that modes existed, that they were a feature of medieval and to a lesser extent, Renaissance music (and thereby hangs another blog post – why musicians and historians can’t talk to one another because we can’t talk about the same time periods!), and then moving on. You played some examples to show that they sounded a bit different and as long as students could recognise that a piece was modal, that was as much as information as you needed to impart. But working on the ballads has required a much more detailed knowledge of this, for me, thorny area. Not only do I need to be able to tell which scale any tune uses (relatively straightforward when you have a list in front of you and a husband to make sure you haven’t gone completely loopy), I suddenly need to know the exact meanings of terms I’ve been using loosely for years. There are philosophical debates to be had (well, actually, I’ve had them, several times over, with my long-suffering husband and equally long-suffering Fiend) about whether church music influenced popular music; how much influence popular music had on the church; what roles both popular and church music had in the move from modes to major and minor scales; whether what we find easy to learn in the twenty-first century is the same as what the sixteenth-century man or woman would have found easy to pick up by ear; and whether it matters if I use terms that hadn’t been invented in the sixteenth century to describe the melodies.

There is no immediately obvious set of terminology to use about the tonality of sixteenth-century popular music. It does not fit into the patterns of the eight Gregorian church modes, nor is it major or minor; but popular music, as it now appears to us, is mainly in the major or minor modes (Ionian, Dorian, Aeolian) or a mixture of them. These are the modes most closely linked to modern major/minor scales because of the patterns of tones and semitones that they contain. As such, they are the easiest modes for the untrained/amateur musician to sing. Are we being anachronistic to assume that we know what the sixteenth century man on the street would have found difficult to sing? If they were more used to doing things by ear, then maybe they picked up things that we might find more difficult without too much of a problem. But then, logically, the evidence that we have is that most of the popular song melodies of the period were written in the Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian modes, suggesting that they found those modes easier too; otherwise there should be just as much popular music to be found in all the other modes. My Fiend pointed out that there are reasons why we find certain musical intervals pleasing and others unpleasant – that’s why the augmented fourth is thought to be so nasty and yet any A-level music student studying Baroque harmony will know that its inversion, the diminished fifth, is used regularly and is fine. Music is heard by vibration, so there could be physiological reasons why some things are more pleasant than others.  He reminded me that the human brain likes patterns.  A quick google search for ‘brain, music, pattern’ brings up an article which points out that brain scan results all show similar responses to music. I’m fairly certain this would be corroborated if I went to Jstor and ran the same search. If we consider for a moment twentieth-century serial music, such as that by Schoenberg, the main problem of acceptance that it faces is that, for many, it has no easily discernible tune. A musician may be able to appreciate the construction, but the non-specialist strains to hear a melody, and finding none, finds the music unacceptable. The brain longs for a pattern to latch on to. Perhaps the pattern in the Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian modes is just easier to find than that in the Hypophrygian.

Of course, there is no way of knowing that what we now accept to be the tunes for sixteenth century ballads or even late medieval carols are actually how the tunes were sung at the time, because of the vagaries of notation, oral transmission and the fact that some do not appear extant in notation until the seventeenth century. The bits that were more difficult to sing could have been smoothed out in the process of the tunes being handed on from one set of ears to another. But again, this backs up the argument that tunes based on other scales were less easy to sing because the less familiar and simple intervals were more difficult to remember.

Anyway, the use of terms such as tonic/dominant/subdominant is anachronistic in that it implies a type of chordal harmony that did not exist in the sixteenth century. But it is the most accessible set of terms to a modern, non-specialist audience. Furthermore, if the tune is built on the arpeggios of those very chords, sometimes following the cadential patterns of major/minor harmony that we would recognise today, it does describe the music rather perfectly, at least to my mind. It may also play into the argument that, as music headed towards major and minor keys over the next century or so, the ballads were ahead of the game in mainly using major/minor tonalities. It is equally anachronistic to talk about things in the Aeolian mode, but talking about ‘the Dorian mode with the flattened sixth throughout’ is complicated and confusing.

There is the possibility of using solmization, which designates each pitch with a syllable, but it is based on aural rather than visual recognition, being used to recognise intervals. It is also more confusing for the non-musical audience. Apparently the standard form of plainsong harmony in the middle ages and early renaissance was on ‘fa’. One harmony line (the burden) was almost always sung a third or a fifth below the melody and the other (the treble), a fourth above – it was known as the fa-burden and avoids that horror of A-level Bach harmony students, the consecutive fifth. Technically, the fa-burden was a series of parallel first inversions of the triad on the melody note. But that is beside the point.

There is a balancing act to be done here between using language incorrectly, which I don’t want to do because it annoys me when other people use technical musical terms without the slightest understanding of what they mean (and because I just don’t like being wrong!), and using such technical language that the general reader can’t follow it. There is even an issue of what is popular and what is art music… In these paragraphs I’m assuming anything to be popular if it wasn’t written by a trained composer, but what about tunes that were written by trained musicians that were taken up by a wider audience…? What a lot of cans of worms.

I have a grand theory about music based on the use of the vernacular but I don’t think it’s all that new – I don’t see how it can be. Nevertheless, all the musicologists I’ve read seem to insist that over the long term, court and church composers influenced popular music into the change to major/minor keys, while popular music held on for many years to its out-dated modal tunes. This makes no sense to me since the vast majority of the ballad tunes were Ionian, Dorian or Aeolian, the most similar modes to the modern major and minor scales. Some of the ballad tunes, as I’ve said, seem to be squarely in a major key because not only are they based on a major scale, they have a cadential pattern which follows the standard modern patterns associated with a major key. Which is not to say that they have harmony, it’s just to point out that were you to harmonise it with chords I, II, IV, V and VI, there are standard chord progressions that would fit.

My theory is that as the sixteenth century English church embraced the vernacular, it also embraced the culture of the people. We know that across Europe, the Protestant church utilised popular melodies to enable the singing of vernacular hymns. Up until the Reformation, the church liturgy (and indeed, much official discussion in print and manuscript) was conducted in Latin. The population as a whole took no part in singing in church because church music was Latin polyphony sung by trained choirs, where it existed at all. The shift to congregational singing in the vernacular had to draw upon the only tradition of communal singing that existed – that of ballads, carols and folk songs. It is well known that Protestant reformers privileged the words over the music for theological reasons so that the meaning of God’s word was clear, but what else could you do if you wanted untrained voices to join in? The church modes were theoretical constructs developed for trained church choirs, not for the farm labourer or tanner. The simpler the melody, the easier it was for everyone to join in with metrical psalms. Perhaps you could continue to produce tunes in modes such as the Hypophrygian, but all the evidence of the extant popular tunes suggests that your congregation would have found that something of a challenge to learn by ear and reproduce. Therefore, over time, the church was forced to take on board the music of the people, not just in the use of tunes drawn from traditional, demotic sources but also by adopting the musical keys which the untrained ear had already privileged because its patterns were more pleasing to the brain. Although I’d be the last person to deny that church and court music influenced the ballads, at the moment I believe it to have been a two-way street, with the ballad music being somewhat ahead of the game in looking towards the major and minor keys before they had even been invented!

clive james - notes

clive james – notes (Photo credit: russelldavies)

A funny sort o f week. Today I sent off all my work for my panel meeting, which is scheduled for next week. My supervisors certainly have plenty to keep them busy – my research plan, training log and chapter plan don’t take up too much space, but the draft chapter on combining music and words to make ballads is somewhere in the region of 55 pages and they’ve got a couple of thousand words more on what a ballad actually is. Or is not. In the end it will form part of my introduction, which my twitter followers may already know I accidentally wrote the first draft of a couple of days ago. My response to a chapter on Tudor music by John Milsom metamorphosed into a bit of a literature review, so then I decided to stick in the methodology section I wrote in January and voila, an introduction was born. Yesterday I proofread and sent off my little epitaph ballad article, so that’s gone too.

All of which meant I had no pressing work to do today, so I trawled the online archive catalogues looking for things that I ought to go to see over the summer. I think I’ll probably be doing more of the same tomorrow.

This evening I’m having a night off. I’m going to read a bit more of the third volume of Clive James‘s memoirs and enjoy the evening sunshine. Now there’s someone whose writing I admire…