The Medieval Art of the Plectrum
A natural question arises from the rich iconography of stringed, wind or percussion ensembles and chant in the Middle Ages: how did a citole or lute performer behave when facing a medieval piece on its own, given that this music was not written for any particular instrument? It is almost impossible to assert that the medieval musician did not face this repertoire as a soloist but all the iconographic evidence seems to indicate that both collective and soloist interpretation were possible in this period.
In his article “lute, guitar and citole” (Indiana University Press. Indiana, 2000, pp 355-375), Professor Crawford Young, from the Schola Cantorum in Basel, recommends to rearrange the music of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries for plucked string instruments: ‘professional musicians of the fifteenth century were composer-arrangers as well as instrumentalists or vocalists. The repertory for the fifteenth-century lute is all around us, in every notated form but “lute tablature” (with the exception of the few tablatures from the end of the century)’.
“THE EVIDENCE” is the title of the first chapter of one of the most important books about the interpretation of the dance music in the medieval period: “Medieval Instrumental Dances” (Indiana Press). In his book, Professor Timothy J. McGee explores the interpretation of this genre, confronting the principles of the medieval theorist Johannes de Grocheio with performance practice, examples of iconography (mainly sculptures and paintings) and literary references. Upon this foundation and given the lack of data or manuscripts that directly address the performance of medieval plucked stringed instruments, this project opts to convert the research parameters mentioned above into premises to create a syllogism. The result is the work that you have in your hands: The Medieval Art of the Plectrum.
Tracks 2, 6 and 11 are performed on a SPANISH MEDIEVAL LUTE inspired by the miniatures of the codex TI1 from the Monastery of El Escorial (Spain), from the thirteenth century. This manuscript contains an interesting amount of parchments of great help for the study of the instruments in the thirteenth century Spain. On track 6, a prelude on spanish medieval lute leads to the Cantigas de Santa María 179-322, the CSM 393-353 on track 11, and the two voices virelai Stella Splendens on track 2. This polyphonic composition in Ars Nova style belongs to the red book of Montserrat, which collects songs and dances dedicated to the Virgin Mary, mostly written for the common people that went on pilgrimage to the monastery. The tradition of dancing in temples is a well documented practice during the Middle Ages.
Another instrument from the same Alfonsí manuscript, the VIHUELA DE PÉÑOLA, appears on track 1. Cantigas de Santa María 384 and 2 with some variations on the melody are performed on this instrument, which is characterized by its long neck and two loops that join it to the body.
On tracks 3, 7 and 12, a CITOLA inspired by the thirteenth century portico of the Majesty, at the Colegiata of Toro (Zamora, Spain) is used to perform three dances from different European manuscripts. Track 12 is a lighthearted piece titled Trotto, from an Italian manuscript known as “The english manuscript” (London, British Library, Additional 29987), in which a horse seems to break into the scene trotting faster and faster until slowing to stop. Track 7, La septime Estampie Real, included in the king’s manuscript (Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français 844C, known as Le Chansonnier du Roy), constitutes an example of the earliest dances in the Western musical tradition. The estampie is one of the most popular genres among the medieval dances and the word ‘Royal’ suggests that it might have been danced and performed in the French court in the thirteenth century. On track 3, you will hear a piece of the small corpus of dance preserved in the UK, known as The English Dance from the Nota manuscript (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 139).
An “enigmatic” and captivating instrument appears on tracks 8 and 14. Although it is played with the left hand, this kind of ÇINFONÍA DE TRASTES from the thirteenth century is not plucked. It was made from a model in the fresco paintings in the crypt of the church of St. Stephen in the town Sos del Rey Católico (Aragon, Spain). In the painting, the minstrel holds a crank in his right hand that turns a wooden wheel rubbing against the strings. This production of sound is not an innovation beyond the organistrum or hurdy-gurdy, but it differs on the role of the left hand. This sample has a neck with frets, just like the lute, citole or guitar, instead of the keyboard that the hurdy-gurdy has, which presses tangents against one or more of the strings to modify their pitch. With this instrument you will hear improvisations and variations on Polorum Regina, taken from the Library of the Monastery of Montserrat. Codex Ms1 (Llibre Vermell) and Douce Dame Jolie, a popular melody from Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377), one of the most prolific and renowned Ars Nova authors (Paris, Bibl. Nationale, fonds français Machaut manuscripts A, B, C, E and G).