An Introduction to Early Music
Broadly speaking there are two types of early musician.
There are those for whom programme planning involves scouring the shelves ofspecialist music shops for reliable modern editions of early music. But thereare also those for whom the atmosphere of a dingy library filled with the rich aromaof rotting parchment acts on the senses like a Class A drug: to these zealots,an encounter with code-named tomes such as W1 or Bologna 015 is equivalent tothe steam enthusiast's sighting of LNER 69523 or GWR L99.
So what are the sources of early music like? Frequentlyincomplete, ambiguous, and illegible. But one thing they all have in common isthat they are extraordinary. Extraordinary because they have survived at all,and extraordinary because many of them are the only surviving source for themusic that they contain. The feeling of leafing through decaying pages known tohave been copied by the likes of Ludford and Purcell is not easy to describe - thedistant musical past will never come alive, but this is arguably the closestthat you'll get.
The sources of early music fall into two categories:manuscripts (handwritten documents) and prints. Before the invention ofprinting in the second half of the fifteenth century all music had to beprepared in manuscript. This was obviously a lengthy process, and one in whichscribes invested much time and effort. Unfortunately for the musician of today,the physical appearance of the manuscript was often paramount, with the resultthat the overall visual effect was sometimes allowed to ride roughshod overtextual detail. Early printed music was often ambiguous for different reasons-if more than one impression was made in order to create a single page ofmusic, it is easy to see how the notes might not have fitted accurately ontothe relevant lines of the stave or between the relevant spaces. Moreover, thereplacement of stout parchment by flimsy paper means that many a unique foliohas been eroded by the corrosive action of primitive inks and exposure to lightand moisture.
However, these things become easy to live with, and thereal enthusiast will frequently revel in the natural degeneration of amanuscript because it underlines its age and frailty, and hence its historicalvalue. In reality, points of editorial controversy usually occur when trying tomake sense of the things that early scribes chose not to indicate at all. Imagine,if you will, a medieval composition. Title? Not always. Composer's name? Frequentlynot. Scoring? Highly unspecific. Pitch? Huge can of worms. Tempo indications? None.
Marks of dynamics, phrasing, and articulation? No, no and no. And so it goeson. But, again, the lack of such things often inspires today's editor andperformer. Apart from anything else, the scope for interpretation (if that'snot too dirty a word) is greater the further back in time that you travel,precisely because of all the unknowns.
An understanding of early musical notation is, of course,the key to the decoding of early sources. The written preservation of music isregarded as a sine qua non for the Western classical musician, but if wereturn to seventh century Europe we find a very different musical culture: oneof oral transmission. Isidore of Seville reported that "unless sounds areremembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down". Two centurieslater a system had developed. The
outline of a melody was indicated by a series of squigglesand dots (known as neumes, from the Greek word neuma = sign). Specificpitch was not indicated: this notation merely existed in order to jog theperformer's memory. Gradually, the association between the vertical position ofa neume and its pitch began to be made - one neume placed higher on the pagethan another represented a sound pitched higher in the voice than another. Fromthere, the alignment of neumes upon a series of horizontal lines (a stave) inorder to indicate precise pitch relationships was but a small step.
So much for pitch; but what about rhythm? Well, we cannotbe sure. Some believe that differently shaped notes implied different rhythmsin much the same way that modern musical notation does (a white note with a stem[a minim] sounds for twice the length of a black note with a stem [a crotchet]in the same context). However, the earliest rhythmic notation of which we can besure defines a note's length by its context rather more than by its individualappearance. In the case of a single-line melody (for instance Gregorian chant)the problem is unlikely to be resolved conclusively, but when two or more partssound at the same time the jigsaw will often only fit together in a limitednumber of ways. As time went on, the appearance of a note became as importantas its context, until eventually - by the Baroque era - the shape and colour ofa note dictated its length precisely.
The development of musical notation is a complicatedstory. The work of several musical theorists survives, but one theorist doesn'talways agree with another. The job of the scholar is partly to decide whichtheorists to trust and which not. Just because the work of certain theoristshas survived doesn't mean that they necessarily understood everything thatthere were describing. Now, as then, it is important not to believe all thatyou read in the parchments.