Monday, June 8, 2015

Let's go back to the beginning

Do you find old things exciting? Really old.

I find it fascinating that human beings have this special power: sure, ants can carry ten times their weight, grasshoppers can jump many times their height, cheetahs can run faster and whales are bigger, but human beings can throw their voices vast distances across time and space.

The music we are going to listen to today was written some 650 years ago. It is the earliest keyboard music that has been discovered to date. It is thought to date from the middle of the 14th century, and comes to us from a monastery in the little town of Robertsbridge, England, where some of the houses also date from the 14th century. It is known as the Robertsbridge Codex. In reality it is simply two leaves of music containing several pieces of music for voice (there are several of these that are older) and three "estampies" written for the organ. One of them, unfortunately, is incomplete. The two that are complete are available as sheet music online, and if you want to play them yourself, you need only search for them (they aren't on IMSLP, though; I think I got mine from the Medieval Music Database).

There are also several Youtube recordings, revealing different approaches to the pieces, including different opinions about how they are structured. This is because of the complexity of the roadmaps of the pieces, as I mentioned last week.

Once I got over my annoyance, I was able to record the second one, the Estampie Retrove, with no errors and without getting lost once! Which seems like something worth bragging about, at least if you've seen the music. It's not technically difficult, but you have to continually jump around to the appropriate spot.

This is my very 21st century interpretation on a 20th century organ. I am not an early music specialist. The dynamics and registrations are not in the music; I chose them myself. I also chose the tempi. Apparently scholars are divided on whether these piece were really intended as dances. I clearly favored the idea that they were. Probably nobody in the 14th century could have played them as quickly as I did, either; The instruments wouldn't have allowed it, nor did people get to practice as much. But then, it may be that an attempt to be more authentic would actually cause the piece to lose its message for us, denizens of a century in which everything is faster and technique is at a higher ebb. In any case, enjoy these renditions; then you can look for others on the web.

Estampie no. 1
Estampie Retrove

For my part, I've discovered yet another exciting corner of the repertoire: late Medieval. For an encore I'm going to look into the Faenza Codex (late 15th C.), and the Buxheimer organ book (c. 1460). Look for recordings of those this fall.

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