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Restoring Lost Songs: Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy


Four videos made with members of Sequentia can be found by clicking on the names in the menu to the left.  Three focus on the work of individual members of the group; a fourth focuses on questions of ensemble playing.  The videos arose from interviews held with Dr Sam Barrett in Cologne on 10 August 2018, in which the musicians were asked to speak about their instrumental practice in performing the reconstructed songs from Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae.  Each presentation follows roughly the same format, i.e. discussion of the instruments, a short performance, and reflection on performance practice.  The testimony of the musicians involved in the project provides valuable insight into the working practices of professional musicians, with many of the principles applying to their wider approach to reconstructing lost medieval song repertories.

There remains more to say about each issue raised in the videos, whose aim was to provide introductory explanations and demonstrations rather than a comprehensive account of performance practices that have in some cases been developed over decades.  Five different categories of evidence are presented:

            i) Reconstructed melodies – these provide given material for modal orientation, melodic ornamentation, and patterns of phrasing; multiple techniques of embellishment were used, including melodic repetition, decoration, creation of parallel melodic lines following rules for orgnanum drawn from theory treatises, and isolation of formulae for re-combination in differing configurations;

            ii) Other untexted melodic material known to contemporary musicians – these include a) widely disseminated didactic phrases used to teach properties of modes and establish modal orientation, and b) modal formulae drawn from untexted melodies that were variously sung in ecclesiastical contexts but retained instrumental titles such as sinfoniacitharafistula and tuba;

            iii) The poetry – as discussed in the Introduction to Reconstruction, the characteristics of individual poems in terms of genre, sounding pattern, and overall mood provided a stimulus for instrumental work in terms of register, density of figuration and rhythmic character;

            iv) Pragmatics of performance – introductions serve as ways of establishing a mode and atmosphere for a song performance; interjections within songs cover the necessity for the singer to breathe, as well as reinforcing rhetorical devices such as questions, exclamations or dramatic pauses; codas create closure within extended strophic structures that otherwise lack the sense of an ending; other decisions arise from performance context, e.g. the size of the room, the nature of the audience, the ordering of songs within a programme etc.;

            v) Affordances of instruments – reconstructed instruments imply a range of performance practices through their materials and mechanics.

As this summary makes clear, there is a wealth of contextual evidence to draw upon for instrumental practice.  The problem becomes not so much reconstruction of an individual performance based on incomplete evidence, but how to apply a set of broader conventions to a particular song repertory. The members of Sequentia addressed this issue by touching upon questions of decision-making, including when and where to play in any given song, co-ordination of ex tempore playing between musicians, and adaptations needed for different circumstances.  Not all the insights gathered in the making of these videos could be included in the final cuts.  One comment that was omitted serves as a reminder of the importance of the aural judgement of individual musicians in developing their own sound alongside considerations of historical evidence:  

The instruments themselves don’t tell us how they sounded.  It very much depends on the player… I am convinced that for medieval music, especially earlier medieval music, it is essential to concentrate on resonance, which means a slightly stronger style of playing… trying to manage with a singer and to have overtones to overlap… So what I have been trying to create for many years is a style of modal playing which is very much on the more strong side to go along with other instruments and to create something that I think is essential, which is what the medieval theorists call a symphonia, the effect of resonance creating a harmony in Pythagorean tuning.

Norbert Rodenkirchen (10 August 2018)