by Gwendolyn the Graceful, Brehyres.
Greetings of the Yule Season! Welcome back to my penultimate article on the Bardic arts in the SCA. So far in this series, we’ve talked about bards and what makes a good one, the types of music one can encounter within the SCA, what a contrefait or “filk” is and isn’t, and the particular modes of music that flourished throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance in the church, known as plainchant modes. This time, we’re going to talk a little bit about what wasn’t well preserved from the period: Medieval folk music.
I mentioned before that one of the most obvious reasons we have so much music from the church and the court from within our era is simply that it’s the stuff that got written down. Wealthy patrons sponsored the creation of huge books collecting the music and translating it into notation. That notation evolved and eventually became almost recognizable as modern notation (though modern notation was still a few centuries away at the time our period covers). Other cultures had different ways of preserving their musical heritage, mostly through an oral tradition but sometimes with other systems of musical writing. They also had systems of composition that were and are markedly different from the liturgical sound that is the basis of so much extant music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods in western Europe.
What about people who didn’t have more than a Sunday morning exposure to church music, or formal training, or even people who didn’t grow up in an area where liturgical music and Gregorian plainsong were prevalent? What about people who didn’t compose for the purpose of church or court, or who weren’t familiar with the “rules” that governed that kind of music? For every court composer or noble amateur who was educated (by the church, incidentally), there were presumably dozens of musicians, performers, and peasant amateurs who were not. They likely adapted many of the tunes they heard in church and repurposed them in the form of contrefait. (In fact, we know for a surety that they did.) But they also just as likely composed their own tunes along lines that may be much more similar to modern folk melodic structure than one might think.
In addition, there are dozens of settings in which liturgical music simply won’t get the job done. No one rouses an army and stirs them to run into battle to the dulcet tones of a lute. Just being loud is not necessarily a recommendation, either. The Waits of local areas played loudly, but they evolved into entertainment over time from their original purpose as a warning system. Similarly, court music is simply not suited to the tavern hall, or the threshing house, or the marketplace, as any busker can attest. The sound is too delicate. Dance music has huge variety and moreover has to be played loudly to be heard, so it can attract the sort of attention and liveliness that is called for in those circumstances, but it still doesn’t achieve quite the same result as a chorus song or patriotic anthem, or a drinking song. (Though there are many dance tunes that acquired lyrics over time!) There are basic human needs which have not changed in thousands of years, and for the most part, the music that fills those moments speaks in melodies that do not necessarily correspond to the extant music we have from the Medieval period. The songs of the people were likely much more robust and simpler than church modes.
The problem is that whatever they were writing or singing, little to none of it survived.
So what did it really sound like?
Well, we have a few examples. We have some rounds, catches, and canons. We have a few drinking songs dating back to the 12th century, notably from the Carmina Burana. From later in period we have published books of broadsides by Purcell, Ravenscroft, and others. The Renaissance provides a much higher number of pieces, but then again, the same principles of survival apply: the majority of them are not populist in origin. We have large numbers of suriviving lyrics, with tunes which have been extrapolated or revised based on other suriviving music.
For the most part, we’re left to imagine.
And while it’s true that the harmonics of the time resulted in some intervals, chords, and rhythms that sound “funky” to a modern ear, if one isolates the melody line, often they are not too far off from something that might sound “folky” to a listener today. By the time we reach Middle English, the line between “Medieval sounding” and “traditional sounding” is very blurry indeed.
Take for example one of the better known drinking songs: In Taberna Quando Sumus from the Carmina Burana. Here’s an excellent recording via YouTube.
Ignore the accompaniment and just listen to the melody of the chorus. It’s in minor key – not in a church mode. It’s repetitive, it’s eminently singable, and it’s not too far off, in many ways, from a melody an SCA bard might come up with.
Just for giggles, compare the melodic structure of In Taberna to an SCA bardic classic: Heather Alexander’s March of Cambreadh.
Really, not terribly far off.
Here’s another example. “Dives and Lazarus” is a very popular tune that survives and has been used many times with variations or new lyrics. It’s better known to many as “The Star of the County Down.” There are also familiar Christmas carols that date back to our period of study, that are not only familiar because we still sing them, but because they have a “folk-like” structure and modality. Now, this is not to suggest that any tune can be justified as Medieval-sounding. There are certainly songs written for or used within SCA contexts that contain much more aggressively modernistic melodic progressions, structures, and even tricky intervals that bear little to no resemblance to any extant Medieval music. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that songs did exist that were not written in Church modes or with a terribly unusual structure.
But don’t we just have to limit ourselves to what we know existed?
If you’re researching a piece or trying to stick to a specific mode, then yes. The problem with that premise is it pre-supposes the need to do that, when there’s far more to the question of composition than what survived. There’s just so little extant Medieval music that did not originate in the church, or the court, or somewhere in between. Compared to what must have existed at the time, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Here’s some food for thought, and forgive the modern statistical intrusion, but bear with me. According to Billboard, the premiere music rating service, approximately 75,000 albums were released in the U.S. in 2010. An average album has about 12 tracks on it, but let’s say 10 just to account for EPs, singles, and so on, and to give us a nice round number. Even if we assume that half of those recordings were of exclusively non-original material, that is, new recordings of pre-existing music, that’s still 37,500 new albums’ worth (at a guess) produced and registered with Billboard, or 375,000 individual pieces of music – and that doesn’t count albums that *aren’t* registered with Billboard. That’s for one calendar year.
Classical music scholars consider the Medieval period to cover music between 800 and 1400; the Early Music project acknowledges music from before the 12th century but concentrates on the era from 1100 forward. They divide the era thus due to the emergence of surviving polyphony that appeared at that time, slowly overtaking the previous three centuries of plainchant. Our period comprises 1,000 years (600-1600 CE). Still, let’s be conservative and limit calculation to the 300 years between 1100 and 1400. Let’s further limit ourselves by factoring only 1% of the estimated number of new songs written in 2010 as an estimate, to account for the smaller populations and geographical area of Europe. One percent of 375,000 is 3,750 new compositions per year. Over 300 years, that’s 1,125,000 songs that might have been composed during that amount of time. And that’s just one third of our span.
So, while we do have examples and abundant resources on what has survived, the comparative number of songs that might have been written and lost is astronomically high.
That’s one reason why I, for one, am not too fussed if an SCA-composed piece is not particularly “Medieval” or even “Renaissance” sounding. What we consider to be that “sound” corresponds to a narrow definition and a very limited repertoire of surviving music. Of course, our stated purpose is to strive to recreate the period with the greatest achievable level of authenticity. As long as original compositions avoid using constructions that adopt those aforementioned “modernistic” devices, I submit that it is hitting that mark. It still may not be to every taste, or may sound too much like “folk music” for those purists who only wish to listen to actual period music – but that is not the same distinction as something that is “indistinguishable” in its use of modes or construction from a composition by a court composer of the era.
I think that for many years, there’s been an entrenched assumption that the only “authentic-sounding” music is music that sounds just like composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Peter Abelard, Adam de la Halle, Guillaume de Machaut, or any of the handful of others whose music has survived. That assumption is, to my mind, analogous to the old days when the only form of heraldry used, recommended, and accepted by the College of Heralds was modeled after Fox-Davies and a handful of other resources specialized mostly around English and French heraldry. The heralds revised their position to become more accepting of other cultures’ rules and standards, and thus more flexible about serving the SCA populace with personae from outside that narrow sphere. In a similar way, our expectations about SCA music are unnecessarily restrictive. We need to broaden the spectrum of what qualifies as “authentic” in its structure.
Of course, there are limits. I love musical theatre but I would not be remotely tempted to compose a modern-era musical theatre style song and expect it to sound appropriate within most SCA contexts. If I did introduce something modernistic, I would attempt to mask it in ways that blend better into the milieu of our events – or I would be using it for deliberate anachronistic dissonance. Skill plays some role, here, too, and the saying about “knowing the rules in order to break them” may well apply. There are certainly SCA musicians who write music intended for a broader audience, whose pieces sometimes take significant departures from a standard SCA-style melodic structure. On the other hand, even there, a lot of the feeling of modernity can be attributed to the arrangement of accompanying instruments. Some of Heather Dale’s studio albums feature electric guitar – but when she sings the same song at Pennsic, accompanied only by a bodhran or her penny whistle, the feeling is dramatically different and more “Current Middle Ages” in tone. Again, go back to the Carmina Burana piece and if you can, ignore the cadences of the accompanying instruments. Focus on the melody. It’s almost classic “SCA bardic” style. And it’s one of the oldest drinking songs we have.
The important and essental exception to these practices of avoiding the modern is the area of contrafait – but for that, see my filk article and how that’s not always going to be the right choice to evoke the right emotional response in a given SCA moment. Remember that, as with all these guidelines for the bardic arts, there are three fundamental principles which must be observed:
- The material chosen must speak to some emotional grip on the audience;
- The performance must move the audience to that emotional place;
- The audience must be able to see, hear, and understand the performance.
Therefore, for achieving of the feeling of “Medieval folk music,” I hold that composers are justified in using simple melodic constructions which draw inspiration from ballads, chansons, and other sources, but that do not necessary correspond point by point to the surviving “rules” of plainchant or even early polyphony – because that structure was not necessarily the only thing that was being produced.
There is one other reason it may be appropriate to include the typical “SCA Bardic” sound as a legitimate approximation of perioid style. It’s important to remember that “period” original music (excluding contrefacta) wasn’t “old” music at the time it was written. But that will be the topic of my next (and final) article in this series.
Here are some additional sources of existing Medieval music and known composers:
http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/beginlst/medieval.htm – a selection of exemplary recordings of Medieval music
http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/beginlst/nocds.html – an excellent survey of the development of music from antiquity to the Baroque
http://www.medieval-life-and-times.info/medieval-music/ – a very cursory overview of Medieval music, musicians, and instruments
 Unless it is, that is. Anyone who was at Pennsic Opening Ceremonies may remember that “Æthelmearc is awesome!” because when Lego hands me a song opportunity on a platter, sure, I’m going to go for the cheap laugh. But that’s contrafacta, not a composition crafted specifically for the SCA. And it’s also important to note that the intention of that was primarily humour, and secondarily something that incorporated a timely cultural reference and co-opted it for the emotion of the day. Most importantly: It worked.