03.07.10, Leech-Wilkinson, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music

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Nicolas Bell

The Medieval Review baj9928.0307.010


Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel. The Modern Invention of Medieval Music: Scholarship, Ideology, and Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xi, 335. ISBN: 0-521-81870-2.

Reviewed by:
Nicolas Bell
The British Library

The focus of this intriguing book is somewhat more limited than its title suggests: the first two of its four chapters are concerned primarily with the question of whether certain types of fifteenth-century polyphonic music should be performed with instrumental accompaniment or by voices alone. However, the author uses this focus as a means of promoting an argument which he invites us to test in other areas of the study and performance of medieval music.

The first chapter discusses "The invention of the voices-and-instruments hypothesis." Leech-Wilkinson demonstrates how the practice of performing medieval polyphonic music with instruments arose from a series of speculative assumptions based one upon the other, in a scholarly climate that preferred to foster received assumptions than to question them. He finds the origin of the hypothesis in 1895 in the pioneering work of Sir John Stainer on the fifteenth-century collection Bodleian Canonici misc. 213, where the wordless passages of music at the beginning, middle and end of pieces suggested instrumental participation. This manner of performance was seen to work, and the practice was applied to other repertories in ensuing decades. Support for the hypothesis also came from elsewhere, notably in pictorial representations of music-making from the time, and we are convincingly shown how it quickly became difficult for scholars to challenge the notion, despite evidence from some quarters for all-vocal performance: the Romantic dream of a Middle Ages lit through "coloured shimmering glass" and exploring "nasal and guttural sound-colour" derived from Oriental practice held too much allure for the listening public.

The second chapter, "The re-invention of the a cappella hypothesis," describes the redemption of polyphonic music from this instrumental heresy. Leech-Wilkinson writes that "it is no exaggeration to claim, and easy to show, that nothing since Riemann has so much reshaped the performance and perception of medieval music as the work, and above all the recordings, of Gothic Voices," the unaccompanied mixed-voice ensemble founded in 1980 by Christopher Page (111). As with Stainer in the previous chapter, the author prefers to see this re-invention arising from a single article, written by Page in 1977, though precursors are carefully documented and it is clear that the revolution was not fought singlehandedly: David Fallows and Leech-Wilkinson himself were very much involved in supporting the sounding evidence of Page's recordings in the columns of the journal Early Music.

It becomes clear in Chapter 4 that this need to isolate a single moment of change is driven at least in part by a desire to assimilate the discussion into Thomas S. Kuhn's theory of "paradigm shift." Whilst Gothic Voices has certainly been extraordinarily influential in the field of recordings of medieval polyphony, to write of them in these terms is surely an overstatement. Just as all-vocal performances of polyphony were known before the turning-point (Leech-Wilkinson provides a selective list on pp. 154-56), so in recent times have performances with instruments themselves grown enormously in popularity, not so much in continuation of the older tradition as by being revolutionary in their own right. Though the Romantic allure of Perotinus with full symphony orchestra, seen as a direct ancestor of the later symphonic tradition, had quickly gone out of fashion, the attraction of the sound-world of the Middle Ages is today more popular than ever, largely because it is seen to present us with an other-worldliness distant from later musical practice. The argument is here presented from an entirely British perspective, and one feels that a more conventionally historical narrative of the early music movement might have reached somewhat different conclusions: the experimental and innovative work of Thomas Binkley in the 1960s, for example, has surely continued to exert an influence on the approach of important later groups such as Sequentia, and the Ensemble Gilles Binchois has made notable explorations into branches of repertory far beyond those recorded by Gothic Voices, as well as exploring aspects of vocal technique on a very sophisticated level.

The third chapter, "Hearing medieval harmonies," serves both to put the previous dicussion into a wider context and to provide a more strictly musicological analogy to the musical debates around the voices-and-instruments hypothesis. In this case the discussion leaves its British focus to centre around German (and latterly American) scholarship. The argument may be crudely summarised as follows. Until the 1950s most scholars considered medieval polyphony in terms of its harmony, and finding it harsh by the standards of later music, felt that it would not survive the application of modern analytical tools. The attitude of "musical medievalists" in the scientific post-War climate changed to a need for perceived objectivity, which meant something of a return to the approach of Friedrich Ludwig at the start of the century, using medieval theory to interpret medieval sources. "Musicology," we are told, "was starting again, setting aside the hasty conclusions of the generation after Ludwig, aiming this time to get it right" (187).

This reading is itself problematic, since at the very time that these "hasty conclusions" were being being reached (largely by Heinrich Besseler and Rudolf von Ficker), the Ludwig tradition was continuing to flourish, notably in the work of Higini Angles and Yvonne Rokseth. More difficult is his conclusion linking this discussion to the a capella hypothesis, that "Harmonic analysis became appropriate and inevitable once the Gothic Voices recordings began to appear" (200), and that "The music sounds different and, as I've argued, it is conceptualised differently as a consequence" (230-31). Throughout the chapter a dichotomy is assumed between harmony and counterpoint, which is often aligned with that between vocal and instrumental performance. The assumption that one hears the differing timbres of instruments as counterpoint and the homogenised blend of voices as harmony may be true on occasion (though in practice, of course, one hears harmonic and contrapuntal aspects together), but it takes insufficient account of those all-vocal groups that deliberately exploit contrasting vocal timbres between voice-parts, or of Stainer's 1895 performance of Dufay with a single vocal line accompanied by four presumably identical and therefore homogeneous violas.

The implication that analysis not conditioned by medieval music theory was somehow enabled only in the 1980s may have some truth to it, but only if the meaning and function of analysis is understood in a very narrow sense. Much of the comparative study of variant sources -- such as Fritz Reckow's on organum or Hans Tischler's on motets -- surely carries in it a strong analytical component, though often more at the repertorial level than in the discussion of a single piece, and in the field of chant research the work of Dom Jean Claire on the origin of the modes comes to mind as but one example of an approach that is at once deeply analytical (in the literal sense of searching for the essential elements) and quite distant from medieval theoretical writing.

The final chapter asks us to reflect on the consequences for the musicological profession of the preceding discussion. In a small discipline, there is a real risk that the "group psychology" of the leaders will impose its ideology on the whole way of thought about a subject. This is not of itself a bad thing, but power can on occasion corrupt, and we are given the example of Nazi attempts to consider the "Gothic" polyphony of thirteenth-century Paris as essentially "Nordic," and therefore rightfully part of the cultural heritage of the Third Reich. This results in a call for intellectual freedom in future research, so that we need not fall into the trap of basing one assumption upon another, as happened with the voices-and-instruments hypothesis.

This is of course a commendable attitude, but is one that need not, indeed cannot, be applied across the whole field of medieval musicology. First, the work of discovery, cataloguing, editing and documentation of sources in which Ludwig was exemplary continues unabated. While such work must be constantly open to new critical approaches, it also depends upon respect for and adherence to the standards of the work upon which it builds. Second, the author makes it clear that his perspective is very much driven by the conditions of modern university research funding, and it must be borne in mind that there are important subsets of musicological scholarship outside this arena, most notably in monastic communities. The publication of Paleographie musicale by the monks of Solesmes has its own ideological rationale, of course, but it is one entirely separate from that promoted by the Research Assessment Exercise in Great Britain. Similarly, it is difficult to see that any of the questions which face a professional concert-giving ensemble in such matters as choice of repertory or manner of performance would apply in the forum in which medieval music remains to this day most frequently and "authentically" performed -- that of the monastic liturgy. These fields lie outside the subject-matter of the book, but surely within the expectations aroused by its title.

In short, Leech-Wilkinson presents us with an ardent and much-needed plea to remember the various contexts in which assumptions have been made in the past. This may be summarised in a quotation from David Fallows cited on p. 145: "Much of what we do in performing medieval music is based on hypothesis; and without these hypotheses nothing would be possible. The only important issue is that people should be aware of where the areas of hypothesis lie." The book is well produced and meticulously researched and documented -- in a rare slip on p. 119, Jerome of Moravia has moved to Moray -- and the argument is presented in an engaging style. On occasion this descends to an almost gossipy manner (do we need to know, for example, that the producer of Gothic Voices' CDs was at first "still driving a London cab to make ends meet" [115]?) or seems almost too thorough, as in an excursus on the relation of conference papers as delivered to their later published state, which is surely of greater significance for the publication of a ground-breaking medical discovery than in a small field where delays in publication are expected and understood by author and reader alike. A minor improvement, since they are omitted from the bibliography but form the crux of his discussion, might have been the inclusion of a list of the recordings made by Gothic Voices. But these are small points which do not detract from a work which at once enlightens and questions on several levels. The field of medieval musicology often uses its own technical vocabulary to repel medievalists and musicologists alike, and it is a credit to its author that the book may be readily understood by a non-specialist. It is therefore especially pleasing that it should be the first publication on a medieval subject to be given the Book Award of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

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Nicolas Bell

The British Library