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The Magnificent Music of the Magnus Liber

Last night I went to a concert in Brussels given by Paul Van Nevel and his Huelgas Ensemble.  On the menu, sacred music from ca. 1000 to ca. 1250.

Being a bit of a medieval music fan, I was delighted that the Huelgas Ensemble was putting on a programme of music that is far too seldom performed.

The musicians were magnificent and the concert was well-done.  A couple of the pieces were really very beautiful.

But it wasn’t all I’d hoped.  The biggest disappointment for me was their rendition of a piece by Léonin from the Ecole de Notre Dame.  The organum duplum (2-part polyphony) of Léonin being something I have spent a good part of my professional career experimenting with, I found Paul Van Nevel’s interpretation unsatisfactory in several ways.

Organum duplum is a florid, extravagant music based on Gregorian Chant.  (If you want a quick idea of what it’s about, my group Ut Sol has recorded a short extract (the Deum time from the Offices for Trinity, to which you can listen by clicking here).

Mr Van Nevel’s approach was to make the lower voice (which sings Gregorian chant in long note values) the leading voice.  This resulted in what sounded like a piece of chant with a few ornamentations on top.  For me it did not work at all, as the two voices seemed virtually independent of each other and the piece did not hang together.

I believe that the upper voice is the leading voice in organum duplum wherever there is free rhythm.  This was originally an improvised music.  It seems most likely to me that the upper voice (the improvised voice) would have worked with signals – making it clear through the manner of singing when the lower voice should change note.  In Mr Van Nevel’s interpretation he, as conductor, led the ensemble.  This is the only solution, of course, if your singers are not giving clear signals to each other, but it should be unnecessary.

Secondly, I believe that the intervallic relationship between the two voices is of paramount importance and binds the work together.  In Mr Van Nevel’s interpretation you would say that the two voices were unaware of the intervals at play between them.  I see this music as structured around consonant pillars – places where the two voices come together – with dissonance being the tension that is built up in order to resolve.  It makes the music so much more interesting!

Finally, I would add that this music was controversial at the height of it’s popularity.  Religious purists felt that it was too extrovert and egotistical, and that it detracted from prayer.  I suggest that an interpretation that so heavily favours the Gregorian chant and consigns the upper voice to the background would not have offended anyone.

I should point out that I am not in favour of an approach that values authenticity above all else.  However, I do believe that attempting to understand the music can help to bring out the best in it.  Sometimes, of course, a less-than-well researched performance can be stunning, but it’s a dangerous strategy.

In short, what troubles me about Paul Van Nevel’s interpretation of Léonin’s organum duplum is that it did not do justice to a rich and wonderful music (about which I apparently feel quite passionately!).  I only hope that the fact of performing it in a lack-lustre manner does not put people off.  Lets hope it’s a case of ‘no such thing as bad publicity’.


One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Very strong
    Good arguments
    And very convincing.

    Sunday, June 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

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