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Some such sense certainly animates the Earliest Songbook in England, a manuscript shakily written on parchment some 600 years and now again rendered audible on a CD, sung by Gothic Voices under their director Christopher Page -- a Cambridge don dedicated to medieval musicology who is also a first class practical musician. The group -- which has done more than most to make medieval music sound convincing to us who are remote from it -- consists of six solo voices: one treble or alto, here sung by a woman who must originally have been a boy; two light and two heavier tenors; and a baritone. The texts occasionally have links with the Eucharist, but are more commonly anonymous poems or prose reflections on theological dogma or simply on the diurnality of Christian life in those long-vanished times. Sometimes the words amount to poetry, often they don't; either way, they serve as pegs on which to hang a tune, though the tune is usually less important than the audible projection of the words. In the MS, monophonic settings of the texts predominate, emphasising the medieval preoccupation with unity. Unsurprisingly, the monodies are placed first in the folio, followed by the two-voiced settings, put together on the same linear principles. We don't know why the book was compiled, but the texts concentrate on grand events of the Christian year, notably Christmas and Easter, and one assumes that they were intended for ecclesiastical rites and for use by private people capable of reading and interpreting the signs. When there are two parts, each is equally significant, being written or sung separately before being com-posed, or 'placed together'. Sometimes, however, the second part is not a melodic part at all but merely a bagpipe-like drone -- an accredited technique in which the moving part per-forms an act of praise while the drone-note 'stands for' eternity, the backcloth against which we exist. Page is meticulous in re-creating the original conditions of performance, allowing the words to speak for themselves, following the rhythms of speech without rhetorical stress, let alone excess.

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Copyright © 2 June 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK







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