Program Notes for MIRIE IT IS


All medieval music is glimpsed from a great distance, but no repertory is so hard to see as that of  England in the middle ages. Where France had a tradition of lyric song that lasted long enough for thousands of songs to be enshrined in manuscripts, the music we have from England of the same period is scattered and faint: much was destroyed when the monasteries were taken over by the state in the Renaissance, and much more has suffered from the ravages of time. What has come down to us, though, speaks in astonishingly vivid voices.

English medieval culture was strongly influenced by Continental developments.  During this period, French was still the language of the English aristocracy, and musical style would have followed suit. But alongside the cultivation of French sophistication there also grew up some intensely beautiful native styles of music. Our program, therefore, offers a garden of English delights, from the earliest surviving  vernacular songs by the hermit St. Godric (here elaborated with our own harmonies) to the refined delights of French-influenced polyphony.  You’ll hear a good number of the songs in the vernacular that survive from this time with both music and text, as well as a few poems so irresistible that we have set them to our own tunes.
The English repertoire is all the more tantalizing for the number of songs that survive without music. Those few that came down to us with musical notation were preserved only by purest chance. “Bryd one brere,” for example, exists because someone happened to copy this love song onto the back of a papal bull. Because of the damage so much of this music suffered, many of these songs present problems of sheer transcription. “Mirie it is”, for example, is missing its last note, and there are a few holes in the page that cancel some other neumes out. For this program, we are drawing on a new edition of this repertoire prepared by Judith Overcash, who has taken a fresh look at the sources and corrected many misreadings of earlier editors.

Most of our songs date from the middle of the thirteenth century and some from the beginning of the fourteenth, when new musical developments were coming over from France. The art of polyphony, of setting several voices together, was reaching new heights of sophistication in Paris, and the English were not slow to pick up on this sophisticated musical language. The four-texted motet  “Solaris” is characteristic of this Parisian art: three elaborate Latin poems, one about the introduction of Christianity to England, weave their counterpoint around a tenor that is a remarkably worldly French pop-song. At the same time, a native tradition of polyphony developed, one that was probably influenced by local folkways. Gerald of Wales, writing around 1200, remarks on the improvised close harmony of the Welsh, which he attributes to their contact with the Norse and the Danes. When this folk tradition emerges in written polyphony, it is in the form of immensely sweet concords, with entire songs composed almost entirely in sixths and thirds. This would have seemed particularly strange to Parisian sophisticates, for the very sounds that we regard as most consonant were viewed as less perfect than fourths and fifths, and so to be used with caution. Two stunning examples of this native English style are found in “Ave mundi rosa” and “Ave celi regina virginum.”

A common thread throughout medieval English sacred music, both in Latin and in the vernacular, is a devoted love of Mary. This deep veneration was the source of frequent comment from Continental visitors, and the sweetness of so much of English polyphony seems especially appropriate for music to celebrate Christianity’s great mother. In addition to the sacred music dedicated to and about Mary, she appears in the vernacular songs as well. “Edi be thu, hevene queenë” is a celebration of her tremendous accomplishments and contributions to the world. In “Ar ne kuth ich sorghe non” the singer, destitute and unjustly imprisoned, first calls out to Jesus for help. Finally in the last stanza she moves on to Mary, imploring her to intercede with her son Christ: “beseech thy son to have pity on us and bring us from this great misery.”  In other songs, Mary herself speaks: “Stand wel moder” is a dialogue between Mary and the crucified Jesus, an impassioned discourse of love, suffering, and forgiveness, and one whose sharp contrast of worldly agony and eternal bliss is very characteristic of English medieval texts.
The vivid imagery of Christ’s suffering also serves as the subject of “Worldes blisse,” whose meditation circles around a repeating fragment of chant in the tenor. An even bleaker view of the pain and hardship all of us suffer in this world is presented in “Man mei longe,” with its calls for us to take life’s transience as an opportunity to transform ourselves.  The brevity and pain of life was a strong theme of earlier English and Norse poetry that continued in this later Christianized tradition; given the difficulty of life in medieval Britain, it is not surprising that many songs take this as their theme.  What is perhaps more surprising is the radiant vision of bliss that religion, and particularly the figure of Mary, offered to the medieval English mind.
To relieve what might well be an unrelenting program about the pains of this world, we also include some music from a slightly later tradition, like the sweet carol “On Yooles night,” which paints a wonderful and unusual dream-narrative of Christmas.  The zesty poem  “In secreit place” is the latest work on our program; our own Shira Kammen has set this to her own tune, based on her deep familiarity with early English traditional music, to bring this earthy dialogue-ballad to life again.  (You will notice that a few terms remained, well, untranslatable.  We leave these to your imagination…)

We know a vivid instrumental tradition flourished in England, and in this program we have sought to bring back to life a few of the fragments that have come down to us, and to honor the tradition they came out of. The art of instrumental music was almost entirely an improvised one in the middle ages, and the only way to reawaken that tradition is to improvise in the language of the time, as clearly, playfully, and eloquently as we can. We include one surviving dance from the Robertsbridge Codex in the popular form of the estampie, where each section is repeated, first with an open ending, then with a closed one. In “Stantipes,” Shira has made a gathering of many of the instrumental dances that have survived, which we present along with our own elaborations upon them. We hope you take as much joy from this music as we have!

— © Robert Mealy