Tagged: benjamin bagby

The Silence of Medieval Singers

January 11th, 2013 in Lecture Archive

1:30-3:00 p.m., Sunday, 14 April 2013 (free and open to the public)
Marshall Room, CFA

The Silence of Medieval Singers

Katarina Livljanić (Ensemble Dialogos / University of Paris – Sorbonne)
Benjamin Bagby (Ensemble Sequentia / University of Paris – Sorbonne)

Investigating how the human singing voice might have sounded in plainchant and other ecclesiastical vocal traditions of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves confronting medieval informants whose written words are surrounded by silence. We scholars and performers have access to medieval musical notation but we do not have access to medieval sounds; our perceptions are based on the singing voices of the living but informed by documents created by those long dead, whose sounds we have never heard.

Among the various strands of medieval musicology, the study of the voice is one of the most closely linked with performance practice; medieval texts about the voice and the notation of vocal music can only be fully discussed and understood when they are linked with vocal practice and made audible today. In the investigation of medieval instruments, it is possible to evaluate visual sources, and based on these to make reconstructions of playable instruments; but in the case of the voice, visual sources can only provide us with very limited, external information, such as the number of singers present and their possible relationship to a written source, or hand and facial gestures. And reconstructions? Today’s singers are the only possible reconstructions. We cannot learn, by studying texts and images, how to sing in the way medieval singers did; performances today will always contain an element of conjecture.

However, if we are pursuing a study of medieval singing out of intellectual curiosity, then we can at least examine here a number of examples from the medieval sources, which could help us to enter by various small doors into the huge realm resounding with the many voices of medieval authors, singers and scribes. Our discussion here will try to take this reality into account as we select specific texts and notated elements, examining these for possible hints about the vocal sounds and techniques of some medieval singers.

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