It is always an
amazing experience to walk into any of the Romanesque cathedrals
of Europe, but arguably none more so than Notre-Dame which
is literally islanded in the hub of hectic Paris. At the time
it was under construction a remarkable composer also lived
and worked there. He has come down to be known, possibly under
a pseudonym, as Magister Perotinus or Perotin.
The Hilliard Ensemble
are far from strangers to his extraordinary music having,
under the direction in those days of Paul Hillier, made a revelatory
CD of his music back in 1988 on the ECM label (1385 837 751-2).
That disc has never been bettered by anyone ... not even
themselves. It was with that in mind and knowing that the
group is slightly differently formatted now, that I went straight
to the third disc in the set, the bonus disc. This includes
pieces by Perotin and those attributed to him, also recorded
in 1988. There’s also some new material from a slightly earlier
period by Leonin and from the St. Martial school of about 1150
which helps put Perotin’s genius into perspective.
Back in 1988 the
revelatory experience of hearing this music sung with such
commitment was stunning although many other performers had
tackled it including David Munrow. One characteristic the
disc has is an incredible inner life, a real vitality, an overpowering
joy and excitement. This is what makes the music live. It bounces
and flows naturally and has, most importantly, forward momentum.
It seems to know where it is going and gets there captivating
the imagination with the fecundity of its ideas with its hockets
and interplay of polyphony. However what I have found in some
performances, and particularly I’m sorry to say on this bonus
CD, is a dullness of rhythm. There is a lack of vitality,
a lack of forward motion as if the performers are only aware
of that moment and the one just gone. There is a too strong
adherence to the modern-day bar line, so that, for want of
a better word the music sounds boring, uninvolving and discontinuous.
With this in the background it was with some trepidation
I put on the main film The Kiss of a Divine Nature.
The question of
interpretation comes up early on. Three singers are in rehearsal
working on the conductus ’Descendit de celis’. Dieter van
de Motte the musicologist tries to persuade them to add a
of ecstasy and improvisation to their performance but, sadly,
without much success.
The film consists
of a kind of detective investigation into Perotin, his milieu,
the architecture especially of the early Gothic period c.1200,
the nature of time, the liturgy, the Virgin Mary and the conception
of Christ. This is done in a series of staged debates between
musicologists and their supporters who sometimes get quite
I suspect that
the aim here might be to recreate the typical combative 12th Century
lecture about which Peter Abelard wrote. Interspersed with
this is the rehearsal and eventual presentation of a theatre
work for two dancers directed by choreographer Johan Kvesnik.
It appears to be based on a painting of the Annunciation by
Filippo Lippi. The various outcomes include a still tableau
and even reflections projected onto the naked backsides of
the female dancers. The Hilliard ensemble sing various works,
mostly complete, standing in a vast space, possibly a church.
The scene is beautifully back-and forward-lit by colour projections.
The other bonus
disc consists of two parts with the ‘The Perotin Symposium’ first.
In the same way that the first bonus CD consists of music only
and for the CD player this DVD consists of the aforementioned
debates/lectures offered as a complete piece lasting about
an hour. Incidentally for this, and for the main film you will
need subtitles as everything is in fast-flowing German. Indeed
the subtitles often go by at some speed; you might need to
pause them. The discussion between musicologists and philosophers
is exceedingly wide-ranging. At one point it touches on whether
Perotin was an alien from outer space. Certainly his importance
and his contrast with his predecessor Leonin are strongly emphasized.
Perotin’s importance is stressed to the detriment of Leonin
which I think is a great pity. Perhaps they haven’t heard
Red Byrds evocative Leonin recordings on Hyperion (66944
The same CD contains
a one hour long ‘The Vision of the Film Project’. This takes
the form of a conversation led by director Uli Aumuller in
which he leads us through the film discussing its inspiration
and aims. This includes some footage not in ‘The Kiss of a
Divine Nature’. I rather wish that I had watched it first as
it not only acts as a useful introduction but also presents
the ‘dramatis personae’, names which fled by almost unnoticed
on the dimly lit screen in the film.
This whole period
is quite fascinating and deserves this kind of detailed approach.
I have a feeling though that the three disc set could alienate
as many as it might fascinate. Some pre-knowledge and interest
is vital. The fact is that in the general education of school
pupils or students the 12th Century, the mini-renaissance,
is hardly ever studied. Most people can enjoy Romanesque
and early Gothic architecture. Most can even appreciate the
and prose of the period especially with its emphasis on Arthurian
Romance. Many will thrill at the discovery of early fresco
paintings. However the fact remains that, for many, the vocal
music of this period remains at best a puzzle and at worse
boring, dull and annoying. I’m not sure if this film, even
allowing for the presence of the Hilliard Ensemble, can really
help but it’s certainly a start.
The problem for
me - and I realize that this is quite personal - is that I
cannot accept that we are anywhere near hearing the music of
the 12th Century performed as it was heard at the
time. I say this despite the various interpretations over the
years which, as the film says, tell us more about the age in
which they were recorded than about the music. Just supposing
- and this is my final thought - that it might have sounded
more like an eastern muezzin. Then compare this with the sound
produced by a group of polite middle-aged singers fumbling
to find the right tempo and insufferably more concerned with
intonation than religious ecstasy.