Musicians who focus on music of the Middle Ages or Renaissance
don't have an easy job. Most music has never been printed and
it needs much time and energy to make music in manuscripts ready
to be performed. But usually it is worth it, as many of these
manuscripts not only offer splendid music, but also reflect the
thinking of the time. Through the music - and in particular the
lyrics - one gets some idea of how people in those days were thinking
and how they dealt with the tribulations of everyday life. They
also give insight into how music was used. The manuscript from
which the ensemble Aventure has chosen the 14 pieces on this disc
is a good example.
The so-called 'Koning manuscript' is preserved in the Royal Library in
Brussels. It is a collection of sacred pieces compiled in the
Low Countries around 1500. In addition to the 29 polyphonic
works it contains a text for an antiphon, songs without musical
notation and spiritual poetry in Latin and Middle Dutch. The
music is mostly anonymous, but internationally widely known
pieces were used for new texts as well, like Jacob Obrecht's
The subjects of the texts range from Christmas and the veneration of Mary
to songs which lament about the tribulations of daily life,
and in particular worldly temptations. Some songs express a
longing for death, in order to be with Christ in heaven. The
texts reflect the ideas of the 'Devotio Moderna', a movement
based on the ideas of the Dutch scientist and, later on, missionary
preacher Geert Groote. Its aim was a spiritual renewal focusing
on a personal relationship with God. It is this personal tone
which is predominant in these songs. As the 'Devotio Moderna'
was a movement of commoners this collection is very likely compiled
to be sung (and played) at home. This movement was especially
popular in the Low Countries and its immediate environment,
and some of the songs in the manuscript also appear in sources
from the Lower Rhine area.
The ensemble has made a representative choice from the manuscript: the
first item is a song to "celebrate the Candlemas of Mary",
but the second belongs to the category of laments: "Day
and night I must lament, and suffer great longing". The
third item is an example of a song about a saint, in this case
Saint Ursula. Later on in the programme we find a song about
Saint Caecilia, which doesn't refer to her assumed role in music,
as most later compositions in her honour would do, but rather
concentrates on her total commitment to spiritual matters: "We
owe you a debt of praise, Caecilia, virgin of Christ, for you
taught us to arise and leave earthly meanness". This is
a thought which returns time and again in the songs of this
manuscript, and is often closely connected to the veneration
of the Virgin Mary, like in 'Mijns herten troest', which says:
"I wish to send you eternal salutation, with favour, willingly,
I would be received by your mercy in pure love, to give myself
to you as prisoner for I am in great longing out of love".
The song which gave this disc its title reflects the same spirit:
"Farewell, my fleshly life, (...) farewell, false world
and your vice, (...) farewell, I am taken from you to serve
Mary, that pure maid, with her will I not be confounded".
Some songs specifically deal with death and its inevitability, which was
certainly an everyday reality for people of that time: "Ah,
I must die, this much is sure, and this I do lament. Death has
surprised many; I wait for it at every moment" (Och voer
die doot en is gheen boet). How many people didn't die because
of the plague, for instance? Geert Groote is just one example:
he died 1384 at the age of 44. The longing for a close connection
to Jesus is expressed in 'O Jesus' bant': "O Jesus' bonds,
o fiery flame, ah, were you planted in my heart, then would
my soul be freed from all oppression (...)".
The manuscript also shows how music was used at that time. I already referred
to the well-known tune 'Tandernaken' by Jacob Obrecht, which
is used here for the song 'Och, voer die doot en is geen boet'.
'Mijns herten troest' is based on a secular song by Alexander
Agricola and has been given a sacred text. Other pieces, like
'Die werlt leit mi se seer' and 'Adieu, naturlic leven' have
melodies which also appear as instrumental pieces in international
songbooks of the time. What makes this collection especially
interesting is that most pieces show a much more elaborate popyphony
than was usual in late medieval Dutch manuscripts. From this
perspective this recording sheds light on a hitherto little-known
aspect of music making in the Low Countries.
The performance practice on this disc is in line with what we know about
practices in the 15th century. Most pieces are sung by two or
three voices, sometimes supported by the viol. In some pieces
the vocal performance is interrupted by an instrumental performance
of the material with three recorders. Such instrumental performances
or arrangements were quite common in those days.
As in the renaissance instruments of different
families usually didn't play together
I note with satisfaction that viol and
recorders never play at the same time.
I am also delighted that the Latin texts
are pronounced in what is thought to
be the Dutch way, which is different
from both Italian and the French pronunciation.
The Middle Dutch texts are pronounced
rather well, as far as I can tell, although
is is clearly audible that Nancy Mayer
is not a native Dutch speaker. Sometimes
I had the impression that the intonation
is less than perfect, and in some pieces
Ms Mayer's voice sounds a bit stressed
as if the top notes gave her problems.
Sometimes a little vibrato also creeps
These are just minor criticisms of a recording which I rate highly because
of the quality and the historical importance of the repertoire
and the generally good level of performance. To everyone interested
in the music of this period in Western history I recommend this
For those interested in music related to the 'Devotio Moderna' I would
like to recommend the disc 'Rose
van Jhericho: The Songbook of Anna von Köln'.
Johan van Veen