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Book Review

The Modern Invention of Medieval Music

The Modern Invention of Medieval Music
Daniel Leech-Wilkinson
Cambridge University Press, 2007
ISBN: 0521037042
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The Modern Invention of Medieval Music is an extremely well-conceived and executed book that will be of great interest not only to anyone interested in 'early' music, and medieval vocal music in particular; but also to anyone persuaded of the need to bring humility to our understanding of the past in general and past performance practices of music in particular. Well respected specialist and expert Daniel Leech Wilkinson has assembled almost 300 pages of carefully-referenced evidence to explore and weigh the many hypotheses which, for over a century, have informed (or misinformed) our appreciation of how medieval music actually sounded.

These sources range from writers in the eighteenth century to specialists of the present decade. Leech Wilkinson uses closely-reasoned and meticulously-supported narrative to explore the techniques, biases, misunderstandings, assumptions and prejudices which have contributed to our views of what vocal, choral, song and sacred music from the first 500 years of the last millennium sounded like. In particular he examines how the relationships between performing methods on the one hand, and research – generous and competent, misguided and skewed – on the other have helped form our model for how such music was written and played. And – analytically, not judgmentally – how each generation has remade the music of the past if not in its own image, in an image firmly routed in its own present. The book is predicated on four eminently defensible tenets, that:

  1. musicology has tended to claim too much
  2. there is no special (ethical) virtue in 'recovering' the past, particularly when that simply cannot be done
  3. it is legitimate for there to be multiple (and at times conflicting) points of view
  4. all music can benefit from such pluralism

He succeeds admirably in making his case based on these premises.

Although not explicitly affirming as much, the talisman for what is a compelling, highly engaging and ultimately extremely important historical analysis is the question of whether or not medieval vocal music was accompanied by instruments. This question runs throughout the book and specifically forms the substance of the first three chapters.

Leech-Wilkinson takes us – with ample primary evidence – through the nineteenth century music historians and musicologists culminating in the major contributions of Riemann and Stainer, Wolf, Adler and Scherring. Their influence was felt, really, right into the second half of the twentieth century. Setting their work and conclusions in just the right amount of wider historical context (nationalism, the flight from persecuting states in Europe, technological advances etc), Leech-Wilkinson establishes how and why in the years before the first world war an orthodoxy had been established that insisted on accompanied music; it rejected a cappella style. He outlines the work of those who would throw a wrench into this orthodoxy (Adler, Scherring, to a lesser extent Besseler) but were not heard.

That a cappella singing was the norm for much medieval vocal music is now generally accepted. Leech-Wilkinson presents a superb exposition of how we have arrived at this acceptance. He also provides a most readable (but not uncritical) survey of the work (performance, research, publication and scholarship) of Christopher Page and Gothic Voices in particular to support that hypothesis. Perhaps just as interesting is his examination of how and why the balance of opinion tipped quite quickly a generation or so ago. He does this without either implying that the first 'wave' of early music practitioners (whose work was so invaluable in bringing music before Bach to wider audiences) were in any way defective. He also does this without overstating the case for the absurdity of these first musicians' inclusion of Renaissance and Baroque instruments (crumhorns, trombones, shawms etc.) in their medieval editions and performances. Not that Leech-Wilkinson pulls any punches: he has the erudite tact of someone who knows they are right – for the moment. For he draws attention to the way, for instance, in which Gothic Voices recordings fairly quickly began to leave open the possibility that one day yet newer and sounder evidence may surface and disprove everything these pioneers now stand for. It is Gothic Voice in particular who were and still are emblematic of the a cappella school. Page, by the way, acknowledges the parallel contribution of Craig Wright in his own summary in Knighton and Fallows Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music (ISBN 0520210816, UCLA Press, 1998). Leech-Wilkinson is equally diplomatic in explaining how and why some ensembles have (had) different approaches (from those of Page and Gothic Voices) to these – and parallel – issues.

What this does, of course, is strengthen his argument! And by describing to some extent the personal dimension of the contribution made by people like Page, Fallows and those inspired by them, Leech-Wilkinson shines a welcome light into ways that informed music-making really does and should develop. If there was dogma, vehemence, antagonism in the theories advanced by almost any of these musicians, it is of slim concern to Leech-Wilkinson. That does the profession credit. Indeed Leech-Wilkinson acknowledges the part he himself and fellow reviewers played after Page's 'revolution' of the 1980s in advocating voices only. He hints that it was responsible for the disappearance of at least one ensemble (The Medieval Ensemble of London) while at the same time commending to such groups as Sequentia and Ensemble Organum the advantages of Page's approach.

Above all, though, Leech-Wilkinson's measured, politic and even-tempered style illustrates admirably the idea that musicology is best when fluid, fallible and flexible. Therein lies one of its great strengths in underpinning our pleasure and nourishment with all music. Making but passing reference to Taruskin's celebrated deflation of the authenticity movements of the first generation of Historically Informed Performers, Leech-Wilkinson shows again and again how we can, and should, accept the best and latest attempts to understand the ways in which music of the past must have been conceived and sounded. Our 'best effort' is fulfilling and satisfactory – we should forget the 'definitive'.

Leech-Wilkinson is also very refreshing in setting the relationship between scholars and academia on the one hand and performers on the other in accurate historical and geographical perspectives… to some extent the 'a cappella phenomenon' is a British phenomenon. To a greater extent it's the European and North American groups which keep more of a distance between academia and performance. After all, he suggests, it was their insistence on the appropriateness of the weird and wonderful supposedly authentic medieval instruments in the 1960s (see above) which won the latter a seemingly inviolable role in the HIP revival. When this proved questionable (Leech-Wilkinson's account of the 'unmasking' of the douçaine [pp 144-147] makes instructive reading) and the number of such instrument makers declined, one could almost say that they only had themselves to blame. Skepticism is useful in (such areas of) musicology. Indeed it's such a skepticism that at the end of his longest and most cogently argued second chapter Leech-Wilkinson can write, 'We will surely not be content with a cappella performances for ever.' [p.153]

The second (and slightly shorter) part of the book (which has only four well-structured chapters in all) deals with ways in which views of medieval harmony in the last century or so have distorted our view of the music, and even been used to promote Fascism: the work of Ficker and Besseler in pre-WWII Germany, for example, claimed that the Germanness of some medieval music was in itself a goal, something to be accentuated. There are indeed lessons here for us all. Particularly since Leech-Wilkinson has it that 'the lengthy debate between Besseler and Ficker during the late 1940s and 1950s essentially laid the tracks from which scholars have viewed medieval harmony ever since' [p 174]. He also takes us persuasively through the ways in which analysis (and reductive analysis in particular) was resisted because medieval music was thought of too much as a curiosity, an example of a rather odd(-sounding) craft until the momentum generated by Kühn and Sarah Fuller created the right climate for a mature analysis of integrated harmony and counterpoint.

In the fourth and final chapter, Leech-Wilkinson sets the narrative of his preceding three chapters in the context of much broader and more abstract change theory… Kühn and paradigm shifts, for example. The author ties this theory to how our perceptions and conceptions of medieval vocal music in the past two centuries have changed. He also makes the extremely valid point that what was 'right' 50 years ago can now be demonstrated to be 'wrong'. So we too should beware of assuming our interpretations and assessments are infallible. They're not; nor ever can be.

Nevertheless some of the (general, background) arguments in this section might better have been condensed into a Preface, rather than stretched out as Leech-Wilkinson has done. His position on how we see the past – which is presented carefully and eloquently towards the very ending of the book – is influenced by the same Postmodern relativism which says, "Scholarship cannot be defined for what it does for the past, only by what it does for us" [p. 254].

Charitably, this conclusion can be accepted in the sense that we should celebrate our abilities to accept uncertainty in relation to how medieval music was played and sounded. Scholars might be less sanguine, though, about playing down the rigors of scholarship for scholarship's sake, even though Leech-Wilkinson has been (rightly) at pains throughout this book to castigate those who, in the past, have allowed external pressures to skew their understanding of the subject. In other words, it's right to reject making a fetish of authenticity; because authenticity can only ever be guessed at. It's also right to reject the promulgation of hypotheses for ends other than purely musical. But, although the spirit of Leech-Wilkinson's closing call is encouraging, it may leave one too many hostages to fortune – less where the relationship not between past and present are concerned; more between present and future. Further accretions of interpretation can only be counter-productive: "… it's all right not to know what happened, and it's all right to reinterpret for today… We owe no duty to the past to tell it like [sic] it was, our only duties are to be useful to the present and to leave a thinking environment to the future." [p.256, emphasis added]. When Leech-Wilkinson says "… verifiable reconstruction of the past… is the least of [the HIP movement's] achievements" [p.259, emphasis added], he means it. Open-minded though his stance certainly is, not everyone will want that to be the last word.

This is hardly a book for the casual reader, then; nor really for the generalist wanting to be introduced to music from the middle ages. It has a distinct message and devotes all its energy less to exploring the broader issues; and more to supporting those arguments set out in the four tenets above. But as a survey of the issues – and by extension as a book which consciously advises a mature and somewhat detached assessment of how musicians from one generation view the work of those from previous generations – it must be classed as likely to be a standard work. Scholarly, infinitely absorbing, extremely well argued, carefully illustrated and referenced and expertly structured, The Modern Invention of Medieval Music should be read by all who want an authoritative yet modest overview of where this particular aspect of early vocal music now stands. And – thanks to Leech-Wilkinson's style and approach – how, why and where it is likely to develop from here. Definitely recommended.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Sealey.