by Branimir Krstic
14th century music is out of awareness of today's classical music mainstream. Music written prior to the 16th century is taught very sparingly (if at all) at conservatories, save within the specialized programs that focus almost exclusively on music of these ages. Even compositions of early Baroque composers (like Monteverdi, 1576-1643) are regarded as "early music", yet most of the materials on this album were composed some 250 years before Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea". For the sake of perspective, 250 years ago today Mozart was a child and Beethoven wasn't yet born. One could go on with similar examples of music categorized as “early,” but the fact is that most classical music lovers today wouldn't expect music so intriguing, complex, and experimental to have been created over six centuries ago.
"Ars subtilior" is not a musical era, but rather a style. It was geographically limited mainly to what is today southern France and northern Spain. Chronologically, it flourished in the last quarter of the 14th century, a century full of strong drive for knowledge and progress, but also filled with catastrophes. There were many wars and upheavals, including the "Hundred Years’ War" between England and France, Western Schism (with one disputed pope in Avignon and the other in Rome), and the pandemic of bubonic plague, which occurred in the years around 1350 and wiped out about one third (or more) of Europe's population. The societies in Europe fell apart under the scourge of the Black Death, and life in quarantine was the only chance to survive. Life in the isolation of quarantine - with the arts as a connector within a small circle - became a frame story for Bocaccio's "Decameron", and it seems that similar small circles of supporters and connoisseurs were not only still common in the next generation, but also decisive for the existence of a style such as ars subtilior.
As a style, ars subtilior defies known categories of musical history. Although many of its features were passed on from the masters of the previous, ars nova generation (especially Machaut), the writing shows much more concern for vertical texture. The poetry used is often so personal and subjective, that a reading of translations evokes a 19th century poet's work. The rhythmic complexity and intricacies, as well as an imperative to experiment, however, are as close to the 20th century as it gets - a reason, maybe, why the 20th century started the reevaluation and new appreciation of ars subtilior. One of the reasons why such sophisticated rhythmical structures could come to life is that the notation of that time became able to carry great rhythmical diversity. Nevertheless, some composers went even further and added their own notational features, which applied in some cases only to a particular composition, or to a section within. As if such notational embellishments were not enough, sometimes the score was shaped into a picture, or was fitted into one. It may be that patrons of the ars subtilior composers liked to get an exquisite picture presented with such music, but in some cases it is probable that a composer wanted to visually illustrate his compositional idea - like notating a circular canon in a staff shaped as a circle.
The name of the style itself is Latin meaning "the more subtle art", and it has become widely accepted in the recent decades as the perception of the music itself became more enthusiastic. One of the style's former names was "mannerism", which pointed to some excesses of experimenting for experimentation’s sake, in this era of "14th century avant-garde". Although the music of ars subtilior is being increasingly acknowledged, it seems that its widest acceptance comes from "modern composers", the avant-gardists, this time those of 20th and 21st century. I myself came across this music through these channels. Once I started learning more about it, I wanted to play it, and this is how these guitar arrangements came to life. These recordings are modern renditions, and the fact that there is so little certainty regarding original performance praxis, restricts most of the interpretational decisions to the music itself. Furthermore, the closeness of the spirit that created this music to the spirit of our time makes a modern performer more comfortable in the quest for their own interpretation, than in the case of some much later music.
The most represented composer on this album is Jacob Senleches. Only six of his works survived, all of them three-part songs in "fixed forms" (as instrumental music was far less advanced than was vocal music then), but even such a small body of work suffices to place him as one of the leading figures of the era. Even within so experimental a style, he could be called the "bad boy of ars subtilior" (if today’s feuilletonists would care to report), as he was already complimented to be - matching the previous name of the style - "one of the most mannered composers". For some time, he was associated with the court of Eleanor of Aragon, Queen of Castile, who must have had a remarkable music taste. Unfortunately, she died at age of 24, and Senleches was inspired to write a lament entitled "Fuions de ci", or "Let us flee", urging his circle to try their luck elsewhere, as they had lost their Eleanor and nobody would care for them there anymore. We neither know much about Senleches, nor has his image (or of any ars subtilior composer) been preserved. It seems that the most we will ever know about him will be learned from his own poetry he set to music. "Je me merveil" is a song in which he expresses anger towards copycat composers, who counterfeit music by stealing ideas. Senleches was a harpist, and this work makes an impression as if it was perfected from an improvisation of chords on a harp, in which the tones are occasionally delayed, especially the bottom line. Many instances of what we would today call "broken chords," clearly point to coming times, apart from holding a rhythmically extreme piece together. Although a spring song, "En ce gracieux temps" may also have been meant as criticism of unoriginal composers (who seem to have been irritatingly good at marketing their production), contrasting the gentle singing of a nightingale to the rudeness of a cuckoo.
As a wonderful piece of music AND a picture, "Le harp de mélodie" enjoys a cult status. One of the two preserved versions is notated inside a picture of a harp, and this has become the most recognizable image of the style, something like a trademark of ars subtilior. The composition is a canon between the two top voices, while the bottom voice (the tenor) plays its own line in what today would be described as a different key. This was a common procedure for Senleches and his contemporaries and was even more prevalent in older music. The piece is rhythmically rich, and the canonic imitation creates an impression of an ancient machine, moving precisely and predictably in accordance with its own rules. To the ears of the modern listener, there is a melancholy mood to the piece, and the text of the song makes clear how much the times have changed, as it states that the harp is here to bring us pleasure. An apprehension that the music is present to banish the melancholy is also to be found in earlier composers’ writings, so even when a ballade by Machaut makes us most melancholic, we should be aware that an exactly opposite effect was intended.
While we don't know much about Senleches, when it comes to Solage, we don't even know his full or real name. Twelve of his vocal works have been preserved, and his style appears to be less "mannered" than the style of Senleches, thus more connected to the ideas of the next generation of composers. However, he is the author of one of the most notorious works of ars subtilior. His rondeau, "Fumeux fume par fumée", which could be translated as "smoker smokes through smoke," uses chromaticism unheard of at that time. The singers sing untypically low, starting higher, and then sinking for much of the time. The lyrics provide more mystery, as some two centuries would have to lapse before tobacco became known in Europe. Hence, there is a lot of discussion as to whether “smoking” was meant metaphorically, or was the smoke just incense, or something of "sterner stuff?" There is surely a feeling of drowsiness in the music.
"Stella celi" is a setting of a Marian prayer for deliverance from the plague by the English composer John Cooke. It doesn't belong to ars subtilior and is written later than the other pieces on this album (save for Barcarola). Nevertheless, it is more conservative in style, maybe because it belongs to the sacral music, a field in which the ars subtilior composers were less productive. However, I decided to include it on this album, not only because it is a beautiful piece of music, but also to bring a contrasting atmosphere of living under the threat of plague, which the ars subtilior figures mostly chose to ignore in their output. "Dieux gart" is one of two known pieces by Guido, who by full name may have been Guido de Lange. It is dominated by a marvelous melody in the top voice, which is full of characteristic syncopation. It is a piece from style's beginning, but already with all of the traits typical for ars subtilior. "Aller m'en veus" is a farewell to his country by Johannes Ciconia. A prolific composer with a large output in various styles, he came at the end of the ars subtilior, segueing to the coming generation of Binchois and Dufay.
My own "Barcarola" is essentially a neo-romantic piece, influenced and spiced by many elements of ars subtilior. I was approached by Russell and Leslie Margolis regarding a composition commission to honor the birth of their cousin Edie Rae DeRoche. The work was to be on the more traditional side, and we discussed possible options, until we settled for a barcarola. It usually has a ternary form and developed from the songs of Venetian boatsmen, its accompaniment suggesting boat-rowing. I have myself played guitar transcriptions of barcarolas by Mendelssohn and Albeniz, which are in a gentle and nostalgic mood, and I decided not to suppress my own nostalgia in the work. However, as the piece honors the birth of a little girl, I decided to include a joyful middle section, in which the omnipresent melody — and there is essentially only one in this 8 minute piece — becomes light and even childish. There was not much work to be done in order to accomplish that, apart from using inversion and removing all of the rhythmical tricks I used in other sections of the piece.
I am not aware of other guitar arrangements of the works on this album, so I should add a few points from the performer's perspective. The range of the music is very narrow, but with complex voice leadings, independent and lively rhythms in every voice, much syncopation, and independent metric constructions. I used octave transpositions in only a few sections of "Dieux gart", much of "Je me merveil", and a few tones of "Harpe". However, in the last one I play the canon at the octave, instead of unison, which isn't possible on the guitar. The same effect, however, is present when the bottom voices are sung by males, and the cantus (the top voice) by a female. Regardless of the uncertainty associated with the contemporary performance of the works of the era, I don't think that a composer who has the nerve to draw an enigmatic score into a picture would protest a performance on a solo instrument.
Although the music is (extremely) polyphonic by the standards of later eras, the greatest prominence is given to the top voice. Also, there was an option of performing the top voice solo, or in conjunction with the lowest voice, which I did in "Fumeux" and "Harpe". It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between voices on the solo instrument, but in so narrow a range (usually some two octaves) it is also a problem in purely vocal renditions. I have heard versions that include instruments, or were purely instrumental (which also may have been common contemporary practice). Although this can make the voicing much clearer, it can also deprive the arrangement of the excitement of the "search for the line" when voices switch perspectives. This music is open to many different readings, and it will undoubtedly find its way to more interpretations.
Baltimore, January 22nd 2013
Special thanks to Paul Weaver and Leslie, Russell, Paz and Rebecca Margolis.