Beneath the Northern Star: How the Music of the Spheres Joined Forces with Western Art Music

“Common practice” period music – basically Bach through Rachmaninoff – is so prevalent on classical radio that one might surmise that the smooth and consonant was the established rule in Western Art music from the very beginning. On the contrary, from the time music manuscripts reflect the practice of harmonizing Gregorian chant begins a painful, centuries-long pursuit of agreeable concord in harmony and rhythm.

Personally, I love the growing pains of medieval polyphony; its clashing voices and rhythms so free and fluid as to be almost inscrutable. Fifty years ago it was common to relate such music to modernism, but now that performance of medieval music is established it clearly sounds like music for a world other than our own. Delve to any degree into the history of medieval life and you will find that this was so, and those that lived in centuries leading up to the fifteenth heard music differently than we do now.

However, there was clearly need – given the high level of dissonance and complexity of compositions in ars subtilior, the mannerist and courtly genre popular at the end of the fourteenth century – for some sense of order to be established. The new approach or Contenance angloise – emphasizing thirds and sixths over more neutral parallel intervals and the intersecting seconds of medieval music – began in England and spread over Continental Europe like a virus in the first half of the fifteenth century.

Orlando Consort’s beautiful new Hyperion recording Beneath the Northern Star documents this transition, starting with an anonymous, highly parallel setting of Alleluia, Christe iubilemus from the mid-thirteenth century and reaching as far forward as John Dunstaple (ca. 1390-1453), whose music flows seamlessly into an idiom consistent with what we now regard as Renaissance practice.

By all accounts, Dunstaple was considered a “renaissance man;” a mathematician and astronomer whose “secret knowledge of the stars” may have played some role in inspiring him to re-order the music that he received into an entirely different style and harmonic language. By comparison, his older contemporary Leonel Power (ca. 1370/85-1445) approaches this sound without embracing it fully, still clinging to some conceits of ars subtilior.

Power is the composer most frequently represented in the “new layer” of The Old Hall Manuscript, really two music books stitched together; the “old layer” consisting of pieces from the 1370s and 80s and the new containing works from within a decade of the time that the final book was compiled around 1421.

This source is critical to the history of music in England, and Orlando Consort makes extensive use of it, as all but a few early English music manuscripts survived Henry VII’s vicious dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s. As a result, most of Dunstaple’s output of about fifty pieces have been rescued from continental sources, some located as far away as Russia.

Page 24 of The Old Hall Manuscript which preserves a work by “Roy Henry” — possibly Englsih King Henry VI.

Beneath the Northern Star is the Orlando Consort’s twenty-ninth album and falls into a break between an extensive series of volumes in progress devoted to the complete music of Guilluame Machaut for Hyperion. It is also one of the most useful collections ever made for the purpose of distinguishing late medieval practice from early renaissance styles in the long transition period between the two, which stretches from about 1380 to 1440.

Orlando Consort choose their selections carefully to illustrate the baby-step changes in English music from the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, but even then there are surprises; take, for example, a motet from around 1300, Ave mundi rosa, which opens with a clearly stated major third though it swiftly dissolves into the thick textures readily associated with Polyphonic music of its time.

Orlando Consort sings these difficult pieces so well that at times it is hard to imagine how they can do so; certainly the rhythmic profile of Johannes Alanus’ Sub Arturo plebs / Fons citharizancium / In omnem terram, dating from 1370, seems so random to the ear that points of entry and exit could not possibly be anticipated by performer or listener and you wonder how it’s all supposed to fit together.

Perhaps John Dunstaple wondered this also, and took strides to change music to bring it into accord with the heavenly bodies that he observed in his telescope, and brought the concept of the universal into an art that was geographically limited by region and earthbound in its traditions.

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present music from this album, along with other examples of early musical innovation including music of Thomas Stoltzer and Martin Codax’ song cycle “Cantigas de amigo” on the upcoming episode of The Early Music Show to air August 10, 2017.

Beneath the Northern Star
Orlando Consort
Hyperion Records

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