A Tale of Two Vielles

Early Music Access Project’s David McCormick

On a special Labor Day edition of The Early Music Show broadcast back on September 4, 2017, I interviewed David McCormick, founder of the Charlottesville-based Early Music Access Project. The Project holds its annual fundraiser at Swannanoa Palace in Alton on Sunday, June 24 at 3 pm.

This interview with David was my first chance to get up close and personal with a medieval fiddle or vielle. On this occasion I inelegantly described the instrument as “like a pregnant violin that doesn’t have as much shape to it; it has five strings and, at one end, a sort of banjo configuration.”

Given that the vielle is a relatively rare instrument to encounter in one’s travels, imagine the surprise and fortuity perhaps, of finding two – count ‘em, two — medieval fiddle discs cross my desk the same month. The upcoming Memorial Day broadcast of the Early Music Show on Monday, May 28 at 7 pm seemed as good an opportunity as any to provide exposure to both recordings.

Alejandro Tonatiuh Hernández – Tempus Viellatorum. Enchiriadis EN 2047 (2018)

Tempus Viellarorum by Alejandro Tonatiuh Hernández

Mexican viellist Alejandro Tonatiuh Hernández studied modern violin at the Conservatorio Nacional de México in Mexico City before developing an interest in the vielle. Once hooked, he traveled to Barcelona and studied with Early Music heavyweights such as Mala Punica leader Pedro Memelsdorff.

One of the great capabilities of the vielle is its handiness in transmitting monophonic medieval literature, which survives amply in contemporary manuscript sources. Yet it often begs for equal time in the face of the long-held attention paid to the far more scant corpus of polyphonic medieval music.

While most of this literature is anonymous, a fair amount comes from medieval troubadours, trouvères and trobairises. These were court performers that sang and delivered poetry before royals and aristocrats, with a small amount also surviving from jongleurs, ordinary street musicians, and comics that sometimes assisted in court.

Tonatiuh Hernández takes a very pure approach to his instrument and the material, utilizing only citole, muse and deftly applied hand percussion as accompaniment which is only sparingly applied to the overall texture. Much of Tempus Viellatorum is solo vielle going on uninterrupted for lengthy stretches.

At first listen, Tempus Viellatorum can be inconclusive in effect but in subsequent hearings, it gains strength as one’s ears attune to the range of the vielle employed and lock on to memorable details in the melodies played. Highlights include two pieces by troubadours Gautier de Dargies (ca. 1170-ca. 1240), Guiraut Riquier (ca. 1230-1292) and a “Conductus” from the Roman de Fauvel.

Baptiste Romain, Le Miroir de Musique – In Seculum Viellatoris. Outhere Music/Ricercar RIC 388 (2018)

In Seculum Viellatores by Le Miroir de Musique and Baptiste Romain

If Tonatiuh Hernández is the Apollo of the vielle, then Baptiste Romain is its Dionysus. He is a flamboyant, virtuosic performer that treats the vielle as though it was not much different from a standard violin and is given to impressive flights of fancy.

Romain is joined by Le Miroir de Musique, a group that he founded that also includes singers, in a program centered in a slightly later period than that covered by Tonatiuh Hernández. Romain studied standard violin in France before resettling in Basel to take up the medieval fiddle.  Among others, he has studied with Crawford Young, leader of the Ferrara Ensemble.

In Seculum Viellatoris does not lack for variety; with the vocalists and greatly expanded instrumental complement the album relays a constantly changing sequence of colors. Romain performs two of the three surviving musical works of the troubadour Perdigon (fl. 1190-1220) who was specifically noted as being as famous for his fiddling as for his verse.

Romain’s take on Perdigon’s “Los mals d’amors ai eu ben toz apres” is dazzling indeed, exemplifying Romain’s expressed interest in “carry[ing] out research into new ideas for historical performance practices in relation to early music, particularly in terms of improvisation.” However, this can be a mixed blessing; at 9:39, his performance of the “Ghaetta” from Add. Ms. 29987 goes on a little too long, despite its brilliance, bringing to mind a recording of the “Saltarello” from the same source made in 1971 by the Ulsamer-Collegium that likewise overstays its welcome.

This is a minor complaint commenting on a challenge that is mostly a matter of editing, rather than one of interpretation or performance ability. In that last category, Romain truly excels, and his group is well-drilled. In Seculum Viellatores makes an interesting case for the existence of a sort of stylus phantasticus at the turn of the medieval to renaissance periods, much as it is known for its presence in the early Baroque.

Both of these discs contribute a lot to the evolving saga of the vielle, which a half-century ago was no more than an image in paintings and miniatures from illuminated manuscripts. I heartily congratulate McCormick, Tonatiuh Hernández and Romain for all that they do in putting the vielle front-and-center in their investigations of music of the distant past, emboldening the instrument’s future and for filling in the color that its blank canvas affords.

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 these albums, along with the lute music of Sylvius Leopold Weiss played by Nigel North and other selections, on the upcoming episode of The Early Music Show to air on Memorial Day, May 28.

Tempus Viellatorum
Alejandro Tonatiuh Hernández
Enchiriadis Records

In Seculum Viellatoris
Baptiste Romain, Le Miroir de Musique
Outhere Music/Ricercar Records

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