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Trecento Treasures

April 24, 2007

Even in the early-music-saturated Bay Area, scant attention is paid to the "high-art" portions of the medieval musical repertory. Listeners interested in hearing much of it professionally performed must rely on visiting ensembles. We are lucky, though, to have around us several daring presenters that seek out and invite the best musicians working in areas that are specialized even for early music aficionados. Thanks, then, to the San Francisco Early Music Society for reinviting the trio Liber UnUsualis, whose French medieval program last season was hastily rearranged due to the illness of one of the singers. This weekend they were all there, and to judge by Saturday night's program at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, three heads are even better than two.
Liber UnUsualis (the name is a musicological in-joke on the Liber Usualis, the standard book of texts and music for the sung Catholic liturgy) comprises soprano Melanie Germond, mezzo-soprano Caroline Buff, and tenor William Hudson. Unlike some other ensembles mining the same repertory, they use no instruments, and their collective sound is a little different from the others'. They don't quite reach the ethereal purity of such ensembles as Trio Mediæval or the late lamented Anonymous 4, nor do they achieve the hard-edged clarity of Gothic Voices, the magnificent British ensemble founded by Christopher Page. The singing is perceptibly vibrated, agile, well-blended, and warm. It's a lovely basic sound, allied with the facility of motion and consistent attention to tuning that are necessary in this tricky music.

The program had what might seem a dully didactic design: music composed in honor of the Visconti family — rulers of much of northern Italy for about 150 years — over the course of the 14th century (in Italian, the trecento). The program notes delve into the texts' allegorical content. We learn that the family emblems were the serpent, the sun, and the eagle; that the name of one notable member is spelled out acrostically in the text of one motet, while another's personal motto finds its way into more than one text, explicitly or implicitly; that the images of phoenixes and turtledoves in another text have to do with a Visconti bride from a noble Veronese family who on her marriage dropped her own emblem of the phoenix in favor of the turtledove (another Visconti symbol).

One bride of that line, Isabella of Savoy, comes in for some obvious but irresistible punning, as in the line "Una donna vi regna ch'é si bella" (A woman reigns over you, she who is so fair) from Jacopo da Bologna's Lo lume vostro dolce'l mio signore (Your sweet light, my Lord). And so forth.
Aurally Braiding Golden Tresses
All this historical detail in the program booklet left little room for discussion of the music, yet may have provided an ideal hook for those listeners who were getting their first taste of a rarefied, intricate body of music. The performers, in spoken introductions to groups of pieces (all three took turns at this), related these Visconti references to the music they were about to sing, often vividly.

Buff, for example, introduced Bartolino da Padova's Le aurate chiome (The golden hair) by describing the only extant portrait of the subject, Caterina Visconti, with her tresses elaborately braided and ornamented, and added that the lines of the two-part piece twined together in a kind of aural image of that braiding. They did, breathtakingly.

Having some idea of what's going on in these highly allegorical texts is a great help in getting your ears around the music. Trecento notions of text-setting seem bewildering on first glance. Some syllables get elaborate, florid treatment; others are hurried through; and in neither case are they usually the syllables that a listener used to later prosody might expect to hear so treated. It's easy to get lost in the texts without also having to puzzle out what they're about, particularly when, as in several of the works performed here, more than one text is being sung at once — and not always in the same language.

It's easier at times simply to lay the words to one side and concentrate on the music. While the music and the texts illuminate one another, the music alone is enough to keep your brain in overdrive. Trecento complexity is not as extreme as that of some of Guillaume de Machaut's wilder contemporaries in France in the same era, but it's still awfully intricate music.
Play Not on Words
There is extraordinary dovetailing and snaking around of parts, wild syncopation, lots of hocketing (cognate with hiccuping: voices trading off in close succession, each resting while the other sings, making a kind of composite line). Then there's pure compositional bravado, as in Johannes Ciconia's celebrated canon Le ray au soleyl (The ray of sunlight), in which the same melodic line is sung at the same time at three different speeds.

The original sources of much of this music has untexted lines, which has occupied generations of scholars. Some ensembles allot them to instruments. At one time, an all-vocal ensemble faced with three lines of music and one line of text would have tried to fit the text, or at least bits of it, to all three lines. But these days the usual way is to sing the untexted lines on a single neutral vowel or on vowels correlating (more or less) with the vowels being sung at the moment in the texted part or parts: a tricky business.

Liber UnUsualis seemed to adopt whichever procedure best suited the piece at hand. In the opening Sotto l'imperio del possente prinçe (At the mighty prince's command) of da Bologna, all three singers sang the (single) text; often the parts moved more or less together. But in Paolo da Firenze's Sofrir m'estuet (I must suffer), only the top line was texted and the others were sung on neutral vowels. Da Bologna's Lux purpurata/Diligite iusticiam (Regal light/You who judge) has two busy upper parts, with varying texts, and a much-slower-moving tenor that was sung, again, on a vowel. The concert's magnificent closers were two trebly-texted tours de force by Francesco Landini and da Bologna respectively, both of them densely packed treasure-hoards of words and music alike.

"Treasure-hoard" might do to describe Saturday night's program. It is difficult to imagine much better guides to this daunting yet uncannily captivating music than these musicians. I was hoping for more Ciconia — besides Le ray au soleyl, there was only the lovely two-voice O Petre Christi discipuli (O Peter, disciple of Christ). Still, everything was brilliantly and sensitively sung, and was fashioned into a program that was a rare combination of ingenious design and seeming naturalness of progression from one piece to the next.

Liber UnUsualis does not, alas, appear on SFEMS' just-announced season for next year, but I hope we will be hearing more of it.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.