s usual in the cities and in the countryside, the Christmas story is told. The French verses of the Rouen play are set to melodies that have survived in beautifully decorated songbooks. Music and text merge in the unique and colorful interpretation of this work. The supposed secondary characters come into focus: angels sing with lute, harp and organ, shepherds decorate their melodies with pastoral sounds of fiddle and flute, bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy.
Grace Newcombe – vocals, harp | Tessa Roos – vocals, bells | Matthieu Romanens – vocals and declamation | Rui Stähelin – plectrum lute, vocals | Raitis Grigalis – vocals | Claire Piganiol – organetto, harp | Baptiste Romain – fiddle, bagpipes | Tabea Schwartz – recorder | Tobie Miller – hurdy-gurdy, vocals | Marc Lewon – lute, vocals | Artistic direction: Elizabeth Rumsey, Marc Lewon, Baptiste Romain
Scientific support: David Fallows
Rouen 1474 and the great Swiss Christmas tour
In this month’s vlog, learn about the 15th century mystery play that provides a unique, explicit description of how instruments and voices can be “arranged” in the performance of a chanson – amazing! And because there were so many singers and instruments on stage during our concert tour in December, we present you a few of them in detail: the organetto, the rebec, the gittern and the bagpipe.
Interview with hurdy-gurdy player, recorder player and singer Tobie Miller, on the occasion of the program “Noël normand” in December 2022.
Thomas Christ: Dear Tobie, I am very happy to welcome an internationally known virtuoso of a relatively unknown instrument – the hurdy-gurdy – to interview. Your mother was a violinist, you grew up in Canada, please tell us how you found your way to early music in the New World. You have already before you came to Basel in Montreal, he studied early music at McGill University.
Tobie Miller: Thank you! It is my honor and pleasure to be involved in this project! – I guess my love of early music started early (childhood and teen years), but deciding to pursue further was definitely an act of teenage rebellion! As a child I played the violin, piano and sang – in a children’s choir I was inspired to play the recorder (I was jealous of some children who learned it at school). This became a kind of passion …
and as a teenager I spent many hours listening to my collection of old recordings of music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (this was back in the days when second-hand hipster record stores still existed, and I acquired a respectable selection of LPs). However, there was a great expectation in my family that if I studied music, I would follow a modern classical, “orchestral” path – my mother was a violinist, and my father held the position of principal tuba in the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (and before that, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra) for 50 years. I was very encouraged to follow in his footsteps and even began my formal studies as a modern flute player (flute). To make a long story short, I totally hated that degree and dropped out at the end of the first year when I discovered that there was a fantastic early music department there. So it was that I dusted off my recorders and began my studies in “early music” at the age of 17 – much to the dismay of my parents. I completed both a Diploma and a Bachelor of Music at McGill University before moving to Basel in 2004.
TC: Sometimes it seems to me that the hurdy-gurdy is a kind of transitional or intermediate instrument between the violin and the organ. Can the complexity of tone generation and dynamics be expressed in a singlen explain in a few words? It is not just a matter of pressing and turning, but also of
and slapped with the wrist
TM: The hurdy-gurdy is something like a medieval computer! You are absolutely right that it combines the technique of stringed instruments and organs (more on that later) – the strings are bowed with a wooden wheel (circular bow) and can be divided into melody strings with a keyboard (wooden tangents on the keys shorten the strings) on the one hand, and drone strings that hold an accompanying note on the other. A special feature that appears for the first time at the end of the 14th century is the movable and rhythmic bridge (snare), similar to the Tromba Marina – it is the bridge of one of the drone strings, controlled by small hand movements of the player, which set accents on different parts of the rotation. This creates a rhythmic impulse (buzzing).
How does the hurdy gurdy
which could also be called a
in the other languages to
in the other languages to completely different names
to “vielle à roue” in France or to “hurdy-gurdy” in England?
TM: Originally, the instrument was called either “organistrum” or a vernacular version of “symphony”(chifonie, sinfonia etc.) titled. The former name is mostly used today for the large instruments played by two musicians, the latter for the smaller, portable instruments from about the 13th century onwards (but a clear demarcation of the terms remains impossible in the Middle Ages). Over the course of 900 years, the instrument came to have its own names in different languages and regions as it entered different social classes and styles of music-making: These names are sometimes related to the original names (e.g. zanfona) or are descriptive (
vielle à roue
) or simply onomatopoeic descriptions of the perhaps less sophisticated playing skills of some street musicians (e. g. B. English hurdy-gurdy). The instrument had a heyday in 18th-century France, where it was called simply vielle, as opposed to the modern French vielle à roue – to distinguish it from the medieval fiddle.
The etymological connection to the lyre in several languages (
vevlira, lira…) undoubtedly points to a connection with Orpheus mythology – there are even cantata texts from the 18th century that refer to the lyre of Orpheus. The name “Lyra” first appears in Sebastian Virdung’s, “Musica getutscht und ausgezogen” (Basel, 1511).
My favorite name, however, is undoubtedly “Ysis”: a 15th century text by Paulus Paulirinus explains that the instrument was actually invented by the goddess Ysis (and then goes on to describe an instrument often played by blind women – which is quite true in this case!). My ensemble Danguy was originally called Ensemble Ysis until well-known political events forced a name change …
TC: The instrument is
largely forgotten, but was able to achieve great success in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque.
as well as in the baroque period.
e flourishing experience. Can you tell us something about the birth of this instrument?
TM: The instrument seems to have originated in the 12th century to have along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The first representations we see are sculptures at churches along this path and show large instruments (organistrum) played by two musicians. The most famous of these instruments is the one on the portico of the Cathedral of Santiago, an incredibly beautiful and detailed instrument, fittingly placed in the center of the musicians – an indication of its importance. The organistrum combines the technique and function of three other instruments: the fiddle (stringed instrument), the organ (keyboard), and the monochord, essentially a complex version of a monochord with a sustained sound. The first instruments were large and were apparently used together with singing in church (to teach notes and/or for accompaniment) and had to be played by two musicians because of their size and keyboard system (sliders instead of keys). At In the 13th century, smaller versions of the instrument appeared very quickly, which were portable and could be played by a single musician, because they were handy and had a mechanism in which the keys fell back after being struck only by gravity – the same system we still use today. These smaller instruments are more associated with secular music and are available from the 13th century found throughout Europe.
: The hurdy-gurdy was yes an instrument of the church, but also dhe street and, as you told me, finally also of the nobility. I can imagine that there are still many compositions and also transcriptions that have remained undiscovered. Is that so?
TM: I think there are few instruments in music history that have undergone as many social and musical transformations as the hurdy-gurdy! There are certainly many compositions yet to be found, especially from the 18th century, the time when the instrumentation/use of the hurdy-gurdy was in vogue. I think that there are many works that remain in private collections, and I suspect that there are also compositions of the later 18th century (e.g. for
) that are lost in libraries somewhere.
TC: Your Curiosity for the richness of early music has also made you known as a flutist and singer with many international ensembles and CD recordings. What about the discovery of other unknown instruments? If it were not for the exploration the organ lyre a grateful adventure?
TM: In fact, many years ago I was involved in a big project on the organ lyre! The luthier who made my instruments made the first working copies of the only instrument still in existence that has the range to play Haydn’s compositions. We have been on tour with the ensemble
Baroque de Limoges
(Christophe Coin) Recordings made. The CD entitled “La lira di Napoli” was released by Parenthèses (2009). This project was unfortunately discontinued at the end of 2009, but we now offer a program of concerts for 2 lire (organ lyre) and orchestra – in collaboration with my own group (Ensemble Danguy).
Why I’ll be there by David Fallows (German see below)Two and a half years ago (April 2020) Elizabeth Rumsey approached me with a suggestion that we work together on a reconstruction of the Rouen nativity play of 1474. My first reaction was ‘never heard of it’; and my second reaction was ‘but I should have, so I’d better find out about it’; and then, the way computer searches happen with me, it took about a week before I had downloaded all three volumes of the 1880s edition. Much later still a bit more computer searching revealed that I had actually given an excellent description of it in an article published in 1983; so I knew of it then but over the intervening forty years I had entirely forgotten about it.
And my third reaction was that it would need a little reduction for a realistic concert: six singing angels and five singing shepherds, to begin with, and apparently many instrumentalists playing behind the scene while angels ‘pretended’ to be playing instruments on scene. And the actual play would have lasted at least eight hours, so we would need to drop most of that. But it has been a marvellous roller-coaster trip over the last thirty months, slowly seeing ways in which the play could be turned into a concert. It will be the first concert I have been involved in organizing since I retired from teaching fifteen years ago. So obviously I’ll be there, and at as many of the performances as I can get to.
The main point of the event is that the 1496 print, which is our only source for the play, had empty spaces for the music but with the texts for this music printed. From the spaces it is clear that most of the twelve songs were in three or four voices, but one in five and one in only two. (Some liturgical prints of the fifteenth century do the same: print the texts with space above it for owners to enter the music; and in Manchester the John Rylands Library has a Schöffer print with the music actually added). The texts are obviously sacred; and as it happens we have no French sacred songs from the fifteenth century. So evidently these were to be sacred retextings of secular songs. And the next task was obviously to choose my favourite songs of the 1470s and borrow their music for our concert. As I said, it has all been thrilling for me; and I’m seriously looking forward to sharing it with you and with other audiences around Switzerland.
I’m in . .. by David Fallows ((Translation: Marc Lewon)
Two and a half years ago (April 2020), Elizabeth Rumsey approached me with a proposal to collaborate on a reconstruction of the 1474 Rouen Christmas Play. My first reaction was, “Never heard of it”; my second reaction was, “Well, I should, so I’d better find out”; and because computer research takes a correspondingly long time for me, it then took about a week before I had downloaded all three volumes of the 1880 edition. It wasn’t until much later that further computer research revealed that I had already provided an excellent description of the Christmas game in an article published in 1983; so I knew it then, but had completely forgotten it in the intervening forty years.
And my third reaction was that it would need some cuts for a realistic concert realization: first of all, six singing angels and five singing shepherds and obviously many instrumentalists acting backstage while the angels pretend to play instruments on stage. And the actual piece would have taken at least eight hours, so we would have had to cut most of it. But it’s been a wonderful roller coaster ride over the last thirty months, gradually figuring out how the (theater) piece could be turned into a concert program. This will be the first concert I have been involved in organizing since I retired from teaching fifteen years ago. Of course, I will be there and attend as many performances as I can.
The essential aspect of the whole enterprise is that the 1496 printing, which is our only source for the play, had space left blank for the notes, but contained the lyrics for this music. From the blanks it can be inferred that most of the twelve songs included were for three or four voices, but one was for five voices and one was only for two voices. (Some fifteenth-century liturgical prints handle it the same way: they print the texts with blank space above them so that the owners can add the notes themselves; and the John Rylands Library in Manchester has a Schöffer print in which the music was actually added.) The texts are obviously sacred; and indeed no French sacred songs from the fifteenth century have come down to us. Thus, these were obviously spiritual retexts of secular songs. The next task, of course, was to choose my favorite songs from the 1470s and adopt their music for our concert. As I said, this has all been very exciting for me, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing it with you and other listeners in Switzerland.
This concert celebrates a Christmas mystery play on the Incarnation and Nativity of Christ as performed at the ‘neuf marchié’ of Rouen in 1474. Part of its interest lies in the only source, a printed book from about twenty years later. On twelve occasions in this book there are directions for singing, with spaces left for the music to be added. No music was entered in any of the three surviving copies of the book; but the placing of the text on the page makes it absolutely clear that these were all polyphonic songs – mostly in three or four voices but once in two and once in five. The placing of the texts also makes clear that these particular pages of the book were planned like the surviving French chansonniers of the years around 1470, with all voices readable from the same opening and the remaining text at the bottom of the page. Most of the pieces are in the famous ‘fixed forms’ of secular song cultivated in France throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Since the poems here are all sacred (as befits the theme of the play), we must assume that the original music was for secular songs and that the texts here are what were called ‘noëls’ in French. Actually, the known French repertory of ‘noëls’ begins a few years later, but from the years around 1470 there are many Italian poetry sources of ‘laude spirituali’ with annotation ‘cantasi come’ (sing it like) followed by the name of a secular song to be used for the music (and in that Italian repertory many of the songs mentioned were in fact French and polyphonic, several of them being used for our reconstruction).
So for this concert we have chosen the music of French songs from around the early 1470s and pasted the printed sacred texts on to them. Most of the music chosen here survives in ten or more sources today, which is to say that these were among the most widely loved songs of their time, namely the ones most likely to have been chosen for the original production in 1474.
What we cannot do is to match the scale of the original production. The printed edition ends with a list of seventy-eight speaking roles, without mentioning the instrumentalists who were apparently invisible behind the stage but regularly playing particularly in the polyphonic songs. At several points there are instructions about the singing of the polyphonic songs whereby the instruments occasionally play alone and the angels on stage pretend to play instruments. What that seems to mean is that the scoring of the songs is rather fuller than we are used to today, hence the inclusion of much doubling in our performances.
What we also cannot begin to match is the sheer length of the original production. Clear figures are hard to reach. But it spread over two days and fills about 450 pages in the original print. So eight hours minimum and probably a lot more with the various bits of scene-changing and stage-action. That ambition we can safely leave to a larger company with far fuller financial support and an extremely patient but supportive audience. In short, what we offer here is the best we can – a mere shadow of the original but a reminder of things that were possible in the fifteenth century.
The composers we have used here were well known in the 1470s. Johannes Ockeghem had been head of the French royal chapel since 1452. Hayne van Ghizeghem had been at the Burgundian ducal court since 1457 and was at the French royal court still in the early 1490s. Loÿset Compere may be the youngest composer here: he is first documented at the Milan ducal court in 1474, though his career was plainly well advanced at that point. Johannes Martini was at the ducal court of Ferrara from 1473. Colinet de Lannoy’s life is known only from a single document at the court of Milan in 1477. Only the Englishman John Bedyngham is almost without biographical documentation, though his works were very widely copied in continental sources from the early 1450s and he died in the years 1458-59 (a detail that you are reading for the first time: all existing printed references to him wrongly have his death a year later). Finally, the anonymous piece was a wild-card: the text sung by the gentiles in Bethlehem is entirely incomprehensible, so we took the music of an almost incomprehensible piece from the same years,
Cados cados adonay cherubim
; and by some wonder the text fits the music like a glove.
Historical Museum Basel