The track you are listening to is from the Orlando Consort’s new CD of music by Guillaume de Machaut on Hyperion Records, cited as one of the best classical releases of 2013 by The New York Times. This is the first in a series of the complete chansons of the fourteenth century’s most famous poet and composer, a bold project, which benefits directly from a Leverhulme Trust project that will produce the first modern edition of Machaut’s complete poetry and music.
The CD is of music from Le Voir Dit, Machaut’s partly autobiographical, narrative poem about the ageing poet’s relationship with a young lady, Peronne. This ballade, Ploures dames, describes the poet on his deathbed, advising women to dress in black.
The CD can be ordered from the Hyperion website
The Orlando Consort dance
Well, not really. That would be, if amusing, embarrassing. But music that was written for the group and which we subsequently recorded, namely Tarik O'Regan's Scattered Rhymes, is the soundtrack to a new project by the Sydney Dance Company, performances of which will take place in October of this year. Tarik assures us that he made every effort to have us flown over to sing the piece live, but the budget wouldn't stretch. More can be found here.
'Voices appeared': Silent cinema and medieval sound - La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc and The Orlando Consort
As mentioned below, we’re about to embark on a new project, an imaginative and intriguing crossover between early music and early film. The movie in question is Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s acclaimed masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,released in 1928, a movie that often is included in critics’ lists of the top ten films of all time. It features what is generally accepted as one of the finest performances on film, by Renée Jeanne Falconetti in the title role.
From its very first screening, various forms of music have accompanied this silent movie; works by composers as diverse as Nick Cave and J S Bach have been yoked to the director’s arresting images. Surprisingly though, for a film that takes its duty to history so seriously - the film spends its opening minutes insisting in its authenticity, describing how the dialogue is taken from the actual transcripts of the trial, while Dreyer was also painstaking in his recreation of the locations - no-one has provided a soundtrack of music of the period that the film depicts, namely the early fifteenth century.
The narrative focuses on the trial and execution of Joan of Arc by French clerics between 1429 and 1431. Dressed in men’s clothing, Joan had led the French to victory over the English. An uneducated shepherd’s daughter from Donrémy, she was either a visionary or delusional, depending on your reading of history. Certainly at the time that the film was made, she was very much the former, particularly in French eyes. She had been canonised only as recently as 1920 and supplanted the countries other patron saints in the popular imagination.
Dreyer condenses events into a single day and the film unfolds as a series of confrontations between Joan and her tormentors. We as spectators are unsure where we stand, not least in relation to narrative space itself, the style almost self-conscious, embracing its status as art movie. The film refuses the usual comforts of spatial orientation, throwing the actors against abstract background shapes – arches, crooked windows, the set designed by Hermann Warm, the art director on the Expressionist Cabinet of Dr Caligari – their bodies flattened and distorted by odd framings that refuse the laws of perspective. But it is Joan herself who is treated the harshest, inviting our sympathy and understanding. Her face is stripped of make-up, her body bled, her hair shorn with us very much as witnesses (this was no trick effect), the camera unflinching in its relentless investigation of her suffering. Unsurprisingly, the iconic image from the movie is that of Falconnetti’s face, wearing the pained innocence of the martyr.
Our task will be to enhance the experience for the audience while eschewing any inclination to draw too much attention to ourselves. We will be shrouded in darkness below the screen, much like cinema orchestras were in the past. The music, though, will not be the familiar late romantic style, or a compilation of clichéd cues (William Tell overture for the chase, solo violin for the love theme, etc.). The function of music that accompanies a live screening is very different from that that is written for the sound movie. There music is carefully ‘spotted’ by composer and director, moments chosen where music will fulfil various functions. Someone like a Steiner, for example, would carefully hone particular themes and link them to characters or situations; a genius like Herrmann went his own way, with an emphasis on quirky combinations of instruments. The presence of the performers who create the music for a live screening means that immediately the music is far more of a commentary on the film than an integral part of it, a relay between spectator and screen which undoubtedly fulfils some of the same functions of emotional underscoring, but stands a little way distant from it. Rather like Dreyer does in relation to his subjects.
And voices are the perfect vehicle. Joan claimed to be guided by three angels – Michael, Catherine and Margaret – and though the film doesn’t depict these visions, her own voice is continually silenced by the hectoring clerics who have put her on trial. Conflicting discourses, alternately cajoling and condemnatory, stage an unheard aural polyphony that finds an echo in medieval motets, antiphons, plainsong and discant, and it will be fascinating for us to assemble this collage for a modern-day audience of cinephiles and music lovers alike.
The repertoire will be drawn from a very specific period, namely the first thirty-one years of the fifteenth century. Joan was a French prisoner of the Burgundian Court at the behest of the English Crown, and each of those three powers had its own rich musical tradition: Philip the Good of Burgundy was one of the great musical patrons of the medieval period, bringing luminaries such as Binchois and Dufay to his court; Philip’s sister, Anne, was married to John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI of England and, at the time of Joan’s trial, governor of Normandy; Bedford was the fortunate patron of the most famous and influential composer of the fifteenth century, John Dunstable; Henry VI, like his father before him, was a keen student of music, founder of Kings College, Cambridge and Eton school, both with their famous chapels (and thus instigator of two musical establishments that still exist today).
In the coming weeks we’ll be developing the soundtrack, experimenting by trying different pieces against the same sections of film, gauging its impact, and working out the (very) specific tempi that we will have to follow. More to follow, as they say.
Halfway through 2014
It’s been a busy first half of the year for the group, in terms of performances and recordings, and, despite the lack of actual concerts from now through December, will be similarly challenging. We had a wonderful five-concert tour in the USA in February, as well as two residencies at Durham and Nottingham Universities. The latter are occasions for us to realise exactly how much we know about medieval music, and also how much there is still to learn. Guided in symposia and rehearsals by academics, all parties, particularly the students, get to engage with the music as both an historical artefact and a living force. We also recorded the third of our Machaut disks for Hyperion and, once again, were startled and delighted by the composer’s vision. And last month we had a wonderful concert in Milan for a small festival dedicated to early music: Festival dell'Ascensione.
Over the rest of the year we will be very much preparing for 2015 and a new project: a live soundtrack to accompany screenings of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, details of which I will post under a separate heading. It’s a project that has fired the imagination of many promoters, the upshot of which is that we will be staging it at around 16 UK venues in 2015, as well as in North America. Keep an eye on the concerts page for further details.
A couple of fine reviews for our most recent concert in Durham. The program was structured around the two most famous Guillaumes of the medieval period, Machaut and Dufay, and we also featured contemporary pieces that take their music as a starting point, one by Tarik O'Regan, the other by Gabriel Jackson.
The Darlington and Stockton Times focused on the singing, opining that 'the four singers [made] the most of the chapel’s acoustic with voices singly or in any combination, sounding gloriously rich and full.' It rounded off by insisting that the evening was 'a superb demonstration of song and singing. The full review can be found here. ' The fu
The same concert was reviewed on the Bachtrackn website by Jane Shuttleworth. She generously descrivbed the individual qualities of our voices, noting 'the effortless grace of Matthew Venner’s alto.' She went on as follows: 'Le lay de bonne esperance was sung by tenor Angus Smith without any accompaniment, the solitary melody line spare and haunting. Sans cuer, dolens de vous departiray, a song of parting was given equal measure of sweetness and sadness by Mark Dobell’s honeyed tenor, accompanied only by sustained bass notes, delivered with absolutely unbending control by Donald Greig.'
The concert ended with two pieces by Dufay, which Ms Shuttleworth thought 'showed a more intimate side to Dufay than the grandeur of the Mass, and gave a very moving end to an exquisite concert. ' Full review here
Nottingham and Durham
We've now completed four years of working at the universities of Nottingham, Durham and Bangor under a residency scheme sponsored by The Radcliffe Trust. It's been challenging and fulfilling, working alongside academics and with students, imparting our experience as performers, coaching choirs and small ensembles, providing demonstrations and master classes, workshops and concerts. We think that the students and, indeed, academic have learned a great deal, as have we. Many thanks to the Radcliffe Trust for their sponsorship, and good luck to whichever ensemble it is who takes over from us.
Mark Dobell's USA February 2014 Tour Blog
Mark's tour blog for our February 2014 North America tour can now be found here.
...and back to the USA
We're heading back across the pond for a concert tour that takes in five US cities: New York, Houston, Ann Arbor, Annapolis and Milwaukee. Aside from Ann Arbor, these are all return visits and we're greatly looking forward to it.
The first concerts are at The Cloisters, a perfect venue for us. The programme is entitled The Discourse of Medieval Love and features chansons by Machaut, our newest project. Do come along if you're at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon in February (9th to be exact - book tickets here).
For the other concerts, please check out the concerts page where full details can be found.
New York Times Best of 2013
A very nice ending to 2013 for us in the form of a review of the new Hyperion disk by James R. Oestreich in the New York Times: 'Here is exquisite if rarefied music from Machaut’s magnum opus,' he wrties, 'the “Livre dou Voir Dit” (“Book of the True Tale”), which consists of letters, lyrics and these songs, telling of a romance the composer carried on over great distances in the mid-14th century. The performances by the Orlando Consort of four male voices are masterly.' Well, that's very kind of you, Mr Oestreich, and we wish you a very happy holiday, as we do to all those who visit these pages.
I'm sure that The Church Times were being complimentary to Matt, but the following amused us. 'I get a shiver down the spine every time the alto Matthew Venner opens his mouth,. the reviewer wrote of the Le Voir Dit recording. Fortunately he went on to say: 'but he is not on all tracks; so you get to hear the marvellous sound that the other members make.'
North American contact
If you have any interest in booking The Orlando Consort for 2014-15 or 2015-16 then please write directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be happy to talk with you about our future plans.
North America Tour
We're just back from the East Coast of America, having performed three concerts at Yale, in New York City and at Haverford College. Many thanks to all those who came along and to all the promoters who organised the events. Brains and bodies are a little battered after the experience, but we're all heartened by the wonderful reception and by the review of our concert for Miller Theatre in New York on Saturday. 'The consort’s performances all showed the consummate mastery and refinement, and each voice had its individual attractions,' was how Jame Oestreich put it.
To read Don's tour blog, click here.
Review in The Gramophone of Le Voir Dit
...and hot on the heels of other fine reviews (see below) comes the voice of David Fallows in The Gramophone. Slightly tongue-in-cheek he says that it feels like the 70s again, by which we take it he means the emergence of a style of singing known in some quarters as the a cappella heresy: 'No instruments, just solo men's voices, singing text where there is text in the manuscripts, vocalising where there is none, always dead in tune, always beautifully balanced.' He praises Mark and Matt for 'the most magnificent articulation of the texts' supported by '[an] understanding of the lines gained from their senior colleagues' (which means Don and Angus). It is Angus, though, who garners the greatest praise: 'the unforgettable track here is Angus Smith performing the "Lay de Bon Esperance". This and Machaut's other lais must be among the greatest challenges before Wagner for any singer. He's terrific.' Again, we understand that to mean Angus, and not Wagner, and we all very much look forward to hearing Angus' Brünnhilde in due course.