Monday, August 27, 2012

Lowde Mynstralcyes

Lowde mynstralcyes, indeed.  That's what Chaucer calls a huge gathering of minstrels and jongleurs he wrote about in his work House of Fame.  He describes it as a dream sequence, but some musicologists believe that he must have been a witness to one of the annual Lenten minstrel schools that took place in Europe throughout the 14th century and a bit beyond (and which some say began as early as the 12th century). 

I want to tell you something about these gatherings.  It's an arresting thought:  minstrels, particularly instrumentalists, coming together from many countries to share repertoire, learn new techniques, trade or purchase instruments, recruit new players, and form personal connections, all at the expense of the lords or municipalities who employed them, and who wanted their musicians to be au courant for the honor, prestige, and pleasure of their masters at home.

I want to and I will, but I'm late in posting this, and time is at a premium for me just now.   So let me just - for now - share with you a bit of personal history that probably explains why the idea of such international musical gatherings so intrigues me.  In a week or so, as time permits, I'll write that blog post; meanwhile, consider this the preamble.

I have some idea of what this extraordinary week-long experience might have felt like to the musicians.  For years, my husband and I attended a week-long medieval music workshop every summer.  We brought along our shawms, crumhorns, and recorders.  We traveled halfway across the continent to get there, and it was a major investment of time and money.

Once there, we found friends from far-flung places, people we never saw at any other time, and greeted them happily.  We plunged into a frenzy of intense musical activity, forming classes and performing groups according to our most immediate needs and interests.  We pushed ourselves, not wanting to miss a moment.

Trying to do it all

All of us ate together, slept in spartan dormitory rooms, and lived and breathed music from the moment we awakened to when we finally collapsed, late at night.  We learned, experimented, performed, clowned around, partied, and shared experiences.

It must have been very much the same for the minstrels.

Was it intense for them too?  I should think so.  Was it exhausting?  It must have been, especially on top of all the rigors of travel in the 14th century.

Tired musicians

Was it exhilarating?  I'll bet it was.

One thing we found at our workshop was the phenomenon of the Wednesday Meltdown.  That was the point, midweek, when we had all crammed our heads so full of new information and experiences that we suddenly couldn't remember which end was up.

That fingering?  I dunno - am I trying to play a D soprano shawm with the same fingerings I used yesterday for a G alto recorder?  What's the chance that it might actually work?

Are we transposing?  Which line is that C-clef on, and what does that mean if I'm on the bass line?  If we're reading period notation, how do I know how many units of perfection there are if I don't know whether that's a dot of augmentation or a dot of division?

Are all of us in the same hexachord here?  And if we aren't, who's going to do what with the ficta to make the cadence work?  If we're improvising, can I play a 6th above the tenor here or not, if it's 3-part discant?

This is the point where you believe in all sincerity that you've forgotten everything you ever knew, including your name.  In the end, you just pick up an instrument and honk on it until something works.

Oddly enough, I've seen people drop out of classes they think are too demanding, but only on Monday or Tuesday.  I've never seen somebody give up on a Wednesday.  I think by that time we're all so deeply involved in what we're doing that it simply doesn't occur to us.

Ah, but Thursday...  Thursday is different.  We wake in the morning, and somehow something has shifted.  We know what we're doing again.  In fact, it's really not so hard, after all.  And I've got some new ideas I want to try...

Then at the end of the day, after listening to strains of Machaut, Dunstable, and Landini issuing from the classrooms, we gather on the porch at night, relaxing and sharing a bottle of wine (okay, several bottles of wine), and singing what must sound to an outsider like Beatles tunes, of all things.  Until the listener realizes that the words are something like, "Machaut, ma beau, these are words that well together go, ma Machaut..."

Was it like that for the minstrels?  I'd like to think it was.  (Possibly minus the Beatles songs.)  Check back for the post that's the Real Thing, where we delve into this phenomenon in detail.

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