Medieval Perspectives: Sounds of voices

One of the most characteristic aspects of medieval performances today, particularly those enjoying a wider reception, is the emphasis on the voice and especially a cappella ensembles. One aspect of this phenomenon which deserves closer attention is the precise sound of the voices themselves. Some styles of singing are put before the public more often than others, and so one can get the idea that either these are ubiquitous or that they are dictated by scholarship. Neither of these conclusions is true, and so a survey of some of the variety available may be very appealing to the curious listener.

The idea of the voice as relaxing is related partly to a preference in some circles for a homogeneity of tone in an ensemble. From a historical perspective, the preference has been driven by the knowledge that women were not allowed to sing in many church services, so that men or boys sang each part. This has been a factor in the increased popularity of the countertenor voice type here and in other areas of early music, such as Baroque opera.

The idea of homogeneity is exemplified particularly strongly by the Hilliard Ensemble, an all-male group which records repertory from throughout this larger era as well as modern works written for similar ensembles. One of their better-known recordings:

Dunstable: Motets
Hilliard Ensemble - Paul Hillier
Virgin Edition 61342

Their sound is sometimes likened to the organ. The above example is also particularly apt, because the English style of John Dunstable (c.1380-1453) and others has been one of the biggest musical motivations for the style of vertical blending found so often in medieval performances today. Indeed, the roots of this singing style itself are frequently placed in the English Cathedral Choir tradition which has some continuity with the 17th century, but not before.

The English ensembles have consequently cultivated this homogenous sound and emphasis on vertical blending more strongly than elsewhere, partly because it does work relatively well for their own native music, and partly because it has become popular with the public. This emphasis is just as apparent when ensembles use women for the higher parts, and indeed that has become the characteristic English sonority, and by extension the characteristic early music sonority. The Tallis Scholars have been very popular in this style and so must be mentioned:

The Western Wind
Taverner / Tye / Sheppard
Tallis Scholars - Peter Phillips
Gimell 454 927

Although this 16th century music must be termed Renaissance, the conservative English style of the period retains some fundamental resemblance to those of earlier eras. The phrasing in this interpretation is one touchstone for vocal ensembles today, perhaps moreso than that of the Hilliard Ensemble, as the latter actually adopts a less vertical emphasis despite their homogeneity of tone.

Terms such as "vertical" refer basically to the way a score is written, and are used to discuss how simultaneous tones in different voices are treated, whether more as part of a chord or more as part of individually articulated parts. Of course, even ensembles which may prioritize one or the other tend to adopt some kind of balance. This is also an area where the listener, or even the less well-informed critic, may begin to believe that the style of vertical blending and intonation used by groups such as the Tallis Scholars is actually a standard by which other performances should be judged, rather than one approach among many.

Preference for particular singing styles can be especially subjective, and we know it varies around the world even in the present. To complicate matters, most medieval polyphony was written in the context of Pythagorean intonation, which might not always provide the tuning one is accustomed to hearing. In addition, tuning the notes themselves according to some specific numerical relationships is only part of what affects the way vertical combination sonorities are heard. With the exception of computer sine waves, musical instruments and voices produce an entire "series" of overtones above a fundamental which is the nominal note. It is the way these series from different voices interact, and the way they align (to borrow the Indian term), which has a big impact on how many listeners hear nominal "intonation" or blend. There is no evidence to suggest that the most commonly heard approach has had historical priority, and it is simply impossible to align such overtones "everywhere." One must therefore choose to emphasize certain concords in certain ranges. Finally, medieval theory discusses various ways in which notes can be altered by microtones when approaching cadences, and some groups adopt those ideas as well.

The above is a long-winded way of saying that although some groups may sound "out of tune" they may not necessarily be doing anything differently from what they intended. Different ideas on intonation can take on a charm of their own if given the chance. One performance which nicely illustrates some of these remarks, along with providing a very clearly delineated articulation of the polyphony is:

Vox Aurea
Ockeghem: Motets / Faugues: Missa La basse danse
Obsidienne - Emmanuel Bonnardot
Opus 111 30-222

An emphasis on making each polyphonic line individually audible is a hallmark of some of the French groups, and can be very helpful when it comes to following the various details of interaction in the music. In some ways, one might say that this makes polyphony per se, rather than a unified ensemble moving in chords. The difference in phrasing between this style and that of the Tallis Scholars is illuminating.

An American group provides a good perspective on this particular issue:

Dufay: Missa Sancti Anthonii de Padua
Pomerium - Alexander Blachly
Deutsche Grammophon Archiv 447 772

Pomerium cultivates a "larger" sound, allowing individual voices and figures to stand out on account of their energy level & virtuosity, but within a generally unified texture. The result is "between" the French & English styles in some sense.

English singing tradition also has its own version of differentiating lines in the very clear textures of the "angelic" style of Gothic Voices. One recording which illustrates this kind of part differentiation in some rather active music:

Lancaster and Valois
French and English music, 1350-1420
Gothic Voices - Christopher Page
Hyperion 66588

One can also hear a very clear distinction between male and female voices and the way they fit together, moreso even than the French style. Although the latter emphasizes individually audible lines, gender distinctions in some parts tend to blur due to the singing technique, making it more homogenous in that sense.

Perhaps ironically, although the medieval era is widely regarded as a time for the dominance of men, and certainly of the male voice in liturgical music, many of the most exciting & popular performances today use all-female ensembles. Among these, the American group Anonymous 4 has been a clear leader:

An English Ladymass
13th & 14th century Chant & Polyphony in honor of the Virgin Mary
Anonymous 4
Harmonia Mundi USA 907080

Since then, more all-female medieval choral ensembles have appeared with various styles. The French ensemble Discantus actually achieves a rather robust "tenor" tone, together with a linear differentiation similar to Obsidienne's above:

Dame de flors
École Notre-Dame de Paris
Discantus - Brigitte Lesne
Opus 111 30-175

Of course, if one is to be concerned with such factors, there is also historical precedent for all-female ensembles. Much of this music was known to have been sung in convents and other situations where women were gathered without men. Early medieval music actually adopts itself rather well to either type of ensemble. It is the mixed gender ensembles which have little historical precedent, but of course their practical appeal, not to mention their richness of sound, is too much to pass up today.

In many ways, all of the previous examples use a "conservatory technique" which is not so dissimilar. As noted, the idea that this style of voice production was a standard in the medieval era is likely incorrect. Attempting more radically different styles of singing is something which necessarily happens only slowly. Some examples, returning to all-male ensembles:

Vox Sonora
Conduits de l'Ecole de Notre Dame
Diabolus in Musica - Antoine Guerber
Studio SM 2673
Machaut: Messe de Nostre Dame
Ensemble Organum - Marcel Pérès
Harmonia Mundi 901590

The Diabolus in Musica ensemble achieves a very "earthy" tone and vigor based generally on low vocal ranges and tuning to emphasize the lower concords. Starting from a similar position, Ensemble Organum goes on to adopt a very controversial stance, with a style ornamented in the upper parts according to Eastern Orthodox singing techniques. The use of ornaments in medieval vocal parts is a relatively underexplored idea, and Marcel Pérès has been the clear leader in the field. Sources indicate that parts were sometimes ornamented, although not exactly how, making for a fertile bed of experimentation.

Finally, although they frequently use instruments either in support of voices or in their own arrangements, there remain many groups with individual & intriguing styles of singing and articulation. Some significant examples are:

El Canto de la Sibila Galicia-Castilla
Montserrat Figueras / La Capella Reial de Catalunya - Jordi Savall
Fontalis 9900
Laude di Sancta Maria
Veillée de chants de dévotion dans l'Italie des Communes
La Reverdie
Arcana 34
Cantico della Terra
Le sacré et le populaire dans l'Italie du XIIIe siècle
Quartetto Vocale Giovanna Marini / Micrologus
Opus 111 30-277

In each case, selections are made which have substantially vocally-oriented ensemble sections. Jordi Savall constructs a full-bodied Mediterranean sound with a hearty vocal tone making for a boisterous interpretation. The Italian ensemble La Reverdie adopts a rather light "sing-song" style which has a certain innocence to it. The Italian Micrologus Ensemble combines here explicitly with Italian traditional singers to create a buzzy, earthy sonority. Each of these selection combines some clear influence from folk or traditional singing with more "conservatory"-style production, continuing the exploration of possible vocal sonority in medieval music.

The selections on this page illustrate a decent range for choral sonority available in medieval music. However, various solo voice combinations allow an even wider range of sonority and are not surveyed here. The above citations tend to represent "approaches" per se, and can be noticeably consistent even when individual singers are substituted within the ensembles.

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Todd M. McComb