Ars Subtilior interpretations

Although Willi Apel's seminal publication on the subject appeared in 1950, and Ursula Gunther's reappraisal (from which the "Ars Subtilior" label derives) already in 1965, surveys of medieval music have generally glossed over this period. Gustav Reese, for instance, was able to write that the history of music from Machaut to Dufay was simply characterized by gradual and unremarkable change. Even though other scholars such as Apel had taken note, and Apel portrayed the Ars Subtilior as very bizarre indeed, Reese's view dominated the field and consequently the recordings made in the 1950s and 1960s (supplemented by a few intriguing examples from even earlier) follow this logic. The Ars Subtilior pieces appeared with others from before and after, often both, all of which were interpreted in a similar way. The idea of tuning and its shift in the early fifteenth century was still in the future, as was a more specific feel for what dissonance and rhythmic displacement meant internal to this music. That the Ars Subtilior was beneath the radar of the general musical public is a gigantic understatement.

When it comes to recorded interpretations, the ideas of Apel & Gunther on the Ars Subtilior as a distinct late medieval style came together in the second LP of David Munrow's Art of Courtly Love set recorded in 1972 & 1973 and recently reissued on Virgin CD. It was the first LP devoted exclusively to this music, it came from a leading performer on a major label, and perhaps most significantly it designated the music as "avant garde." Munrow's album can hardly be said to have started a "golden age" for Ars Subtilior interpretations, because although there was a growing discography for Ciconia as a transitional composer, and a more watchful eye given to these pieces in anthologies, LPs dedicated to this repertory were slow in coming. Two significant examples can be noted, however: the debut of the Medieval Ensemble of London, a successor group to Munrow, and one of the early & obscure LPs of the Huelgas Ensemble, both produced by 1980. The Medieval Ensemble of London went on to make another such LP shortly afterward, and then disappeared shortly after that. The Huelgas Ensemble continues to be active, and presently has the largest Ars Subtilior discography.

In the 1980s, interest in this repertory slowly expanded, such that it begins to be impractical to mention every dedicated album in the present survey. The position of the Ars Subtilior as a worthy & distinct portion of the medieval repertory was cemented with three significant recordings beginning in the late 80s: those of Ensemble Organum, Ensemble PAN, and the Huelgas Ensemble. By this time, the Huelgas Ensemble had made other Ars Subtilior albums, but the present citation is both their first for Sony as well as their first devoted to the "core" repertory, as opposed to Cyprus or Ciconia. At this point, it would be appropriate to refer again to my list of preferred medieval secular albums, and specifically the Ars Subtilior section. The program by Ensemble PAN continues to be one of the best introductions, bringing a dynamism and effective invocation of the surreal quality which inhabits many of these pieces. The selection from the New London Consort is the latest in the line of introductory style programs by a major ensemble. The pair of releases from the Ferrara Ensemble are more or less in the style of Ensemble PAN, but with a more involved program and interpretation. The series by Mala Punica is yet more involved, focusing on some of the most convoluted details of connections between the elements of the repertory, and adopting an improvisatory & orchestrated style. The two selections by the Huelgas Ensemble are among their most interesting programs, although one can regret that they never seem to gain a sense of intimacy.

Moving away from the "core" of the Ars Subtilior per se, the next section of my listing is also applicable. Ciconia and Zachara each have pieces which are clearly in Ars Subtilior style, even if others show more similarities to Dufay and his vertical alignment. The Alla Francesca ensemble is developing into a leader in the late end of the medieval repertory, and their two programs Beauté Parfaite & Armes, Amours have been among the most striking to date. Each contains a healthy percentage of "true" Ars Subtilior pieces, together with items in the slightly later styles. These programs also mark something of a conclusion to the historical narrative of Ars Subtilior interpretations, as they return to emphasizing continuity between this repertory and that around it. The intervening decades mean that the Ars Subtilior pieces are now highlighted rather than glossed over. Continuing on this tangent, there are items on my list of preferred medieval sacred albums (in the Ars Nova section) which are closely related. That by the Huelgas Ensemble is from the Turin Manuscript and is one of the most impressive sacred cycles of the era. Broader selections by Schola Discantus and the Clerks' Group contain several sacred items which, although not from the "true" Ars Subtilior manuscripts, are contemporaneous and closely related in style. Finally, some mention should be made of Mala Punica's other albums, including their spectacularly scripted and ahistorical Missa Cantilena, almost Baroque in conception. The Ars Subtilior certainly provides a fertile ground for interpretive experiment.

Despite any quibbles I might have regarding their ultimate effectiveness, Mala Punica's renditions confront the performance issues surrounding this repertory, and indeed surrounding the idea of medieval interpretation in general, aggressively. Memelsdorff projects a unified personal conception in his programs, incorporates improvisational interludes & ornaments, and even includes microinterval tuning (as advocated by some treatises of the period). However, the most striking aspect for the general listener is the instrumentation. The recorder has somehow become the dominant instrument for this music. From Memelsdorff and Pierre Hamon of Alla Francesca to the Spanish ensemble Speculum and the venerable Sour Cream, recorders dominate textures of Ars Subtilior interpretations in the late 90s. There is even a recorder-only program by the aptly named Trio Subtilior. Somehow the recorder is consummating its status in contemporary music by playing old music which was not even written for it. Such ironies are simply representative of our time. More concretely, the recorder sonorities highlight the surreal moods of much of this music nicely. More generally, the interpretive issues surrounding the Ars Subtilior repertory have served to catapult it to the foreground of medieval interpretation as such, simply because many such issues must be addressed here to make it performable at all. The consequent emerging centrality of this music will likely more than make up for its previous historical neglect.

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Todd M. McComb