Monday, 4 February 2008

Performing Medieval Narrative

Most of the posts on From Beyond the Stave will be about books on the Western classical tradition published by the Boydell Press or the University of Rochester Press. This week we’re pleased to direct you to a fascinating website which explores music and performance from the medieval period: Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase.

The site is devoted to the performance of a wide range of medieval works. It functions in part as a companion website to two books published by D.S. Brewer, the scholarly literature string to the Boydell bow: Orality and Performance in Early French Romance by Evelyn Birge Vitz and Performing Medieval Narrative, edited by Professor Vitz, Nancy Freeman Regalado and Marilyn Lawrence. Evelyn “Timmie” Vitz writes:

For this blogspot let us emphasize the musical dimensions of the site. Quite a few of the clips demonstrate strongly musical performances: many are sung, some with musical accompaniment. Among the singers and instrumentalists currently represented on the site are Eberhard Kummer, playing the hurdy gurdy; Benjamin Bagby who plays the lyre, or Germanic harp, in his performances of Beowulf; Ron Cook, playing the Romanesque harp to Marie de France's Lais; and Katarina Livljanic and Dialogos, performing Judith, with archaic Croatian fiddles and flutes. The site also has students singing, and playing the piano, guitar, and saxophone. Other singing and instrumental music currently on the website represent the performance practice of traditional works from a wide variety of cultures - works whose performance today resembles that of similar works in the Middle Ages; thus, we have a singer performing a scene from the Karakalpak epic Edige with an archaic fiddle, and a singer playing a drum as he tells an Egyptian Hilali epic.

In future postings to Beyond the Stave we will invite some of the singers and musicians who have contributed to the website to speak about their work - and their instruments. Let us begin with professional performer (and lawyer) Ron Cook on the Romanesque harp:

The harp used in the 12th and 13th centuries was typically constructed with three sides of roughly equal length. This harp had from six to thirteen strings and was usually small enough to be held in the lap. Literary evidence suggests that the lowest one or two strings were dedicated to the playing of drone notes with one hand, accompanying the playing of melodies with the other hand. The harp used in the 12th and 13th centuries is often referred to as a Romanesque harp to distinguish it from the taller, narrower and more stylized harp that was used well into the 16th century. This later type of harp is often referred to as a Gothic harp.

Although the evidence is fragmentary, there is good reason to believe that Romanesque harps may have been equipped with brays pins: thin pieces of wood or metal attached to the top of, or comprising the top part of, each string holder on the instrument. These devices were adjusted to touch each string just enough to cause the strings to produce a very pronounced buzzing sound when plucked.

Medievalists, early music and theatre buffs will find much to engage them on Performing Medieval Narrative Today: A Video Showcase. Watch out for further posts on other instruments featured on the site.

No comments: