11 Oct 2014

Book Review: Rehearing Late Medieval Song

Elizabeth Randell Upton, Music and performance in the later Middle Ages, The New Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), £61
It seems that a rich, reflective phase of scholarship on medieval culture is upon us. The medievalist audience at large will have already detected its presence running through the series The New Middle Ages, edited by Bonnie Wheeler and published by Palgrave Macmillan, but readers may be less aware of how such developments are unfolding in musicological spheres. In musicology, the approach of The New Middle Ages shows clear signs of cross-fertilization with other recent movements such as sound studies (see The sound studies reader, ed. J. Sterne (London, 2012)) and the new cultural history of music (see The Oxford handbook of the new cultural history of music, ed. J. Fulcher (New York, 2011)), resulting in ‘thickly’ descriptive essays that seek balanced dialogue between positivist approaches and more interpretive and cultural sensitivities. That such new work frequently invokes a breathtaking expanse of interdisciplinary knowledge is testament to generations of careful archival excavations and subsequent digitization projects that form the bedrock of today’s research. If this current reflective phase is the first fruit of our brave new database-driven world, then it may be useful to view these studies as the first dividends of some very shrewd online investment by the academic community. 

Music and performance in the later Middle Ages by Elizabeth Randell Upton is a good example of such interdisciplinary richness. Characterized by a subtly provocative stance delivered through wonderfully lucid and highly enjoyable prose, it is unquestionably a branch of Palgrave’s New Middle Ages family tree. Upton’s overall aim is the re-examination of two manuscript collections—the Chantilly Codex (Chantilly, Musée Condé 564) and the Oxford manuscript (Bodleian Library, Canon. Misc. 213)—to include the viewpoints of performers and listeners, as well as a traditional compositional perspective. In so doing Upton spins an ornate interdisciplinary … 

For the full text of this article please visit:

24 May 2014

The Cardinall's Musick at 25

Andrew Cardwood talks to Edward Breen about the award-winning ensemble.
Early Music Today Jun-Aug 2014

As the Cardinalls Musick turn a quarter century this year, I find myself considering how influential their full, rich sound has been during a relatively short space of time. Compared to recent anniversaries from The Monteverdi Choir, The Hilliard Ensemble, The Tallis Scholars and others, Andrew Carwood's passionate little ensemble are mere youngsters. Nevertheless, they pack an important punch.

Founded in 1989 they represent a generation of singers who grew up listening to professional early music ensembles who were themselves new and exciting, yet right from the start they were noticeably different from these immediate forebears. Some reviewers wondered if robust singing and passionate, text-centric performances could simply be dismissed as youngsters finding their way, but it turns out that Carwood and his singers had a vision that was coherent right from the get-go, they had already found their way. These days The Cardinall's Musick are considered mainstream and it is the style of others which has noticeably beefed up in their wake.

(The full text of this article is available from www.earlymusictoday.com)

17 Apr 2014

The oriental in early music

With a Hitchcock film as his starting point, Edward Breen explores the fruitful border between early music and ethnomusicology and selects a colourful array of recordings to explore 

(Gramophone, May 2014)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Lady vanishes’ (1938) two seemingly innocent representations of Balkan music intersect, or should I say interrupt, each other. Miss Froy is listening to a folk singer busking below the window in his light, Gilbert-and-Sulivan-esque baritone voice when she is interrupted by sounds of dancing from an upstairs room. It turns out to be a passionate young musicologist, Gilbert, trying to notate a folk dance as performed to the tune of his clarinet in his room by three peasants in traditional costume.

To read the full text of this article please visit: http://www.gramophone.co.uk/

15 Apr 2014

Book Review: Early music in the modern era

Nick Wilson, The art of re-enchantment: making early music in the modern era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), $24.95 / £16.99

It may seem odd to invoke a quintessentially Romantic 19th-century German philosopher when discussing the early music revival of the latter half of the 20th century, but Schopenhauer’s endlessly quotable phrase seems more appropriate at this moment than ever: ‘The first forty years of life give us the text: the next thirty supply the commentary on it’ (Parerga and Paralipomena, vol.i, 1851). The formation of several leading early music ensembles in 1973 provides a central point of reference for this new, and very British, study of the early music revival by Nick Wilson, whose reading of such a ‘text’ sets out a striking yardstick for the next 30 years of ‘commentary’.
The three main aims of Wilson’s monograph are to ‘document the cultural history of the early-music movement in Britain from 1960 onwards’, to ‘explain just how early music provided an alternative to the classical mainstream’ and to ‘cast fresh light on the entirely pivotal relationship between “doing art” and “being authentic”’ (p.5). Even one of these points would have been a huge task for a single volume, and Wilson is himself aware of necessary truncations in his narrative and often points them out to the reader himself. I will come on to a specific example of this presently, but first it is useful to consider the scope of the book. Despite frequent nods towards continental and American influences, Wilson restricts his argument to the early music revival in Britain. This is likely to raise eyebrows, but the alternative—as shown many years ago with Harry Haskell’s groundbreaking The early music revival: a history (London, 1988)—would have been a lens so wide-angled as to do little more than whet the reader’s appetite. Wilson had to draw a line somewhere, and perhaps we should think of this line not as implying …

For the Full Text of the review please refer to Early Music Magazine:

9 Mar 2014

How The Stops Got Their Names

Sat 22 March 12:30pm
Southbank Centre, London

A history of early instruments and the organ

A talk with musicologist Edward Breen.
Join Morley College musicologist, Edward Breen, as he explores the relationship between early instruments and the many voices of the Royal Festival Hall organ.
Level 5 Function Room at Royal Festival Hall

8 Mar 2014

Thurston Dart's Stereophonic Test Record

Conference Paper for:
Montpellier 8: St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, March 20-21 2014


Thurston Dart’s Stereophonic Test Record
‘Make the music sound robust now and again’ was Thurston Dart’s advice to Michael Morrow and his ensemble Musica Reservata just before their 1960 debut concert. Little did Dart know just quite how literally these young musicians would take him at his word. Public and critics alike were shocked and delighted in equal measures as Morrow brought influences as diverse as Yugoslavian voices and Genoese fishermen to bear on some of our oldest motets, including those from the famous Montpellier Codex. Morrow’s approach was a ‘major shot in the arm for everybody present’ and spawned many imitators but few ensembles before or since have ever come close to achieving that same vivid sound world.

As Emma Dillon explains, the attraction of On parole/A paris/FRESE NOUVELE is that it ‘offers us a rare instance where the city itself is the topic of the motet’. Through this urban prism we (re)construct a vision of medieval Paris which makes sense in the modern world and each performance reveals a new facet of our historical fantasies. For Michael Morrow, On parole/A paris/FRES NOUVELE required an almost military approach to rhythmic drive resulting in a highly organised market-traders’ cacophony, whereas in Dart’s own conception a street scene unfolded across the newly available stereophonic soundscape of late 60s LP technology with what Daniel Leech-Wilkinson called ‘self-consciously virile’ tenors calling out across the city streets.

This paper explores four very different interpretations of this evocative motet and probes the musicological climate behind each one. With reference to the influential work of Yvonne Rokseth, it asks how much these performances say about the changing twentieth century sense of medieval and what they suggest about the changing musicological approaches to the famous Montpellier Codex itself. 

Please visit the conference website for the full programme of events and more details: