Medieval Music That Changed My Life: Perotin and Paolo da Firenze

5

July
2010

I can still remember when I first heard Perotin’s “Viderunt omnes.”

It was during my first year as a graduate student in musicology at LSU where I was obligated to take a variety of courses, which included music of the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the professor who taught the class was a renowned medievalist who really knew his stuff and conveyed his love of the subject brilliantly (I won’t ‘drop’ his name but a quick Google search will undoubtedly reveal who he is). I, on the other hand, had only a passing relationship with medieval music and was only now immersing myself for the first time.

The group performing Perotin’s music was the Hilliard Ensemble (then directed by Paul Hillier).

From the very beginning I was left completely stunned as it was hard for me to believe that this was medieval music. Instead, it sounded shockingly modern, even post-modern (I later played the recording for a friend who opined similarly).

It made such an impression on me that I not only bought the recording, but it was for years the only CD of medieval music I owned until becoming a writer for Harmonia.

BUY: Perotin: Hilliard Ensemble (ECM New Series)

Which brings me to the other recording that made me take note…

I’m not sure which Harmonia program it was for, but I was definitely looking to flesh out a medieval theme (the earliest shows I wrote with medieval music were as much exploration and education for myself as they were for the audience, or at least that’s how I approached them).

Thanks to a friend, I came across Mala Punica’s “Narcisso Speculando: Madrigals of Paolo da Firenze,” which was a total shock and, like the Perotin CD, made me more aware and curious about the middle ages, especially of the genre of medieval music known as Ars subtilior (I’d already seen Perdro Memelsdorf and Mala Punica perform live so I had some expectation, but it didn’t necessarily prepare me for this recording).

Paolo da Firenze’s madrigals are, in many ways, complex and abstract. I don’t pretend to understand the music, yet I can listen to Mala Punica’s performance and easily allow it to mesmerize me. I’m really struck with how beautiful the ensemble sounds, how virtuosic the music really is, and how sophisticated an approach Memelsdorf takes.

BUY: Narcisso Speculando: Madrigals of Paolo da Firenze (Harmonia Mundi)

In the last few years, I’ve listened to an immense amount of medieval and medieval-inspired music. And while I don’t perform it, I do admit to continually learning about and appreciating it through live and recorded performances. I remain shocked (in a good way) every time I listen to the two recordings above, which have always surprised and delighted me.

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