Sylvie Nicephor

The Music of Kings" (Meridian Records 2007) is the title of a disc of medieval music, comprising 21 pieces, arranged chronologically from the 11th to the 16th centuries. Accompanied by a detailed presentation booklet written by musicologist Ana Matovich, this recording is the fruit of the work of the "Musica Antiqua Consort" ensemble. Eight singers and thirteen instrumentalists travel through five centuries of “noble” music, whose composers are kings: Richard Coeur de Lion (1157-1199), Alfonso 10 El Sabio (1221-1284), Henry 8 (1491-1547), as well as some less well known and anonymous artists belonging to the aristocratic classes.

Originating from the great centers of culture that were the courts, troubadours and minstrels of the medieval era propagated a profane vocal art whose principles and traditions were thus preserved for posterity. Instrumental art did also evolve with the improvement of string instruments, the development of virtuosity, and the increase in vocal palette, which this record highlights. The first disc is based on poetry, which music underlines and accompanies. The second is based on dance. The two have in common the use of repetition, ornamentation, and certain patterns in verses and choruses/couplets.

This album alternates songs and dances while letting us perceive an evolutionary trajectory of musical writing. Vocal or instrumental solo pieces bear witness to an inventive art of the melody. From the addition of a simple harmonic support of low notes to 4-note interval polyphony, harmony is gradually refined and densified, to the elaborate polyphonic textures of the 15th and 16th centuries, which Henry VIII uses. At the source of the music are therefore the word, the text, the pulse, the movement, the rhythm, and these elements are taking shape and fully merging in a complete partition ("alas madam" in the form of a pavane, by Henry VIII).

Being artists and at the same time patrons, the kings had indeed a rich poetic and musical education. The chosen works immerse us in a universe of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic refinement, all under an air of apparent simplicity. Moods and impressions follow one another: gravity, meditation, appeasement, charm, and sweetness ("Rosa Das Rosas" by Alfonso 10 el Sabio), delicacy ("Ah Rubyn Gentil Rubyn" by William Cornysh), lightness and great liveliness (“Estampie”). But if this repertoire undeniably appeals to us, it is also thanks to the work of arrangement, instrumentation and interpretation carried out by the "Musica Antiqua Consort".

At the end of the 1970s, a great desire for rediscovery and reissue of ancient music (from the Middle Ages to the 18th century) animated the musical world. Specialized projects bringing together musicians and researchers have emerged, exploring the legacy. By founding "Musica Antiqua Consort" in 1977, the composer Vera Zlokovich was a pioneer in Serbia. The ensemble has 50 instruments, copies of ancient ones and the singers use around twenty languages. Very quickly invited by the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Belgrade to perform in its own country, the ensemble then traveled to the largest cities in Europe while receiving distinctions and awards. Its director is instrumental in the introduction of countertenors in Eastern Europe, and the training of many young musicians. The creation of the "Musica Antiqua Consort" was followed by that of the "Musica Antiqua Serbiana" through which Vera Zlokovich more specifically explores the Orthodox liturgical repertoire, thus returning to the sacred sources of music in Europe.

Here, her "know-how of a composer" is perceptible through the care given to the arrangements. They allow the specific timbres of families of instruments (woodwinds, strings, percussion) to be used in balance and respect for the original sober aesthetics. By highlighting the clarity of the lyrics, adequate ornamentation and proper tempo, the vocal and instrumental arrangement is transparent and the interpretation precise. Everything thus contributes to enhance "court art" which is the object of this disc, and to restore it in an elegant purity.

Today, thanks to concerts and recordings, the "music of kings" is accessible to us. Timeless, because of relying on a universal language, it manages to touch us directly and becomes familiar to us. Because we should not confuse elitism, which implies “selection”, and noble music which can uplift anyone. From natural melody to scholarly counterpoint, the art of troubadours and minstrels succeeds in combining spontaneity and artistry to the delight of all.

Paris, June 2022. 

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