How I learnt to love early English music

Like many composers, I am curious about how music is made, and equally interested in the obvious areas (Beethoven, Mozart, Bach), and in more remote corners of history. These include Medieval, Tudor and Renaissance English musical periods which are celebrated for their complex and ambitious vocal music.


In my own case I first encountered early English music through a book compendium called the Historical Anthology of Music.[1] I copied out a piece of music by a 15th century English composer called John Dunstaple, and got friends and family to perform it. The inventive style of this remote music made it interesting to investigate through transcription and recomposition. (I think this also can be a way to render something old and remote new and accessible.)


Dunstaple, and a whole generation of early English composers, are linked by a soundworld that a French contemporary of Dunstaple, Martin LeFranc, described in 1440 as the contenance angloise.[2] The English Style.


What is the 'contenance angloise'? The best way to understand it is to hear it.

These sounds, rich in thirds and sixths, were first conceived by John Dunstaple, and written down by him in approximately 1420, as part of a composition for voices entitled Veni Sancte Spiritus.


Yet even this ancient music itself is reaching back to and reading an earlier past - the TENOR, played here on the cello, is formed from a plainchant hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, first compiled in the ninth century by a Frankish Benedictine Monk, Rabanus Maurus Magnentius.


For me the successive musical sounds we hear that form John Dunstaple's composition serve to highlight the individual voice within the group. They seem to speak to the experience of the individual within the larger collective forces of the spiritual, secular and political worlds that collide to form the context for this music. The individual voice within the collective is a good way to begin understanding the powerful properties of musical polyphony. Not just a jumble of sounds for many voices, but music for a collective in which the sometimes dissenting individual can be discerned and acknowledged. For me this process is inextricably tied to the sensuous and fundamental musical experience of harmony. In this way this very early music enacts and voices fundamental social impulses and concerns.


Composers don't normally model their work on early music. But studying this music helped me understand how these distant composers used polyphony to articulate the human experience of ideas like light and darkness, and earth and heaven, through an active musical process that, when it works, transforms the listener's view.

[1] Davison, A, Apel, W., ed., Historical Anthology of Music, Volume I: Oriental, Medieval, and Renaissance Music (Harvard, 1949)

[2] In the poem Le Champion de Dames c. 1440-1442

Ed Hughes