The Fire and the Rose / Heliotrope
Aquitanian Chant & Polyphony

Koch International Classics 3-7356-2HI

Recorded June 1995 and May 1996,
St. Vincent's School For Boys, San Rafael, CA

1. Gaudia debita (Paris, B.N. lat. 3719)   6:32
Joyce Todd and Stephanie Prewitt, voices;
Shira Kammen, vielle; Kim Swatsler, hurdy-gurdy; Tom Chandler, bells

2. Lux refulget (London, B.L. add. 36881)   2:54
Danny Johnson and Temmo Korisheli, voices

3. Per partum virginis (Paris, B.N. lat. 3719)   5:18
Joyce Todd and Stephanie Prewitt, voices;
Kim Swatsler, hurdy-gurdy

4. Victime pascali laudes (Paris, B.N. lat. 3549)   7:14
chant: ensemble;
polyphony: Danny Johnson and Temmo Korisheli, voices;
Roy Whelden and Shira Kammen, vielles

5. Res jocosa (London, B.L. add. 36881)   2:44
Stephanie Prewitt and Danny Johnson, voices

6. Divinum stillant (London, B.L. add. 36881)   2:29
Roy Whelden and Shira Kammen, vielles

7. Per letalis pomi pastum (London, B.L. add. 36881)   5:00
Joyce Todd and Stephanie Prewitt, voices;
Kim Swatsler, hurdy-gurdy

8. Letabundi iubilemus (Paris, B.N. lat. 1139)   3:11
Joyce Todd, voice;
Shira Kammen, vielle

9. Orienti Oriens (London, B.L. add. 36881)   3:20
Danny Johnson and Temmo Korisheli, voices

10. Flore vernans gratie (Paris, B.N. lat. 3719)   5:28
Joyce Todd and Stephanie Prewitt, voices;
Shira Kammen and Roy Whelden, vielles

11. Omnis saltus Libani ~ Congaudeat ecclesia (Paris, B.N. lat. 1139)   4:22
Danny Johnson, voice;
Roy Whelden, Shira Kammen, and Kit Robberson, vielles

12. Laude iocunda (Paris, B.N. lat. 3549)   3:03
Joyce Todd and Stephanie Prewitt, voices

13. Plebs Domini hac die (Paris, B.N. lat. 3719)   9:16

London, B.L. add. 36881: #2, 5, 6, 7, 9
Paris, B.N. lat. 1139: #8, 11
Paris, B.N. lat. 3549: #4, 12
Paris, B.N. lat. 3719: #1, 3, 10, 13

Joyce Todd

Joyce Todd · soprano
Stephanie Prewitt · alto
Danny Johnson, Temmo Korisheli · tenor

Shira Kammen, Kit Robberson, Roy Whelden · vielle
Kim Swatsler · hurdy-gurdy
Tom Chandlers · bells

Produced, engineered and mastered by Peter Nothnagle


The collection of sacred polyphonic pieces known as Aquitanian polyphony comes from four manuscripts belonging to the Abbey of St. Martial of Limoges, France, in the region of medieval Aquitaine. The Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution, but before its destruction the library was sold to what is now the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris. These manuscripts contain one- and two-voice pieces as well as non-musical works such as sermons, letters, and historical writings. The sources of these manuscripts span the 9th to the 12th centuries.

The beauty and depth of Aquitanian polyphony is shrouded in the difficulties often associated with ancient music: issues of notation (or lack thereof), performance practice and historical context. This astonishing repertory has provoked heated debate in academic circles and has posed problems for singers who wish to perform the music.

The polyphony on this recording, from the later 12th century, is some of the earliest two-voice notated music in the history of western culture. It is also the earliest polyphony which is not note-against-note, that is, where one part is more active than the other part. The pieces were written down in score form, in which the two parts are aligned vertically usually with just one reference pitch marked for each part. By medieval standards this notation was fairly clear with regard to pitch and alignment, and scholars generally agree on these issues. However, the most interesting problem facing performers and editors of this music is rhythm, since the notation does not indicate durations of notes, at least as far as modern scholarship has been able to determine. Performers must study each piece individually to develop an interpretation which is extremely flexible, if not improvised.

The emotional affect of this music is ecstatic and startling, full of dissonance and daring melodic movement. The unifying element is always the text. The Latin strophic verse that was in vogue in the late 12th century contains striking and sometimes obscure, seemingly bizarre imagery. Many of the texts meditate on the Virgin Mary and the paradoxical mystery of the Virgin birth, or 'the Father born of the daughter'. Though the subject matter of these Latin texts is sacred, their place in the liturgy is not certain, nor are scholars sure what function the music would have played in the Mass or Office, if, indeed, it would even have been part of the service. Many of the texts are appropriate for the Christmas season.

We have chosen pieces which reflect the full range of styles in Aquitanian polyphony. The three monophonic (one voice) pieces on our recording contrast vividly. Plebs Domini hac die is a beautiful strophic song in praise of the Virgin Mary. The style of this exquisitely simple melody is not unlike that of the troubadours, who flourished in the same time and place, and whose musical development has been closely linked to the monophonic songs of St. Martial. The song has a refrain which exhorts us to praise Mary 'with voice, heart, sense, mind and strength.' The imagery reflects on paradoxical images in such lines as 'the pot is made the potter.. the stream is made the spring.., by whom he is veiled he is revealed.'

Another monophonic piece, Letabundi iubilemus ('Let us rejoice with gladness'), is structured so the first and last sections are set in a more simple style while the middle section takes off on a melismatic adventure of galactic proportions, its melody spanning an octave and a fifth, radically expansive by medieval standards. The unusual twists and turns of the melody reflect the progressive and experimental nature of late 12th century art and culture, and of much Aquitanian music.

The two-voice pieces range from the elegance of Flore vernans gratie ('Refreshed by the flower of grace'), which sets a beautiful poem in praise of the Virgin, 'now wet with dew from on high,' in a note-against-note style, to the florid virtuosity of Gaudio debita temporis orbita redidit orbi ('Rejoice for he has saved us from where we were left beyond the course of time'). In this masterpiece the lower line is a melody in its own right, which we perform first as a chant. Then the second voice is added, which weaves intricately above and below the original melody, now slowed down. The procedure of adding new to old is one of the trademarks of early medieval polyphony in which composers frequently added their own voices to the work of earlier composers.

The formal architecture of a piece like Per partum virginis ('Through the birth-giving of a virgin') is stunning. The style of composition changes with the poetic meter, sometimes in a syllabic setting of a text, sometimes with both voices singing long melismas together creating the effect of a flock of birds taking flight. In some of the pieces the texts are difficult to comprehend and use complex word-play and images. Per letalis pomi pastum ('Through the lethal apple tasted') compares the 'toxic spell' of the apple of knowledge to the communion wafer through which God brings healing to His creation. The Latin word 'plasma,' meaning 'creation,' forms the rhyme with 'cataplasma' which means 'poultice.'

Because of the importance of the poetry in this repertory the virtuosity of this music lies not only in the counterpoint of the melodic lines but in the phrasing, which has to fit the texts. Our performances try to take all of the above into account while acknowledging that there is much we do not know. Tempos, dynamics, articulation, ornamentation, are all subjects of debate in the rehearsal and in the academy. Our use of instruments will be considered by some to be apocryphal, although there is evidence that many medieval singers in religious orders played instruments such as the vielle. If these pieces were performed in a non-liturgical context it is quite conceivable that they could have been accompanied. Additionally given the tradition and skill with which these singers worked, it is possible that they improvised polyphony for the monophonic pieces. If for the modem performer and listener, the challenges surrounding the notation of Aquitanian Polyphony can be turned into inspiration, this music more than rewards the effort.

© 1998, Joyce Todd


We have altered the text of Plebs Domini because of the anti-Semitic reference 'Judeans est caecatus' ('the Jew is blind'). We have changed the Latin word 'Judeans' to 'ignorans' ('the ignorant man is blind'), which conveys a meaning understandable by a modern audience without reproducing the social prejudice of the 12th century. It is, needless to say, difficult to traverse the territory of medieval music and poetry without encountering the anti-Semitism which appears in many medieval texts and lyrics. If performers want to perform this music in the belief that its worth goes beyond its prejudice, that prejudice has at least to be acknowledged so that we do not sanitize history. Volumes could be written (and have been) on this subject and on the problematic role of women in medieval imagery, even in the work women composers such as Hildegard of Bingen.


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