The notion that the entire period was not only unified in itself but constituted a gigantic interregnum in the progress of the true European spirit from the Ancient World to its resurgence in a new humanism around 1500 is essentially a post-Renaissance construct. Was medieval history and culture really such an organic whole? And just how sudden was that Renaissance resurgence; indeed, how novel were its fundamental ideals?
Such are the challenges of a new essay collection entitled Discarding Images: Reflections on Music and Culture in Medieval France by Christopher Page. This is no bland overview: Page often worries away at apparently minute misinterpretations of evidence with all the doggedness one might expect from a Cambridge lecturer in medieval English literature. But the populist impulse he has exploited as front- man to the Radio 3 early music series, Spirit of the Age, also enables him to explain how such scholarly slips have sometimes led to major misunderstandings of the culture in question. Above all, his experience over the last decade of recording - with scrupulous care and often to exquisite effect - a gamut of 14th- and 15th-century French music with his Gothic Voices has convinced him that the ultimate court of appeal must always be the effect of the music in performance.
Evidently this has only increased his suspicion of received views of the Middle Ages, and of two dominating images in particular, which he calls respectively the 'cathedralist' and 'waning' interpretations. The first is the assumption that medieval society achieved around the 12th century an apogee of theocentric unity, buttressed by the secular order of chivalry and symbolised in the structures of the great Gothic cathedrals. The second is the way this unity was supposed to have broken down, with chivalry and the arts retreating into empty display and ever more escapist sophistication, while the world fell apart in warfare and plague - a view promoted in Johan Huizinga's classic The Waning of the Middle Ages.
Yet it was never easy to reconcile Huizinga's baleful vision of the 15th century with that unbroken succession of major composers, Dunstable, Dufay, Ockeghem and Josquin, whose progressive overlappings of continuity and innovation, as it were, conducted the history of music so majestically out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. And now, surveying the steady elaboration of counterpoint in the so-called Ars Antiqua of the 12th and 13th centuries centring on Perotin, and then the rhythm revolution and manifestos of the Ars Nova of Vitry and Machaut in the 14th, Page wants to argue this: 'The period of 1100-1600 in the musical life of the West is so fertile and inventive that it seems all Renaissance from beginning to end.'
Such comments, coupled with Page's declaration of faith in a 'transhistorical humanness', all tell of a performer-led desire, if not to minimise the undeniable 'otherness' of so remote a culture, at least to rescue medieval music from an older scholastic view that it was simply a kind of sounding symbolism or mathematics. A number of younger scholar-performers, in France, America and particularly in Britain, would probably now agree: Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, for instance, whose Machaut's Mass: An Introduction (OUP 1990) offers a fascinating investigation of what actually happened in a major medieval composition, rather than merely pointing standard theory books of the time at it. The polemical liveliness of the recent Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows (Dent 1992) and including articles by Page, Leech-Wilkinson and such performers as Philip Pickett, suggests a new phase in the early music movement is well under way.
Yet another new phase? One of the problems of attempting to revive a music more or less lost for centuries is that it is liable to be lumbered rapidly with two, not always compatible, histories. The first, in so far as scholars can re-establish it, is the history of its production and the functions it served in its original culture. The second is the history of attempts to bring it convincingly to life in the very different culture of its rediscovery. As recently as 40 or 50 years ago the most that the ordinary music-lover might have known about medieval music would have been the odd plainchant and Sumer is icumen in. The research was already being done, the editions prepared, but apart from the odd item in historical anthologies, it was not until the 1950s that a steady trickle of recordings began to appear, ranging from sober renderings of Machaut in a style established just before the Second World War by Safford Cape and his Pro Musica Antiqua to the technicolor treatment of the 12th-century music drama, The Play of Daniel, by Noah Greenberg's New York Pro Musica.
It was the Greenberg approach, mixing voices with the most pungent array of early instruments, that tended to dominate the 1960s, culminating in the kaleidoscopic output of the Early Music Consort of London under its charismatic pied piper, David Munrow. No one was going to protest that he mostly used Renaissance instruments in his medieval arrangements while he continued to draw the crowds - even if suspicions that they were coming to hear him as much as the music proved all too true after his untimely death in 1976, when audiences fell away and the period instrument movement marched on into the Baroque and Classical eras. Only over recent years has interest picked up with the arrival of new groups such as the Hilliard Ensemble and Gothic Voices, whose work has embodied a striking swing back to purer, often wholly vocal textures.
This is not just because more recent research has thrown doubt on the extensive use of instruments. A mixed scoring of, say, counter-tenor, lute, fiddle and sackbut, emphasising the linear structure of a motet, may have sounded acceptable as long as it was believed that medieval composers tended to build up their pieces a line at a time without always bothering about the harmonic relations between them. But Page and Leech-Wilkinson have both argued that a composer as sophisticated as Machaut must have conceived his harmonic progressions as entities; the homogeneity of a purely vocal consort certainly enables them to be heard and appreciated more easily - to say nothing of conferring a hint of proto-Renaissance humanism.
Yet the sheer ambiguity, fragmentariness or non-existence of vital information will continue to ensure controversy over performance practice. How, for example, is one to present the music of a culture that had no equivalent convention to the modern concert, or indeed concert audience? Pickett, for one, is quite prepared to play showman if it will help bring the music closer, assembling the colourful tapestry of his evening-length Pilgrimage to Santiago from Spanish sources of the 12th to the 14th centuries and even invoking a Munrow-like panoply of instruments on the basis of period lists and cathedral carvings. But since the manuscripts contain no suggestion of what these would have actually played, Pickett has had to glean hints from surviving traditions of Spanish and Moorish folk music, and some listeners to next Monday's performance may feel that the fiddle improvisations he has added to the Cantigas are just too elaborate to sound convincingly 12th-century. No matter: the variety of form and intensity of feeling already conveyed in the best-selling recording amply confirms the welcome fact that some of our most skilful fingers and lungs and our sharpest minds are once more applying themselves to the manifold problems and rewards of medieval music.
'Discarding Images' by Christopher Page, OUP, 222pp, pounds 25. 'The Pilgrimage to Santiago', New London Consort, 7.45pm 23 August, QEH (box-office 071-928 8800); recorded on L'Oiseau-Lyre 433 148-2 (two CDs)Reuse content