Vocal Recall

By Greig, Donald | Musical Times, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Vocal Recall


Greig, Donald, Musical Times


Vocal recall Medieval music and the art of memory Anna Maria Busse Berger University of California Press (Berkeley, Los Angeles & London, 2005); xvi, 288pp; £38.95, $60. ISBN ï 520 24028 6.

IN THE FINALE OF HITCHCOCK's 1935 film The 39 Steps the hero, Richard Hannay (played by Robert Donat), pursued by both the forces of law and a criminal gang, finds himself trapped in a theatre. As a way of alerting the authorities to the threat of espionage, he challenges the act on stage, Mr Memory: 'What are the 39 Steps?'. Mr Memory, seemingly unable to stop himself, reveals that the 39 Steps is a gang of spies which is planning to smuggle him out of the country and with him the state secrets that he has memorised.

The image of memory presented here is a familiar myth, expounded and encouraged by modern educationalists: repetition at the expense of cognition, automation to the detriment of analysis. In a primarily literate culture such as ours where information is more often than not stored electronically and the ability to do so measured in kilobytes, memory is seen as something archaic and outmoded, essentially unintellectual, and as such suitable only for cheap entertainment. Yet it has been clear for some time that memory played a vital rolein medieval culture, an observation developed and played out in books by, amongst others, Mary Carruthers and Frances Yates. Anna Maria Busse Berger's important new book is the first sustained response to the role of memory in the learning, transmission and composition of medieval music. Important here (and present in her title, itself an echo of Yates's book and earlier treatises) is the idea that memory is an Art, far from the mechanistic model that Mr Memory personifies, and a key corollary to the movement from an oral to a written culture in the middle ages.

As Busse Berger notes, memory was held in high esteem in the medieval period, and education and erudition were both characterised by memorial activities. This much has been apparent for 50 years or more, yet historians of medieval music have been slow to respond to the cues given in other fields. This study is part of a more generally observable trend to return medieval music to one in which an awareness of orality informs and generates a deeper understanding of medieval music both in its performance and its reception. Throughout there is a healthy suspicion of taking any text at face value, coupled with a questioning of long-held assumptions. Earlier studies have mistakenly elevated manuscripts, be they treatises or scores, to the same status that they are afforded by our literate culture - as scores for reproduction or as rather dull evidence of primitive educational tools.

Busse Berger's starting point is some of the earliest polyphony, that of the School of Notre Dame, as perceived and represented by some of the earliest musicologists. The heading of the first chapter, 'The first great dead white male composer', is a deliberate challenge to easy assumptions of the Composer as creator of musical scores, an evolutionary view that sees Léonin and Pérotin as the first composers of music and one that fails to acknowledge or investigate the musical practice of the nth century. But the title infers more and mischievously suggests that it is really the First Great Dead White Male Musicologist that is her main concern. This is obviously identifiable as Friedrich Ludwig, one of the founding fathers of medieval music history, responsible for the 'discovery' of the techniques of modal rhythm and isorhythm which are to become the main repertorial focus of Busse Berger's study. For all his pioneering work Ludwig failed to appreciate the essentially oral culture in which Notre Dame polyphony and ars nova motets existed or, more accurately, the ways that the movement from an oral to a literate culture determined the development of each. The musicologist who exemplifies the approach musicology could have taken (which would have meant that Busse Berger's book could have emerged 50 years ago) was Jacques Handschin. …

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