The Tudor Consort conducted by Michael Stewart
Renaissance Influences V – Springtime
Music by Claude Le Jeune, Claudin Sermisy and Olivier Messiaen
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Saturday 24 November, 7.30pm
The last of the series of concerts from The Tudor Consort that sought connections between music of the Renaissance and the present gave rise to the most recondite relationship with links that drew together the medieval story of Tristram and Iseult (as it is in Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem), and a little known work of Messiaen, Cinq rechants (‘five refrains’) for 12 unaccompanied singers.
The Cinq rechants form the third part of a strange trilogy that Messiaen composed after world war 2. The first is an hour-and-a-half-long set of poems called Harawi for soprano and piano; the second part is the Turangalîla Symphony, and Cinq rechants is the third. They are all inspired by/derived from the Tristan and Isolde story.
Its most authentic early form of the Tristan story is found in the German poem by Gottfried von Strassburg of around 1200. It was included by Malory in his Le Morte d’Arthur (though it is not, of course, strictly part of the Arthurian legends) in the 15th century and hence is found in Tennyson’s version of Malory’s poem, in his Idylls of the King.
It would be hard to identify any musical connection between the legend and Messiaen’s composition, though there are verbal references to Brangaine and Yseult in the first of the five poems which Messiaen wrote, partly in a made-up language devised for onomatopoeic reasons.
What then is the connection with the 16th century French Calvinist composer, Claude Le Jeune? The Tristan story and Le Jeune’s Spring theme were linked through Messiaen. Le Jeune wrote 33 ‘airs’ and six more extended chansons, with the title Le Printemps. We heard five of the latter: ‘Revecy venir du Printems [Printans]’, ‘Voicy du gay Printems’, ‘Chant de l’Allouette’, ‘O Rose reyne des fleurs’, ‘Le Chant du Rossignol’.
Messiaen knew them and was influenced by Le Jeune’s technique of somewhat rigidly echoing stressed syllables in the text with long notes in the music. While this offers sensitive treatment of the meaning of the Old French (of benefit to very few of the audience I imagine), it made rhythms irregular; combined with a melodic penchant that paid more attention to meaning than to lyrical beauty, the results were interesting rather than beguiling.
Thus their performance was not an easy task and the choir displayed singular accomplishment in making them so musical, especially those singers who occasionally took passages by themselves.
The choir also sang a chanson, ‘Au joli bois’ by Claudin Sermisy, who was thirty years Le Jeune’s senior. It was in a much more familiar polyphonic style, Italianate perhaps; the wood might have been beautiful but the singer was grief-striken, not that the spirit of the music or the singing gave that away.
Then, before the interval came the five Messiaen songs. The first began in deceptive calm from women’s voices while the men disturb it, singing pseudo-Hindi words. They continue making use of linguistic, poetic devices that have, for Messiaen, musical equivalences that vary in their effects as the listener grasps or fails to grasp what he is seeking. There is nothing simple in the music; one was often overwhelmed by the virtuosity exhibited by the choir, and wondered that so few hints of imperfection appeared.
For all the difficulties presented for the singers and the listeners, earlier and later hearings, even if only of bits of the cycle such as are found on You-Tube, begin to cohere musically, and encourage one to explore more of the less-known works of this extraordinary composer.
The Tudor Consort continues to offer Wellington wonderful opportunities to enlarge and deepen (if such a flawed metaphor is allowed) our musical horizons.