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Thibaut de Navarre: The Mysteries and Wonders of Medieval Music

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Initial A: David Playing the Psaltery, about 1460 – 1480, Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

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The other day veteran music journalist Steve Hochman reminded me of a wonderful album of music by the French trouvère Thibaut de Navarre (1201-1253) on the Harmonia Mundi label. This 1979 album, featuring the classic Harmonia Mundi cover art and format, is one I used to spin during my Morning Becomes Eclectic days. It’s in the category known as “Early Music,” i.e. pre-Renaissance music that goes back to medieval Europe, Arab-Andalusian Spain, and other places. I pulled out my copy to listen again and was swept away anew by its beauty.

This music features all sorts of unusual instruments: sackbuts, krumhorns, vielles, rebabs, vihuelas, psalteries, wooden trumpets, bombardes. I have always loved the sound of these early music instruments. The music they make is exotic, strange, and entrancing. Early music was enhanced by people traveling during the Crusades. In fact, music in Arab-Andalusian Spain was an amalgam of African, Moorish, and European styles.

Initial A: David Playing the Psaltery, about 1460 – 1480, Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

I sometimes think that with the Renaissance, the Baroque period, and the classical period that followed, music became more systematic and regularized with modern composition, theory, harmony, and counterpoint, and Bach’s Circle of Fifths. Somehow, I feel that the mystery and feel of the earlier music was removed. Early music, unlike the forms that followed, doesn’t usually have movements built around a central motif. There are no symphonies or concertos. Instead, there are many dances in a more popular style, sometimes quite ribald (zarzuelas and tarantellas were early “dirty dances”).

KCRW had a long-running music show called Music of the Spheres, a term and concept taken from medieval cosmologists–astrologers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe–who posited that the heavenly bodies did indeed produce a heavenly music. The show was on 6-8 a.m. Sunday mornings with host Mara Zhelutka. I used to wake up early on Sunday mornings and just lie in bed listening to the show. It was the perfect music for being in an in-between state of waking and dreaming. This was a state you couldn’t be in when listening to Vivaldi, Bach, or other more modern music.

Harmonia Mundi, now known more for its Anonymous 4 and classical records, issued many early music albums, and if you search you can still find them second-hand. The recorded sound is stellar and the pressings are quiet, too. I highly recommend them.

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