Performing early music

Miguel Jerez López. Actor, director y musicologist

From the beginning of the Research Center Tomás Luis de Victoria´s work, one of the declared project´s main goal has been to keep listening the music from our loved abulense composer.

From the musicological perspective, the performance of early music it´s a very old theme, and at the same time, with many shadows and dark places wich every project or research decides how to solve, because we miss a lot of information yet to explain completely the way those musics were performed in each moment, wich meanings it had, or how the audience listened and recieved them.

To have a look on this academical and performative conflict, let´s imagine that, in our best case, we can have a print or handwritten edition with a full musical score, eloquent enought about the kind of musical notation used to create it and to keep some concrete musc in the paper. But the path from here untill the practical sound it´s still long and hard, and it´s full of questions that musicologists and performers have to answer.

One of the first challenge we have, and today it´s a whole research field, its about the function of the musical notation in the Middle Age. Today, our occidental music notation it´s a simbolic representation of a bunch of sound parameters, as: rithm, duration, frequency..., and some suggestions about the quality of the sound (intensity...) wich are quite subjective. But not all the musical notations in the human history have or had have the same functions and uses. Each one is focused in the most practical aspects for each context, and conversely, let other many caracteristics neglected, because for that concrete moment and place, were unnecessary. In the Middle Age, many of the notations used, “represent cualitative aspects of the pronunciation of the words in the chant, at least as much as they tryed to codify the specific pitch of the melodies[1]” . So, the bigest part of the information those writtings kept, was refer to concepts related to the quality, very difficult to measure and, therefore, those notations became a suggestive notation, nemotechnic or diastematic. That means that the singers shuold have had previous information to sing that score, because that notation was not a simbolic system, indeppendt from orality. How can we re-built those huge holes of information that were transmited orally?

Other of the discussions about the use of the early music notations, it´s about the improvisation. Today we know that a big parto of the music heard at Phillip II court, in Spain during the XVI century, was based on the polyphonic improvisation chant[2]. The recente historical musicology, trought the deep study of the main sources, and after find itself in many dead ends without capability to explain the performance of the music in the past, has proposed some keys to understand better the thoughts related to the music from that times.

In the XVI century, the singers were trained so they could improvise easily, even in four voices singing, from a principal melody. They got it with the study and practice of standarized counterpoint formulas. This was not just for the courtesan context; we know, by the contemporary treated, that improvised poliphonic singing was practiced also between the popular classes[3].

As it´s easy to think, this two first problematics don´t make it any easy to re-create the music that our people heard 500 years ago, or even before, if we have clear that what we have by the original sources it´s just a part with some of the aspects of the musical practice. How we can understand better all this framework full of shadows? How we can complete all this informatios with a rigorous method?

As a very beggining for an answer, never conclusive and always open, some researchers have been decided to start useing their voices in a practical way to try to understand better the music while performing it. When they are performing the music, some of the evidences are more clear, the sameones than before were unattainable just studing in paper or score.


Marcel Pérès and Organum Ensemble:

Marcel Pérès is a french musicologist, singer and organist, who has been developeing a methodological and research sistem  to propose a very personal solution to the problema of performing oral musical traditions from Medieval Age. In 1982 founds Organum Ensemble, a musical group, wich has been working since that time as one of the fundamental arms of his research activity. The other arm is a Musical Studies Center, with whom he works almost simultaneously and transversally, today called CIRMA (Centre Itinérant de Recherche sur les Musiques Anciennes[4])[5].

One of the solutions Pérès has used to solve this lack of information about performing early music from oral tradition, has been through alive practices he consider as equivalents in some aspects. In concrete, he lead a research project about ornamentation in medieval gregorian chant trought the poliphonic corse chant.

We know since the XIX  century about the notation that  has been conserved of this repertory, that when was sung, was ornamented. And we also know that corsican singers, today, use ornamentation formulas and improvise with them in their poliphony. Pérès experiment was to performe the G. Machaut´s Missa Notre Dame by the corsican singers, aplying thir own technic.

The probabilities he has that both musical solutions to be completely equivalent, are very few, but maybe, what this expeeriment is revealing is the possibility to understand the process of performing the music closer to how it was done on the times. While they are takeing the risk to perform the music, many doubts will be solved and many other will appear, now, in a very equivalent way to what it could been in the XV century.

Probably, we will never know by sure how the music could sound in the past, but maybe we can get closer to understand the mentalities and the technics that made it possible.


[1] "representaban aspectos cualitativos del enunciado de las palabras en el canto al menos en la misma medida en que trataron de codificar la altura específica de las melodías cantadas". Gary Tomlinson, «Musicología, Antropología, Historia», en Los últimos diez años de la investigación musical, coord. por Jesús Martín Galán y Carlos Villar-Taboada (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, Centro Buendía, 2004), 155.


[2] Julie E. Cummings, «Renaissance improvisation musicology», MTO a Journal of the Sociaety for Music Theory 19, (Junio 2013),

[3] Giuseppe Fiorentino, «La música de “hombres y mujeres que no saben de música”: polifonía de tradición oral en el renacimiento español», Revista de Musicología 31, 1 (2008).

[4] Itinerant Research Center on Ancient Music.

[5] Marcel Pérès, «La interpretación de las músicas antiguas y la necesaria reevaluación de las herramientas historiográficas», en Los últimos diez años de la investigación musical, coord. por Jesús Martín Galán y Carlos Villar-Taboada (Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, Centro Buendía, 2004), 184-186.