Of All the Flowers: Songs of the Middle Ages
Artistic Director: Anne Azéma
Performed by the Boston Camerata
This past Friday, the Boston Camerata performed at Walker Memorial as part of the MIT Sounding Series sponsored by the MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology. The night’s program was specifically commissioned for MIT and included some of the first performances (in the past 600 years or so) of newly reconstructed pieces from 14th-century French and Italian composers Guillaume Machaut, Johannes Ciconia, Francesco da Firenze, and others.
The group consisted of eight talented performers, a mix of vocalists and musicians playing the lute, villes (a bowed string instrument used in medieval music), bells, recorder, harp, and more.
MIT music professor Michael Scott Cuthbert hosted the concert, providing historical context for the pieces and inserting readings of contemporary poetry between sets. What made this concert special was the focus of the then and the now — how we can make old music, in a way, new. The performance began with songs that Italians would’ve heard in the 14th century. Cuthbert developed open-source software that allows music scholars to analyze music to find patterns and “fill in the gaps” between arrangements, gathering a more robust picture of pieces of music. Using this technology, we were able to hear arrangements, particularly of Machaut’s compositions, that would have never been heard by 14th-century audiences — what a treat!
As the title of the performance suggests, each composition was from the medieval era and as such, the pieces were sung in Latin, French, and Italian. The concert reminded me that you don’t have to understand what a person is saying (or in this case, singing) to know that it is beautiful. In fact, there is something almost spiritual about hearing something graceful and elegant that is obviously from a different time and in a language you don’t speak. I didn’t need to understand what the song was about; I didn’t need to analyze lyrics or know the histories surrounding the music. Instead, I could sit back and close my eyes focusing on its simple beauty — the conversations between villes, the enchanting and haunting Gregorian chants.
My favorite pieces of the concert included the anonymous chants that started the performance, Florete flores quasi lilium and Quae est ista, as well as O Rosa Bella, Ecco la primavera, and Ahi, mi, which came later in the show. Themes of flowers, spring, and rebirth were apparent throughout the performance (though as Cuthbert pointed out, they planned the concert several months ago and hoped that the spring-themed set would mirror the weather).
The Boston Camerata performs all over the globe, but they will play at the Pickman Concert Hall in Cambridge on Sunday, March 29 before they leave the States to perform in Europe — so catch them before they go.