An Old, Less Familiar Tune

What's a sackbut anyway?
What's a sackbut anyway? // Harrison Korn

It isn’t everyday that you get to hear music from the medieval era performed live, but surprises abound at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. On Wednesday afternoon, the Yale Collegium Musicum performed a selection of songs from the Mellon Chansonnier, a collection of 15th century-French music. During the first 30 minutes of the event, professor Rebekah Ahrendt presented a short lecture that opened up the world of early music both to uncultured plebeians like yours truly and to musical connoisseurs — which essentially made up the rest of the concert’s audience.

The Mellon Chansonnier — a book of songs that Yale has possessed since 1940, 23 years before the library’s opening — is thought to have been compiled by Flemish composer and theorist Johannes Tinctoris in 1475. He amassed 57 of his favorite pieces — many of which were composed by his friends and acquaintances — and presented the collection to King Ferrante I of Naples. Ferrante then gave the Chansonnier to his daughter, Beatrice of Aragon, who also happened to be Tinctoris’s student. (Ferrante must have commissioned Tinctoris to compile the Chansonnier: You would hope that 15th century kings would be above re-gifting!)

Over five centuries later, a group of 25 young musicians have revived the songs in the ultra-modern venue of the Beinecke, where some of the world’s oldest manuscripts are protected by state-of-the-art technology. Most of the singers in the “Collegium Chorus” are undergrads enrolled in “The Performance of Early Music” (MUS 223) taught by Ahrendt and professor Grant Herreid, who also conducted the group. A number of the singers doubled as instrumentalists, playing authentic recreations of medieval instruments such as the vielle, viol and sackbut, a Baroque-era trombone. Garbed in entirely black attire, the chorus stood in an arc in front of manuscript display cases, with silhouettes reflected in the thick glass.

Even with the aid of an introductory lecture, most laypeople attending such a performance would probably have difficulty distinguishing each of the songs solely by ear. But the Musicum wants the show to be accessible, which is likely why the lyrics and translations for each song flashed across a screen behind the performers. To keep watchers engaged and in their seats, Ahrendt, Herreid and the students played a combination of fast songs and slow ones, loud choral pieces and softer solo-based tunes. After every block of three or four songs, there was a shorter, instrumental piece that served as an audial intermission. All in all, the show was optimally structured.

What made the concert exceptional were the incredibly talented performers. To take MUS 223, students have to audition for the professors; their skill was evident in the way their voices blended together, echoing across the room’s translucent marble. It was clear that the singers had solid voices and musical backgrounds to begin with. But the surprising and uplifting reality is that these students took this performance so seriously and put so much work into perfecting their craft. I can’t imagine what a reenactment of the Homestead strike by ForMAC students or a dance performance by those enrolled in Black Mambo would look like. Ahrendt also mentioned that much of the research and information in the lecture and concert program had been compiled by the students. It’s not easy for young people to impress a crowd of experts whose median age is decades above that of the chorus itself. And yet, the audience’s enthusiasm proved that this was exactly what happened. As she rose from her seat, my neighbor to the left sighed, “I could listen to this all day.”

The next time a performance of this kind rolls around — which will be on Dec. 5, according to the concert program — anyone who is remotely interested in music and its colorful history should attend. You may not be able to fully comprehend the language or even the wonderful stylistic idiosyncrasies, but for 45 minutes, your ears will fill with mellifluous, sweeping harmonies that you will never forget. It’s an excellent study break and an opportunity to learn something that can be taught at nowhere else but Yale.

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