Stanford musicologist brings the 15th century to life

Stanford’s Jesse Rodin reanimates musical experiences of the distant past through performance.

Audiences often trust that performers know the history of the music they present, but even for the most dedicated performers there are unanswered questions.

Jesse Rodin's students sing at Memorial Church

Jesse Rodin’s students perform Johannes Ockeghem’s Missa Ecce Ancilla Domini from a modern choirbook in January 2016 in Stanford’s Memorial Church. (Image credit: Mark Nye)

How, for instance, were ensemble performances experienced during the Renaissance? Do we experience them similarly today?

For Jesse Rodin, associate professor of music, questions like these are central. “We might not ever be able to escape our modernity,” he said, but “that shouldn’t be an excuse not to engage with our historical materials.” Reenacting musical works as they were performed, as Rodin’s ensembles aim to do, might offer insights into music history that documents do not.

What jousting tells us about singing

Rodin’s recent research explores how performers and listeners experienced polyphonic (i.e., multi-voice) music of the 15th century. Music historians have long been frustrated by a lack of primary sources. Little survives about time-bound listening experiences – the sort of lush description modern audiences expect in a review.

According to Rodin, this gap in documentation is exceptional even by standards of the time. For instance, Antoine de La Sale’s Jean de Saintré: A Late Medieval Education in Love and Chivalry (1456) recounts the tale of a lowly page who, with the help of a secret, noble lover, rises through the ranks to become a knight. La Sale narrates Saintré’s jousts as though he were “sportscasting,” in Rodin’s words, with “an unbelievable amount of detail, especially concerning the moment-to-moment events that make up each stage of the battle.”

Music, however, didn’t receive the same kind of attention. Unlike jousting, written descriptions of complex, notation-based musical repertories were of less interest. But Rodin believes 15th-century accounts of jousts and feasts can serve as models for experiences of other time-bound activities.

“When writing about music,” he said, “we can emulate these models.”

While historical records about music are important sources of information, Rodin said performing the music is equally crucial in elucidating experiences of past audiences. That led him to start Cut Circle, a vocal ensemble he founded in 2003 as a Harvard graduate student. Cut Circle describes itself as recapturing the “gritty, intense experience” of the late-medieval repertory, “informed by deep knowledge of the music’s twists and turns.”

Cut Circle’s first album debuted alongside Rodin’s monograph, Josquin’s Rome (2012). The ensemble’s latest album, Guillaume Du Fay: Les messes à teneur, has received several prizes: the 2016 Olivier Messiaen Prize for best choral recording from the Académie du Disque Lyrique, Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and a Diapason d’Or from Diapason.

Rodin’s goals are lofty and his standards exacting. “Most singers can’t do it,” he said. “This repertory is exceedingly challenging to perform at a high level.”

Bringing Renaissance music to Stanford

In 2012, the Stanford Arts Institute and Department of Music helped Rodin commission a replica of a 15th-century Florentine music lectern that stands nearly 6½ feet tall, which Rodin’s students now regularly use in performance.

For his class Performance as Analysis: Late-Medieval Music in Action, Rodin obtained permission from the registrar to schedule its meetings as long rehearsals during the first 10 days of the winter 2016 quarter, enabling participants to achieve high levels of proficiency singing the repertory. In preparation for the class’s January 2016 performance in Memorial Church, Stanford arranged for Cut Circle to be in-residence to work with Rodin’s students.

What made the experience special for Rodin was seeing the students clustered around the lectern, singing from a modern reproduction of a 15th-century choir book. When alto singers imitate sopranos in a choir spread out in a “U” formation, listeners hear the melody first in their left ear, then in their right. But in a performance from a lectern, all the sound comes from the same place – listeners experience a “concentrated blast rather than a stereo effect.”

“As a performer, you’re doing it the way they did it in the 15th century,” said Rodin, who also instructs the course Stanford Facsimile Singers, where students perform secular and religious polyphonic works from original notation. “Standing shoulder to shoulder, singers tend to approach the music with greater intensity and a stronger sense of corporate identity.”

In a class of their own

Courses like Stanford Facsimile Singers have peers at other institutions – the Medieval Song Lab at Yale, for instance – but singing from original notation is hardly common.

“We’re collectively at the beginning of this endeavor,” Rodin said. “To get beyond questions like ‘Is there ink bleeding through the page?’ and ‘Is this rhythm dotted?’ requires total immersion. In fact, there’s no standing ensemble in the world that can pick up a choir book and just start singing.”

Rodin has no doubt that many 15th-century singers could do just that. “The music is often complex. You can’t fudge it, at least, not if you want to avoid a train wreck,” he said.

Still, unknowns abound. Extant sources reveal little about vocal color or dynamics (i.e., volume). In Rodin’s view, even if answers to such questions were available, they might prove uncomfortable. Indeed, the tastes of a late-medieval listener might clash with modern sensibilities.

“Our best hope is to try to emulate late-medieval performance circumstances,” Rodin said, “with as deep a knowledge of the repertory as possible.”

Media Contacts

Chris Kark, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, ckark@stanford.edu