Hunting the Wren

Heather Rose Jones hrjones at
Sun Sep 10 09:56:13 PDT 1995

On Sun, 10 Sep 1995, Dick Eney wrote:

> If they can be placed in our period by reference or quotation, they're 
> not "undocumentable".  If you mean the musical notation isn't recorded, 
> then all period music is "undocumentable" except a few pieces at the very 
> end, with the rest having been written down from oral tradition when an 
> agreed notation was finally developed.  But there are plenty of other 

I think you're stetching the point with your claim about "all ... except 
a few pieces at the very end" being unrecorded. Musical notation was 
developed fairly early in the medieval period and much of it survives 
today -- although it takes special training for the modern musician to 
read it. Perhaps you are discounting it because much of it is church 
music, and so less interesting to the secular entertainer, but even here 
we have written evidence that there was a brisk commerce between the two 
genres in the medieval period. One of the sources for "The Early English 
Carol" is quoted to the effect of, "It's a real shame that people are 
singing these horrible secular carols and they're so popular, but here 
I've written some more appropriate religious lyrics to the same tunes." 
Tunes are recorded (and preserved) for a number of troubador-era songs -- 
which is a bit before "the very end" of period.

When I hear statements like this, I sometimes think that what is really 
being said is "they didn't record the sort of music that I'm looking for, 
so I'll have to assume that it just didn't get written down". Now it is 
clear that a lot of music -- and some entire genres of music -- didn't 
get recorded. We have written references to them, but no notational 
records. But that doesn't tell us anything about the nature of what 
wasn't getting written down. For example, we have no recorded notation 
for Welsh "popular" music until the 18th century. But the lack of records 
for earlier centuries does not mean that we can project those 18th 
century tunes back into earlier centuries as the most probable 
reconstruction. Comparing them with other musical products of the 18th 
century, we find that they are stylistically at home in _that_ century. 
I.e., that 18th century Welsh folk tunes are first and foremost 
_18th_century_ Welsh folk tunes. Musical styles -- _especially_ when not 
written down -- seem prone to reflect changes in popular taste. The very 
fact that most medieval music seems "weird" to modern ears is a good clue 
that more familiar sounding "folk tunes" (e.g. 18-19th century tunes for 
Child ballads) are almost certainly _not_ medieval in their available form.

Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn

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