Anne Walters Robertson talks about the medieval and contemporary tunes that keep her humming
by Elizabeth Station
Whether the setting is a medieval abbey or a Broadway stage, “I have always had a very strong sense that music exists in spaces,” says Anne Robertson, the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Music. Her scholarship on the liturgical and secular music of the Middle Ages explores these spaces deeply, showing how politics, theology, art, and architecture shaped music, especially in medieval France.
Sometimes Robertson has become so involved in research, she says, that manuscripts seemed as real to her as people. Yet she also bridges past and present: perusing digitized fifteenth-century songbooks online, playing Gershwin tunes on a classroom piano to teach beginning students about rhythm, and listening to Sinatra on her iPhone.
Author of Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in His Musical Works, Robertson is the first scholar to win all three awards given by the Medieval Academy of America. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and president of the American Musicological Society. She recently spoke with Tableau about the music and composers that keep her humming.
What sparked your interest in medieval music?
It all began because I studied Latin extensively. From fourth grade on, I attended St. Thomas’ Episcopal, a private school in Texas modeled on the British style of classical education. My father was the headmaster and my mother taught third grade at the school. We started Latin in the fifth grade and it just clicked with me, whereas I had no knack whatsoever for physics and chemistry. And you can’t study Latin for seven or eight years as a kid without getting curious about the Middle Ages.
I was a piano performance major in college. The two worlds came together when I decided to go to graduate school. Early on in graduate school, at Yale, I had a wonderful seminar with Craig Wright on the music of Notre Dame Cathedral in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. That was what sealed the deal for me to become a medievalist and to aspire to do a dissertation on something related to French medieval music.
You analyze music in a context that includes church architecture, liturgy, poetry, politics, philosophy, and art. Why and how did you develop that layered approach?
I always have had a very strong sense that music exists in spaces, and it is especially true in the Middle Ages. One of the reasons for this is because, in the preprint era, every church — the Royal Abbey of Saint-Denis, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris — had its own manuscripts rather than a standard hymnal. Each church was very proud of the collection of relics and books that made it unique. In the preprint era, you have a window into these churches that basically closes after the wide dissemination of liturgical books in print, around the time of the Council of Trent and the Protestant Reformation.
So medieval sources shed light on local variations.
Exactly. Even from within the same Northern French geographic area, every church has a slightly different twist on their chants. So if you take the same Alleluia melody and line it up in, say, twenty different examples of the same chant, you’re going to find a twist that’s different in almost every church — a slightly varied musical pronunciation or musical language.
Your recent article in the Journal of Musicology looks at a Mass by Guillaume Du Fay (c. 1397 – 1474), the most influential European composer of his time. Why did this composer and piece of music grab your attention?
Du Fay is absolutely fascinating in the way he dealt with both sacred and secular music in what we might call a crossover fashion. The average person might think the Middle Ages is all about theology and sacred music and pious living, but especially within court life and everyday life on the streets, secular music was actively cultivated in all its forms.
As a person connected to many different churches in northern Europe and in Italy, Du Fay was required to produce sacred music. But he also worked in several courts, and he composed the very first Mass based on what looks like a secular song: Se la face ay pale (If my face is pale). In other words, all five movements of the Mass — the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei — are based not on chant melodies but a popular song melody.
A good way to explain this in modern terms would be to think of “Love and Marriage,” the song Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen wrote for Frank Sinatra. It sounds like it’s about a guy and a girl getting together: “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.”
Theologians in the Middle Ages wrote a lot about sacred love and marriage — people’s love for God and each other, and the spiritual marriage of monks and nuns with Christ — but they often explain it using secular metaphors. So one could imagine a composer writing a Mass using the melody from “Love and Marriage” with words like, “Glo-ri-a-a, in ex-cel-sis, de-e-o …” The hearers think, “Oh, that’s the tune ‘Love and Marriage,’ but I’m supposed to think of it in this spiritual way.”
Why might Du Fay have written a Mass about a man with a pale face?
Du Fay was at the Court of Savoy, in the French Alps near the border with Italy. Right at the same moment, in 1453, the Holy Shroud — now known as the Shroud of Turin, but it didn’t go to Turin until 1578 — came into the possession of the Duke of Savoy. Obviously the most prominent feature of the Shroud is the face of Christ. I began to be very interested in what theology says about the dying Christ. In all the vernacular theological treatises that give Christ speeches from the cross, he tends to speak rather profusely. And he says, “My face is pale for you, because of my love for mankind.”
I began to think that Du Fay was trying to use a song, the melody of which people loved and knew, to give them a feeling of transcendence and a way to venerate this newly arriving relic. A lot of politics go into it as well. Why does the Duke of Savoy want the Holy Shroud at this time? Well, he’s trying to compete with the King of France, who has Saint-Chapelle in Paris, which was the home of Christ’s Crown of Thorns. Today, cities try to have the best football team, the tallest skyscraper, or the best memorabilia of Elvis Presley. It was absolutely the same in the Middle Ages.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a book about music for the Mass that is based on secular songs in the fifteenth century. The working title is “The New Christology in Late Medieval Music.” It’s an important subject because, although scholars have identified Masses that are intended for the Virgin Mary and the saints, they have tended to ignore a sizable number that were meant for Christ, mainly because so many of these are built on secular songs. By showing the songs contain language which parallels that found in vernacular theology on Christ, we can see how these works were meant to show people generally — not just those who were employed in churches and courts — how they could conduct devotion to Christ in their native tongues.
How has your work as a music historian evolved with the field of medieval studies?
One of my closest kin fields is art history, which in recent decades has moved from a focus on what we might call iconography — that is, talking about the object itself and what symbols are inherent in the object — to spectatorship. What do people looking at this object think, understand, and feel, and how does the object contribute to their experience?
The work that I did with the Mass Se la face ay pale and connecting it to the Shroud is in a similar vein. Hearing spectatorship, or “auditorship,” is what I’m getting at.
Do you want your research to be accessible to a broad audience?
Right out of graduate school, students typically are extremely focused on one topic. I was no exception, having written my dissertation on the Abbey of Saint-Denis and thinking very deeply about manuscripts whose call numbers I had internalized to the point that, to me, they were like people.
My state of mind has changed over the years. I do want to reach out to more people. As humanists studying objects of art or great works of music, we’re in a position to explain them in ways that go beyond pushing the envelope in our field. For example, it thrilled me to no end when I got an e-mail last year from a member of Cantica Symphonia, an early music group in Turin. He explained that the Shroud of Turin would be publicly exhibited in 2010 and they were searching for music to play. He had googled “shroud” and “music,” and a draft of my paper on Du Fay popped up.
So the connection was made and as a result, for the first time, Du Fay’s Mass Se la face ay pale was performed in conjunction with the viewing of the Shroud, in a concert near Turin Cathedral. It was broadcast over radio throughout Europe and worldwide on the Internet. That type of exchange was a real high point for me, and something I hope I can keep doing.
Not many faculty members have a grand piano in their office. How often do you play?
I was quite serious about the piano even through the first two years of graduate school. But once I started writing the dissertation, I just couldn’t put in the hours anymore. Over the years, I’ve maintained my chops a little bit by accompanying my children, who play oboe and cello. And when I teach Music 121 to beginning undergraduates, I do things like playing Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” to show them how rhythm and syncopation work.
How do you get undergraduates interested in the Middle Ages?
We often begin with music that they know, usually from Bach forward. I try to show them that a lot of Bach’s music is based on preexisting hymn tunes. Once you interest them in the idea that there is a pre-existing melody, and that composers write other voices around it contrapuntally, you’ve got them hooked — because counterpoint follows rules that sound like mathematics to them. This whole compositional process comes from the Middle Ages, and it’s easy, then, to explain medieval polyphony and its preexisting tunes: Gregorian chant or secular songs.
I also love playing music composed and recorded in Notre Dame Cathedral, or Machaut’s Mass as it was recorded in Reims Cathedral, and saying, “This is how this music sounds, bouncing off the stones that make up these cathedrals. Do you hear how the reverberation keeps going for ten or fifteen seconds after the cutoff?” Then you’re into acoustics, which these kids also understand and like.
What contemporary music do you listen to — and how does it connect to medieval music?
I’m a huge lover of Gershwin. I want to someday have the chance to study more of his music and maybe look at some of the original manuscripts. The great lyricists like Ira Gershwin, in partnership with his brother, George, and Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen are often working with musical and textual ideas that go way, way back.
Broadway music also appeals to me as a medievalist because there’s such attention among the great collaborators — the great lyricists and songwriters — to the word and how words are set to music. I love tuneful popular music: Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and “Moondance” and the Great American Songbook: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Sinatra. That’s what I listen to in the car when I’m driving, and on my iPhone.
So, you are a medievalist with an iPhone — and a MacBook. How has technology changed the way you teach and do research?
In my graduate school days, there were basically two options: either get on a plane and go over to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, or, if you were lucky, and at Yale we were fortunate, the library would have microfilms of a number of primary sources. Those microfilms were old and they were black and white. Often seven or eight people were crowded around a beat-up microfilm reader, squinting, trying to see the sources.
Today, more and more manuscripts are coming online, and the great beauty of this is that you get an idea of the color. If you’re looking at a French chansonnier — a songbook from the fifteenth century — on a laptop, you can zoom in and out; you can talk about a sharp or a flat. Sometimes these are very small books, so you can actually see them better online. This is still no substitute for feeling and touching a manuscript, but it’s so thrilling to have these kinds of resources for teaching. You can project a page on a screen and everyone can sit in their seats and not have to gather around a microfilm reader. And anyone, not just my students and I, can access these resources online.
Do you expect the new Mansueto Library to be an important resource?
I really do. When you enter the Regenstein Library — with its rather windowless south façade — and look to the left, you see a shaft of light. And when you walk toward and enter Mansueto itself, suddenly it’s all light, with that wonderful glass dome.
For a medievalist, light is everything. Light is one of the fundamental principles of Western medieval philosophy. Wisdom and goodness are all transmitted through light in the theology of everyone from St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and beyond. Theologians in the Middle Ages thought God’s emanations to people were emitted as rays of light.
Contrasting the Regenstein and Mansueto libraries is like the difference between the old, dim, yet very beautiful Romanesque cathedrals and the new Gothic cathedrals with their streaming light. Mansueto is the epitome of the idea that at Chicago, we take ideas and learning seriously — so seriously that we just had to keep the books with us; we couldn’t send them off-site. The physical depth of Mansueto is to me a metaphor for the profundity of the scholarship and teaching that make Chicago what it is.
Favorite Recordings of Medieval Music from Anne Robertson:
Music of Leoninus for Notre Dame Cathedral
Leoninus is the first composer of a large body of sacred music written for two voices for the new Gothic cathedral of Paris in the late twelfth century.
Music of Perotinus for Notre Dame Cathedral
Perotinus was Leoninus’s musical successor at Notre Dame Cathedral. In the early thirteenth century, he rewrote some of Leoninus’s music for three and four voices.
Guillaume de Machaut’s Mass of Our Lady
A landmark work, the first time a composer set all of the movements of the Mass in polyphony. This recording was made in Reims Cathedral, the church for which Machaut composed it in the mid-fourteenth century.
Guillaume de Machaut’s Motets
Machaut organized his first 17 motets as a song cycle. These pieces have mostly French upper voices with Latin chants in their lower voices. Through his ordering of the pieces, Machaut plays with this mixture of sacred and secular to suggest the theme of a spiritual journey.
Guillaume de Machaut’s Secular Songs
This is a very good selection of French songs written in the three “fixed forms” of vernacular music: the rondeau, the virelai, and the ballade.
West Meets East
An album of music from the island of Cyprus, carried to the duchy of Savoy in France as part of a marriage dowry in the early fifteenth century. The bride, Anne of Lusignan, who married Duke Louis of Savoy in 1433, is acknowledged in this music, which includes selections for St. Anne. The Schola Antiqua of Chicago is directed by Michael Anderson, AM’04, PhD’08, of the Eastman School of Music.
Guillaume Du Fay’s Mass Se la face ay pale
The first mass to use a secular song as the basis for the five movements of the Mass.
Josquin des Prez’s Mass L’homme armé (Mass of the Armed Man)
The song “L’homme armé,” on which this Mass is based, was probably the most popular song of the late Middle Ages.
Published: October 2011