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The Clerks' Group (director Edward Wickham)
Music for Troubled Times: 14th Century France

Motets, Mass music & songs by Machaut from the Ivrea Codex
Blackheath Halls 9 March 2003

For a real novelty in the Sunday Mornings concert series at Blackheath Halls, the usual instrumental chamber music fare was varied with medieval vocal music given by four singers (the fifth had lost his voice the same morning). The Clerks' Group gave a fascinating recital of 14 C. music, interspersed with evocative readings by their director Edward Wickham from Froissart's Chronicles, extracts about The Great Schism (between Rome & Avignon) and Miracles in Wartime. The main composer was Guillaume de Machaut, with anonymous items from the Ivrea Manuscript.

The news had spread somehow; people came from afar and there was a good house which may not have been anticipated - the programmes with words were sold out before we arrived! That was unfortunate, as this was a period of great musical complexity (not dissimilar to our own 1970s) in which elaborate counterpoint prevailed, and with a particular additional curiosity in that different texts, to our ears incompatible, were set simultaneously! Edward Wickham gave examples of motets in which, above a plainchant tenor, higher voices sung secular texts; one asked 'why does my husband beat me?', another dealt graphically with the cuckolding of a blacksmith, and a 'post missarum sollempnia' carried an injunction to tradesmen to conduct their lives morally.

But it is even more important to tell that never can sounds of such ineffable beauty have been heard in the Recital Room; the voices were perfectly blended and acutely tuned, all enhanced by the barrel-vaulted room, an ideal acoustic to relish Lucy Ballard's solos and the concerted items with William Missin, Tom Raskin and Edward Wickham.

Peter Grahame Woolf

The Clerks' Group's recording of this repertoire Motets, Mass music & songs by Machaut from the Ivrea Codex is available on Signum 0011 (complete with all the texts and background essays). See also my recent review of their new Dufay CD, warmly recommended.

© Peter Grahame Woolf