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Folger Consort: 'To Caunterbury they wende'

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

available at Amazon
P. Strohm, Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury
(Viking, 2014)

available at Amazon
Tidings Trew, Lionheart
(Koch, 2003)
The Folger Consort's Epiphanytide concert at Washington National Cathedral is one of our favorite annual traditions. After not covering this concert for a couple of years, it was a pleasure to hear this year's selection of music from around the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, presented last night. Most of the notated music of that period, the end of the 14th century, is for voices, for which the male vocal ensemble Lionheart joined the five instrumentalists. As noted of the group's last appearance with the Folger Consort, in 2010, Lionheart still has a finely balanced, delicate sound as an ensemble, but the individual contributions tend toward the timorous and faded, especially among the higher voices.

A recently published book by Paul Strohm, a history professor at Oxford and Columbia, paints a vivid picture of London and Chaucer's life at that time, a portrait of the birth of one of the great works of English literature. Chaucer's masterpiece includes a number of references to music, only one of which was directly incorporated into this concert, the medieval carol Angelus ad virginem, sung by a lascivious clerk in the tale told by the drunken, vulgar Miller, along with an unidentified tune called "the king's note." No mention here, for example, of the chant Alma redemptoris mater learned and sung by the murdered boy in The Prioress's Tale.

Vocal highlights were the liturgical chant, which Lionheart performed with exceptional beauty, and the more austere polyphonic works, like the canon Sumer is icumen in, the Marian piece Venter tuus, and the harmonically surprising Kyrie Cuthberte (from Durham Cathedral, where the relics of St. Cuthbert, the holy bishop of Lindisfarne, ended up). One of the perennial delights of the Folger Consort's performances is multi-instrumentalist Tom Zajac, heard here singing and playing recorder and sackbut, as well as taking turns on the mouth harp and some type of droning hurdy-gurdy. The last instrument was used only in the final selection, the anonymous Song of the Flood, an unacknowledged connection to The Miller's Tale, where the scheming clerk tricks his gullible patron into believing that a flood like Noah's is about to strike England, so that he, the clerk, can lie with the man's wife.

The pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales are traveling to Canterbury Cathedral to see the famous shrine containing the bones of St. Thomas Becket. It was a nice touch to include pieces dedicated to the 12th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, whose brains were dashed out on the floor of his cathedral by agents of King Henry II, an act condemned severely in the Latin texts of these pieces. At the same time, it was difficult not to see the irony of hearing the words of these songs sung in the city's Episcopalian cathedral. After all, it was agents of Henry VIII, founder of the Church of England, who subjected Thomas Becket to a second act of murderous violence, destroying the shrine that contained his relics, along with the martyr's bones themselves, in an attempt to wipe out all memory of the beloved saint.


Anonymous said...

Also somewhat ironic is the use by this learned person of the noun Episcopalian rather than the adjective Episcopal to describe the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

Charles T. Downey said...

Correction noted. Episcopalian is also an adjective of course, but I get the distinction you draw. Also, episcopal cathedral sounds redundant, but not Episcopal cathedral, I suppose.