When working with early music, modern performers face challenges regarding stylistic and historical accuracy, given limited information on past performances, as well as notable differences in instruments available, technique, and performance practice. Furthermore, they must decide between different approaches that may better reflect the historical sound or intention of past performers, or choose to blend such extremes, creating varied interpretations.
Such challenges manifest explicitly when modern performs attempt to recreate medieval music, such as Gregorian chants. While modern scholars have deciphered most of medieval notations, chant melodies were primarily passed down through oral transmission, while the manuscripts simply served as reminders (HWM 37). Therefore, the exact way in which these chants were sung cannot be recovered. Modern iterations of chants usually preserve the tradition of employing all male voices, and exude appropriate solemnity in execution, even throughout intricate, melismatic passages meant for skilled soloists to heighten the glorification of God.
The limited accessibility to period instruments from the medieval era also contribute to the challenges in modern performances. Clues to historical performance practice, however, can often be found in contemporary art, such as pictures that illustrate the use of vielle, or fiddle and tambourines in instrumental accompaniment to medieval dance (WT 49). Passages accompanying Raimbaut’s works in chansonniers also suggest that troubadour songs such as his Kalenda maya are rooted in dance music, such as the estampie (WT 49). This type of information gives modern performers clues such as appropriate tempo and prominence of the singers. In a live performance by The Ivory Consort, for instance, the singers do not serve as the primary focus throughout the piece. Instead, the piece features more instrumental than sung parts, and keeps a constant beat that recalls its dance origin.
In considering the past context of these songs, modern performers can further inform their interpretation. For instance, in the early thirteenth century, musicians at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris developed motets as a brand new genre, which became popular in both sacred and secular compositions (HWM 95). One of its most prominent traits is the added duplum in new text of Latin or French. Combined as a whole, the complex parts and different languages were difficult to comprehend, as the genre was meant for the elite, most educated audience. Secular motets, in particular, were often performed for individual entertainment (HWM 95). In understanding the source of this complexity, modern performers can approach the music knowing its purpose, and interpret it with appropriate effect.
A similar understanding can be applied to later vocal works, such as Machaut’s chansons during the fourteenth century. Rondeaux such as Rose, liz, printemps, verdure were speculated to be “most often performed as...