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ClassicsOnline Home » On the Way to Bethlehem: Music of the Medieval Pilgrim (Ensemble Unicorn)
On the Way to Bethlehem
This should be listened to alongside the Oni Wytar's companion album 'From Byzantium to Andalusia' to get a fascinating insight into the roots of northern European music. A 'must' for lovers of medieval music, it should be a revelation to those that believe that music began in the Renaissance. Here are the same overlays of sacred and secular that later flowered in the masses of Notre Dame; here also the parallels in Eastern melismata. The Oni Wytars musicologists and brilliant musicians make a good case here for their interpretations; but all interpretations of the music of this period are speculative and others may equally legitimately take different approaches. Either way, it will be a sad person who does not enjoy this pilgrimage.more....
Music on the way to Bethlehem
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To feme halwes, kowth in sundry londes.
(Chaucer, excerpt from The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales)
A traveller in the Middle Ages, whether pilgrim, crusader, messenger, cleric, student, beggar, merchant, king or Pope, was faced with dangers and difficulties along the road which we could barely imagine today. While this was especially true of journeys of some distance, into familiar territory, such travel was nevertheless common for a variety of reasons. We will concern ourselves here with travel to the Holy Land. For some people the journey was penance for a crime, others were motivated by deeply religious conviction, and still others were mainly interested in acquiring relics to bring home.
The relationship that developed between Europeans and non-Europeans through foreign commerce contributed greatly to the expansion of the travel routes. Trading in spices, perfumes, incense, narcotics and aphrodisiacs provided for centuries of contact between the Christian and the Islamic world. A negative aspect of this was the smugglers who sometimes disguised themselves as pilgrims. According to reports of the time, silkworm eggs were being smuggled from China to Jerusalem or, secret messages were hidden in pilgrim staffs. Because of this, anyone dressed as a pilgrim could be suspected of spying, subversion or dealing in contraband. So it was that Saint Coloman, while on a pilgrimage from England to the Holy Land, was hanged as a spy near Vienna.
While early pilgrimages, between the fourth and seventh centuries were thought of as a journey into penitence and solitude, or as a final destination in seeking a sanctified death, a radical change in philosophy took place when organized tours to the Holy Land, whatever Crusades or group pilgrimages, began. Now, rather than dying in the Holy Land, the lucky pilgrim who reached his goal was thought to be rewarded by God with earthly and heavenly riches, which he could then bring home. A pilgrimage no longer meant the end of one's life - it could even be repeated.
Maps were available for pilgrims. In extant maps of the Orient from the high Middle Ages, Jerusalem is pictured as the centre of the holy experience; the known continents of the time, Europe, Asia and Africa, are pictured surrounding it.
As early as the late fifteenth century, pilgrimages to the Holy Land, most by sea, were well-planned tours of differing class fares, with interpreters, tour guides, and phrasebooks, according to the 1484 travel report of the Canon of Mainze, Bernhard von Breydenbach. While these journeys eventually became routine, the ever-present obstacles of wheather, disease, robbery, etc., could not be overlooked: it was usual to expect a pilgrimage to take an entire year.
Especially complicated was the land route, opened up after the christianisation of Hungary around 1000 A.D., which led through Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Syria on its way to Palestine. One was expected to carry "gifts" to appease the local authorities, who would detain a traveller along his way. Along this route travellers encountered cultures completely foreign to them, which had developed from and been influenced by a variety of unfamiliar styles and traditions.
Every pilgrim who wanted to return home safely needed to have some facility with Latin, Greek, and Arabic. In Eastern Europe he could get by with a mixture of rudimentary Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as with words from German, French (Franconian) and Italian dialects. Where words failed, sign languages, gestures and music helped. Musical talent was often useful in the search for food and lodging along the way, and was offered as thanks, as a symbol of gratitude and honour. Reports tell of a traveller who was a frequent or long-term guest in a place being given a parting dinner which included a complete musical programme. This is one of the ways that travellers came into contact with unknown and exotic musical practices.
About a century after the founding of Islam, Sufism was developed, spawning a new epoch of the classical Arabic school. The Sufi and Dervish orders believed that only those who understood "how to hear music" could experience higher truth through spiritual ecstasy.
Reports of people who died while in an ecstatic trance, inspired by listening to music, are not uncommon in Arabic literature. The music responsible for such rapture is based on a modal system using untempered intervals. Each melody has its own scale, pitch and range. A modern Mevlevi Orchestra is made up of singers and instrumentalists; flutes and drums accompany the dance of the Whirling Dervishes. The selections Dinarezade and Mevlana are examples of melodies that invite the listener to spend time with the music, enough to absorb and feel its full effect.
This recording offers a musical journey from England, the most western country and launching point of the first Crusade, through France, Germany, Eastern Europe, as far east as Syria. The musical selections from Europe are thematically Christmas art-songs; the selections from the Balkans and the Near East are traditional, meaning, with the exception of the Sufi music, that it is popular music, rather than art music. As is usual with popular music, the melodies were not, or were only partially, notated. Information about performance practice is obtained only from secondary sources, such as travel reports and iconography. This music was orally transmitted, slowly changing over generations, before it was, only recently, written down, within the last few centuries. It is therefore not surprising to encounter different versions of the same piece of music. The instruments played on this recording correspond to those known to have been used between 1200 and 1500. It is interesting to note that many traditional instruments of the Orient, such as the oud, kaval, gaida, chalumeau and various percussion instruments, remain virtually unchanged and continue to be used in traditional music today.
© 1995 Michael Posch & Marco Ambrosini Translation: Ellen Santaniello
Ensemble Oni Wytars
The bridge between East and West, the synthesis of many traditions that have influenced and enriched European musical culture for centuries, is the focal point of Oni Wytars' work in the field of early music. The instrumentalists of the ensemble, from Austria, Germany, Italy and the United States, have been presenting programmes of music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Eastern Europe and Islam in concerts, at international festivals, and through numerous recordings, since 1983. Members of the Oni Wytars Ensemble are known for their work with such respected ensembles as the Katharco Early Music Consort (Germany), the Clemencic Consort (Austria), Els trobadors (Spain) and Melusine (U.S.A.), and for appearances on numerous radio, television and recording projects.
The Ensemble Unicorn consists of five members, Michael Posch, Marco Ambrosini, Riccardo Delfino, Thomas Wimmer and Wolfgang Reithofer, all of whom have specialised in the study of historical instruments. The Ensemble sees its task as the interpretation of music from the Middle Ages up to the Baroque era, with lively authenticity its guiding principle. Well known singers and instrumentalists may be called on as guest-performers, as occasion requires. Intensive research and study of early music as well as the experience gained by collaboration with international ensembles such as Convivium Musicum (Göteborg), Lad (Moscow) and the Clemencic Consort (Vienna) are complemented by the interest of Individual members of the Ensemble in various kinds for music, including jazz. The Ensemble has made several recordings on compact disc and appeared on radio and television, as well as in numerous festivals and concerts in Eastern and Western Europe and in Canada.
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