Francesco Landini playing an organetto, in Squarcialupi Codex (early fifteenth century).
Francesco Landini playing an organetto, in Squarcialupi Codex (early fifteenth century).
Corina Marti, Lecturer of Medieval Keyboard Instruments at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, discusses the process and pedagogy of reconstructing lost medieval keyboard music in this interview with Vox Humana Editor Christopher Holman.
Corina, many thanks for agreeing to this interview. As Lecturer of Medieval Keyboard Instruments and Medieval Recorder at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Switzerland, you hold perhaps one of the most specialized faculty positions for all of keyboard academia. To begin, could you talk about your musical training? Did you study piano from an early age? When did you take up the organ and harpsichord, and what attracted you to them?
I started to play piano when I was about four years old with training in the Russian style, playing lots of technical exercises. I don't remember exactly how old I was, but as a child I went to a concert and someone played continuo on a spinet, and I really, really wanted to switch to it. And that broke my poor mother's heart, because she really wanted me to play piano. She eventually agreed, and I was about 12 when I started to play the harpsichord seriously (with my whole family in tears — "how could you!?"). At the same time I also played recorder, and when I started my studies in Lucerne when I was 16, I took a minor in organ, and I was very lucky that my teacher back then forced me to play all this music that I now think of as being horribly "modern" — nineteenth century with lots of pedal! But I'm really grateful for that.
Then I got really into baroque music, and then renaissance, and finally I started wondering what came before that. And that brought me to the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis to study after I had finished in Lucerne. At that time, there was almost no information about early keyboard, but there was some knowledge about medieval wind instruments, so I majored in medieval recorder, and I started to do my own research on early keyboards. Over that period, I learned that there was an original clavicytherium in London. I went to look at it and did more research, and I then won a competition and finally had the money to actually commission a new clavicytherium. From there, I went on to clavisimbalum [the ancestor of the harpsichord], organetto, and so on.
You play quite a few medieval keyboard instruments of which many of us may not be familiar. What were the most important ancient keyboard instruments, and do any originals survive today?
The only real surviving medieval stringed keyboard instrument is that clavicytherium in London. But it's not completely original because it was restored in the nineteenth century; but apparently the original plectra were made of talons, not quills, which is incredibly lavish. There are some very old organs in places like Oosthuizen and Rysum, but the organs are all tuned in meantone, which for early medieval music is fairly painful to my ears. Most of the information about other medieval keyboard instruments comes from iconography.
According to writings from the time, we read that the most important keyboard instruments were clavicytherium, clavisimbalum, clavichord, and organetto (every angel in the middle ages seems to play them!). Some scholars try to argue that because there are fewer images of the clavisimbalum than the organetto, that the organetto was more popular, but that's difficult to say definitively, as the vast majority of sources are lost.
We've talked about small medieval keyboard instruments, but what about the massive Blockwerk organs in large churches and cathedrals? Are you aware of any efforts to reconstruct such an instrument?
Sadly, no. It would be fascinating and a great contribution to our knowledge of these instruments if someone were to reconstruct a famous medieval organ. We recently had a study day for medieval organ at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis to try and inspire interest in these kinds of topics. To construct medieval keyboards, there is such little information, and we shouldn't copy a modern reconstruction, and especially try to get rid of fairy-tale ideas about medieval instruments and music.
What are some of those ideas?
That medieval music and instruments have to be functional for our time. Many people want something that is pitched at A=440 [modern piano pitch], and that's too low for so much of medieval music. The other thing I hear people say is that they want an organetto that can play everything from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries. But music changed so much over that period. Another misconception is that we have to use Pythagorean temperament [a tuning system that favors pure open fifths, rather than thirds like in meantone] for all medieval works, and that everything should sound very static or heavy. Or that medieval instruments weren't sophisticated and are rough around the edges.
How do you approach performance practice in this repertoire, and what are some of the major sources we can consult when trying to play late medieval keyboard music in a historically-informed way?
The first thing I'll say is that, despite all our efforts in historically-informed performance, what we do in medieval music today is neo-gothic (and people who do baroque music are the same, neo-baroque) — we don't know what this music sounded like, and we never will. One problem is that there aren't that many sources; the ones that survive have become really important — but that might be only because they survived, and not because they were all that influential in their day.
The big medieval collections like Codex Faenza, Buxheimer Orgelbuch, and the Fundamentum organisandi are great for teaching — we can compare vocal motets to intabulations [keyboard arrangements of vocal works] and learn how to arrange vocal music in that style for keyboard. There are small collections or fragments from places like Groningen and others all over Europe. From England around 1360, there's the Robertsbridge Codex. But we often have to make our own repertoire. We can take a piece by Francesco Landini, knowing he was a fantastic organist and singer, we can then arrange a piece for keyboard. There's a lot of freedom, but we should not let ourselves get in the way of the music, and find a way to allow the instruments to sound their best.
In modern conservatories and schools of music, repertoire is taught above all else. When focusing on a period in which there is very little such material, how do you approach teaching?
I first have to say how incredibly happy I am that there are actually people out there that want to come and study this. It's so wonderful and nerdy, and students come from all around the world! The hardest thing is making sure they don't turn into little Corinas, which is not at all what I want. You have to be honest with what we can reliably say is true and what is conjecture, and first give them the few surviving sources to read, then teach the technique so they can make a good sound on all the instruments: organetto, clavicytherium, organ, clavisimbalum. That's quite a lot already, and not everyone can do everything, and that's okay! They have to find their voice and style as both soloists and ensemble musicians. Of course I teach what we have — the Fundamentum organisandi, et al., and then for improvisation in the style, we work from sources like the Vatican Organum Treatise (Ars Organi, Ott.lat.3025). The rest is purely about music-making — I force them to be emotional and communicate, which I suppose is very Romantic, but that's the point of music, after all. And most medieval music shouldn't be slow and heavy. I love when there are ornaments, little sparkles. There are many people who want to keep their medieval music pure, but I come from a tradition where I read a source, and then I have to make my own opinion; I try to pass that on to students — give them the materials and let them make up their own mind, and then discuss it and see where that leads. The hardest thing for me is when they want to be more conservative, but you have to force them out of their shells. A big thing for me in my teaching is that the music has to be for our time. We still have to watch movies, read books, and live for today, not in the past.
Beyond solo literature, early keyboard instruments were often used in ensembles. How can we use different keyboards in the works of composers like Machaut, Binchois, or Dufay?
The first questions are "which instrument" and "which octave", and the answers usually depend on the rest of the ensemble's makeup. You can use a keyboard instrument to play one voice or all the voices, or just as an extra accompaniment like a harp. You have to find your musical color, language, etc. Organetto is like a gift from heaven because it's so good to accompany singers.
[Composer unknown, Saint Martial School]: Stirps Jesse performed by Corina Marti (medieval recorder, director), Ivo Haun de Oliveira (baritone), and Roger Helou (organetto).
How do you approach ornamentation and musica ficta [pitches that lie beyond the six-note hexachord system; for modern performers, this most commonly refers to whether a leading tone is performed as a sharp or natural when not explicitly notated in a score] in medieval keyboard works?
We can get ideas about ornamentation from the music, especially Codex Faenza. In many medieval writings, even when the author is talking about mundane things like food or daily life, they often say that everything has to be "well-measured", but that means something different to everyone. You look in the music that you have, and then it's your taste as to how much ornamentation you add. Some colleagues do very little, some do much more than me, and it's all okay. Here is an example of the kinds of ornamentation that I often add:
[Composer unknown, from Buxheimer Orgelbuch]: Praeludium super C (with improvised counterpart), Pulcherrima de virgine, Magnificat octavi toni, Redeuntes in Ut (with improvised counterpart), performed by Corina Marti (clavisimbalum) and Michal Gondko (viola da mano).
For decisions on musica ficta, I think it's better to start with the primary sources, and then look at what musicologists say about them. The trouble with the former, of course, is that the same authors will say conflicting things in different sources. One also has to be aware that musicologists always have their own biases. All that informs your musical taste. But some composers or sources are clearer than others. Machaut, for example, had very clear ideas, and he notates many things that I would never do if he hadn't explicitly written them down. There are many good editions nowadays that you can work from, but many are often based in the modern aesthetic of everything being very neat and tidy (which medieval music often isn't!), and some editorial decisions often appear to be rushed.
You recently recorded some of the Tabulatura Ioannis de Lyublyn (c. 1540), the largest collection of keyboard music written in tablature in the world (available here on iTunes and here on Spotify). Could you tell us about this project?
The Tablature is the largest of its time, but because they are nearly all very small pieces, most haven't been recorded. To give the recording some structure, I tried to group the little pieces into suites, just to give the possibility to bring this music back to life. I use a Renaissance harpsichord, and some have criticized that, saying the music is for organ. In my opinion it works on many keyboard instruments, and I thought it would be nice to have the sound of the harpsichord for this music. The facsimile is not easy to read, so I used an old but very clean edition by Adolf Chybiński (Kraków: Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, 1948) for a few pieces, and then played from the facsimile for the rest. I'm not sure why this music is so close to my heart, but it is, and mainly I just wanted to bring this music back to life, and to show that there was more happening in the early Renaissance beyond Italy.
Harpsichord and recorder player Corina Marti is internationally recognized for her "strikingly superior" and "expressive" interpretations (Toccata), and "infallible" technique (Diapason). Her extensive discography of repertoire ranges from the fourteenth-century istanpitte and intabulations to — and beyond — the chamber music and solo concertos of the High Baroque and reflects the breadth of her musical interests and technical skills. She leads a full life as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher, travelling regularly across Europe, both Americas, and the Middle and Far East.
She has appeared with numerous early music ensembles and orchestras (including Hespèrion XXI, Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera Italiana, and Helsinki Baroque Orchestra) and is artistic co-director and founding member of La Morra, an award-winning Late Medieval and Early Renaissance music ensemble which "never fails to keep the listener's attention alive" (Gramophone).
Her ongoing research into aspects of the repertoire and reconstruction of late medieval and early renaissance keyboard instruments and recorders has contributed substantially to the present-day revival of these instruments. She teaches the next generation of early music performers at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland, and in masterclasses worldwide.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Vox Humana.