Masterclass: Instrumental reductions of polyphonic models from the fifteenth century

with Félix Verry

Medieval fiddle students, other instrumentalists, singers

Musicological discussions are beginning to consider that the function of bowed stringed instruments in the middle ages was not limited to isolated ‘melodies’, and their practices probably did not include playing a single voice from polyphonic vocal repertoires. While one certain function of the viella  was to accompany the voice with drone and ‘chordal’ sounds, there remains much speculation about the instrument’s relationship to the composition and character of song. One tantalising proposal is that fiddles sometimes played idiomatic reductions or intabulations of familiar polyphonic works, similar to the known function of the later lira da braccio.

This Masterclass aims to reconsider the role of instruments in the performance of late medieval polyphony, and the technique of the viella in general. Our work will be influenced by the process of intabulation known to lutes and keyboards, as well the as proto-harmonic reductions of liras da braccio. We will incorporate ideas from double pipe wind instruments (double flute, bagpipes), for which arrangements are necessarily conditioned by the instrument’s technical possibilities and limitations. Though this Masterclass is first aimed at fiddle players, the approach can be adapted to other instruments. Therefore, it is open to any participant, including singers who may be accompanied by our instrumentalists.

The arrangements we create will start with simple reductions, which will then be developed according to each participant’s skill level and the possibilities of the instrument they bring. The Masterclass will focus on practical solutions to historical accompaniment and solo works, in order to make it possible for students to draw upon a real method—spontaneously and reflexively—in interpreting pieces of music.

The Masterclass selects titles by Franco-Burgundian and English composers whose presence at the court of Federico de Montefeltro is well attested: pieces which are especially suited for our new instrumental approach. During the Masterclass, the musical examples will be demonstrated on a ‘proto-lira’ built after the famous intarsia from Federico’s S tudiolo at the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.