Music and death before 1650: (partial) conference review

One of the world’s oldest musical societies discusses the role of music in death.

Last Saturday, 10 March 2012, the University of Oxford’s Music Faculty hosted the annual conference of the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, treating the theme of music and death in the period before 1650.

The Plainsong and Mediaeval [sic] Music Society was founded in 1888 for ‘the advancement of public education in the art and science of music and in particular plainsong and mediaeval music’. Although it has lost its ‘ae’ in the cause of Cambridge University Press’s spelling norms (CUP publishes the society’s biennial journal), web searchability, and general updating, the society today is a continuation of those Victorian foundations, making it one of the oldest society’s for early music still in operation.

Saturday’s conference opened with papers talking about plainsong Offices for the Dead in two contrasting chant traditions: Matthew Cheung Salisbury gave an account of variants in the liturgical uses of Salisbury, York, and Hereford in pre-Reformation England; and Alexander Lingas spoke about the Byzantine rite (on which, it turns out, there has been surprisingly relatively little written with regard to the music for death rites). Lingas, a trained Greek Orthodox cantor and director of Cappella Romana, treated the audience to some live sung illustrations of what was, to most there, unfamiliar repertory.

The second session of the day turned the spotlight onto non-liturgical (but often still quite religious) commemorations. Leofranc Holford-Strevens spoke about polyphonic commemorations written by composers for other, dead composers in the period from the death of Machaut (who seems to have been the first composer to have been commemorated in such a way) to the death of Josquin. Katherine Butler turned the spotlight onto music for death in Elizabethan England, including a madrigal which depicted the sharpness of death with an increased number of sharps, not so as to sound chromatic but so as to push the music into very unfamiliar tonal territory for the time, perhaps signalling the unknown and unchartered territory of the dead.

I was unable to stay for the afternoon session as I had to get into London for an early-start performance at the opera. Having myself live-tweeted the morning session, I gratefully followed the tweets of Society member Richard Moore to learn about the papers of Owen Rees, Margaret Bent, and Fabrice Fitch which I sadly had to miss (see #PMMS12). As a result of the Annual General Meeting of the Society, which was held at the start of the afternoon session, the society now has its own Twitterfeed. It also emerged that membership of the society is back in triple figures, with a relatively large number of new student members.

While a small society, then, the PMMS is flourishing and growing. The next annual conference will mark the Society’s 125 anniversary and will take place as part of the York Early Music Festival 2013. Between now and then, the PMMS will sponsor one of the keynote papers at the 2012 Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference at the University of Nottingham.

If you’re interested, do consider joining the PMMS or attending some of these events if you want to be part of something both venerable and vibrant!

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