by Jerric Chong
We at Oriel are quite privileged indeed to be able to listen to an extraordinarily broad range of live music. Even discounting the superb ensembles and performers of every genre who can be heard across the city and university, Oriel is fortunate to be able to put on a wide array of musical activities across the academic year: Choral Evensong, Communion and Compline every week in chapel; Oriel Fridays in the bar; jazz in the MCR; the annual garden play in Trinity term – and all this without an active college music society (sed usquequo?).
A definite highlight of the college’s musical life, though, is the twice-yearly Champagne Concert, in which eminent performers come to immerse us with chamber music, often featuring relatively obscure or less-performed works. This term’s concert, held at 7:30pm on Friday 5 May in the college chapel, was definitely no exception, titled ‘Guillaume de Machaut: 14th-century music of liturgy and love’. In fact, I would reckon that this far outstripped any previous Champagne Concert in terms of time period: Machaut (c. 1300 – 1377) wrote poetry and composed music in the ars nova style that flourished in mediaeval France, around the same time as Oriel was getting started in Oxford!
In another departure from usual concerts, which feature external musicians of note being invited to perform in college, this one featured Oriel’s very own fellow and tutor in music, director of chapel music, and fellow librarian: David Maw. From a chamber organ placed in the chancel, he directed an intimate quartet of singers – Hannah Cooke (mezzo-soprano), Joy Sutcliffe (mezzo-soprano), Tom Robson (tenor) and David de Winter (tenor) – in a captivating performance of Machaut’s greatest 14th-century hits. Indeed, David Maw might possibly be the best person in the world to lead this concert: Machaut has been a long-term research project of his, with a DPhil thesis and many papers under his belt, and a new edition of his work being produced.
The concert began with a brief tribute by Julian Armstrong, who chairs the alumni Music Committee that generously funds these events, to John Albert (1935–2023), a longtime member of the committee who was instrumental in supporting the concert series and other musical events. This was a stark reminder that putting on such noteworthy events in college requires the pivotal support of munificent benefactors, and it is to them whom we are grateful for being able to enjoy great opportunities like this – those ‘by whose benefits we are here maintained in godliness and learning’. Fittingly, this concert was dedicated to his memory.
The first half of the concert was especially suited to the venue: Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame. Composed perhaps in the 1350s, it has the distinction of being the earliest complete setting of the Mass ordinary that can be attributed to a single composer. The concert programme describes Machaut’s music as ‘unfamiliar and can seem strange. In fact, it strikes the listener still with the force of modernity now.’ From the first open fifth of the Kyrie, this was undeniably evident. The four professional vocalists, without needing conducting, adeptly weaved through each other’s vocal lines, replete with augmentations and diminutions, creating a startlingly ethereal sound that, to the ear trained on Baroque, Classical and Romantic works, would sound quite strange indeed. Yet this ethereality was perhaps what lent the work a unique and appreciable flair, effectively conveyed by the singers. This was combined with short organ interludes from the contemporaneous Codex Faenza, played by David Maw, which sensitively brought a distinct dimension to the liturgical music. Before the concert, I had listened to the Messe de Nostre Dame and was struck by its rawness, but nothing certainly compares to hearing it live, and it was thoroughly stress-relieving.
In a previous piece published in this newspaper (‘Springing Out of a Fourteenth-Century Lockdown’, Issue #76 – Spring, 6 March 2022), David Maw wrote of the possible effect of the Black Death and imposed lockdowns on Machaut’s musical output. This was on full display in the second half of the concert (after the customary champagne interval), which featured performances of Machaut’s secular songs in the three formes fixes of mediaeval poetry: the ballade, the rondeau and the virelai. Eschewing the conventional concert approach of performing the programme straight through, the opportunity was taken to arrange the songs in a meaningful order to tell a convincing tale: of inspiration by and reflection of nature, of lockdown during the Black Death, of courtly love with a young lady. As well as laconic snippets of context provided before each song by David, excerpts from Machaut’s own poetry were read out in the original French by Cécile Varry, one of Oriel’s French lecturers, and more organ intabulations were interspersed among these too. This definitely allowed the greater appreciation of Machaut’s œuvre by the captivated audience. The concert concluded with ‘Armes, amours’, a double-ballade déploration lamenting Machaut’s death in 1377, with poetry by his pupil Eustache Deschamps set to music by the otherwise unknown F. Andrieu. As in the previous part, the performers complemented each other wonderfully and with subtle sensitivity.
Thus ended possibly the most unique Champagne Concert so far: a profound exploration of the life and work of a trailblazing French artist, masterfully put together by a world-leading expert on him. As I stepped out into the cool May evening, a raucous sound wafted across First Quad – Oriel Fridays was on in the college bar, with JCR members rowdily singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ and other bawdy tunes into a microphone while making strange dance moves. Seven centuries of music, spanning seven centuries of Oriel. I smiled at the juxtaposition.