Performing music from the popular repertory of the Middle Ages poses a number of problems. Scholars can now decipher much of the notation, but, in many cases the satisfactory realisation of the music has to rely on knowledgeable conjecture, especially in respect of the rhythmic values of the notes. Decorations, embellishments and additional parts have to be inserted and, above all, a convincing vocal and instrumental stylistic framework has to be evolved.
Instruments often impose their own character on the phrasing and articulation by virtue of the playing techniques involved, but the very flexibility of the human voice and its ready adaption to the standards of every culture and age makes the production of an "authentic" vocal style for medieval music particularly difficult. Even today with worldwide communications, different places and cultures have very different ideas of what constitutes "beautiful" singing.
In order to tackle this problem, St. George's Canzona have taken a number of factors into account. These include the written descriptions and treatises of the Middle Ages, the character and compass of the music itself, ethnic survivals - especially where music still plays a similar part in peoples lives as it did in ancient times, the characteristic phrasing and timbre of the instruments with which the voices have to combine and, most important, the performing qualities and temperament of the sigers themselves.
© John Sothcott 1985
A piece of music is attributed to "Anon" if we do not know who wrote it. There are several ways this can happen.
Some music, particularly folk songs, have been handed down for centuries without being written down. Presumably someone composed them, but by the time people like Bartók, Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger went around collecting folk songs, many attributed the tunes as "traditional". Thanks to the "Chinese Whispers" effect of passing on a tune by ear, the music had been shaped and changed with the times.
There are also written pieces that are difficult to identify. Before photocopiers existed, most music was copied by hand, making the age of the paper and handwriting not reliable indicators of age or provenance. If the title page gets lost, we can only listen to the music to see if the style is familiar. If the work is by somebody obscure, or if it isn't a good example of their work, it becomes more difficult to identify.
Copyright violation was abundant in the classical period, with many copying pieces and pretending that they had written them, or producing forgeries of the works of famous composers. As with paintings, once a piece has been identified as a fake, it can be virtually impossible to work out the composer.
There is a lot of debate about certain "anonymous" works. There are claims that "Greensleeves" was written by King Henry VIII although, having listened to some of the other things attributed to him, this seems rather unlikely. One must use a good sense of judgment and have a good musical ear to properly attribute these anonymous works to a particular composer.
Related: folk Traditional