Key changes and pitch battles

May 30, 1997

Julia Hinde tunes into the music of the past with the medievalist and Radio 3 presenter Christopher Page

Christopher Page, medievalist, musical director and Radio 3 DJ, is an expert on top of the pops - Renaissance style. Page, a Cambridge University lecturer in English literature, describes his interests as west European musical trends from 1100 to 1500. He is interested in the ways in which musical preferences have gradually developed through time; a transformation punctuated by periods of rapid change.

Page uses the development of musical instruments as a key to musical fashions, though he adds that the vast majority of music surviving from the Middle Ages is choral rather than instrumental - only the choral music was systematically written down. None the less, "lots of crucial evidence has been recovered from the history of musical instruments," he says. "The history of how they were built and tuned tells us a lot about changes in sound."

The 1480s were a time of radical musical expansion coinciding with the Renaissance in Europe. "The time Europe is colonising the world is also a time of new colonisation of pitch," claims Page. He describes this as a period of sound expansion in which composers became able to use a huge range of notes in their work. "For a long time what musicians could incorporate into composition was restricted to about ten notes. They gradually expanded beyond that. Families of instruments started to be built to get lower pitches. There is evidence also that some instruments became obsolete."

The 1780s, says Page, was also a period of sound metamorphosis, when the sounds people admired changed completely. "This was the Romantic period," he says. "Orchestras got bigger, instruments got larger and singers had to make their voices more conspicuous to be heard." He describes a method by which singers learned to vibrate air in their larynx at a particularly high frequency to make themselves clear above the noise of the orchestra. Page also pinpoints the 1880s as a period of rapid transformation in which musicians attempted to recover sounds lost in the Renaissance and Romantic shifts.

So how do you go about performing a piece to give a sense of what it might once have sounded like? In a bid to "lead people back through the layers to the real sound timbre" Page can offer up more than 200 of his own commerical recordings of medieval music. Having launched his own professional ensemble, Gothic Voices, in 1982, he has so far produced 16 CDs. "There is a fantastic amount of medieval music," Page says, adding that virtually all that has been recovered so far has included text. "It's poetry. Words and music are a natural pairing," he says.

During his spare time Page also finds time to take to the airwaves as a Radio 3 broadcaster. As the fortnightly presenter of Spirit of the Age, Page says he tries to bring the music of the Middle Ages to life for his radio listeners. "The basic idea is to play a lot of music people otherwise might not encounter," says Page, who takes considerable pride in his full post bag.

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