Medieval Vocal Polyphony: Modern Recordings of Ancient Music

Medieval Vocal Polyphony: Modern Recordings of Ancient Music

Written by Anne E. Johnson

In the 1990s, the height of the early-music CD boom, every week seemed to see the release of a disc of arcane repertoire from the 10th through the 14th centuries. Those days are over, but new recordings of medieval music do still trickle into the market. I’ve gathered a few recent ones here, since they’re not the kind of thing likely to show up in your path without a concerted hunt.

Let’s start with some old favorites, for those of you aware enough of the very-early-music scene to have favorites at all.

Benjamin Bagby has been an innovator in medieval music research, editing, and performance for well over 40 years. He reached star status for his work with the vocal ensemble Sequentia and his one-man touring performance of Beowulf.

Recently he’s been collaborating with Ensemble Peregrina, founded in 1997 by Polish singer and harpist Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennet. Music in Medieval Denmark is the final recording in the group’s four-volume Mare Balticum series on the Tacet label.

Performing vocal and instrumental arrangements by Budzińska-Bennet of anonymous sacred music from the 13th through 15th centuries, Ensemble Peregrina acts as Bagby’s backup singers. As with everything Bagby does, countless hours of research have gone into this recording to determine pronunciation of the poetry and the rhythm and style of the music. We can never know for sure if the details are correct; what matters is that the singers sell their theory of what was authentic for the time. And that kind of salesmanship is a Bagby specialty.

“Mith herthae brendher” is an interesting example of medieval Danish blended with a Latin text. The poem is about how a simple man can’t truly understand the glory of the Virgin Mary. The arrangement is just complicated enough to be interesting yet simple enough to give a sense of humility appropriate to the topic.


This recording is brimming with beautiful, mostly unknown vocal music with accompaniment on harp. Whether you listen to it for its contemplative tone, its religious message, or its historic value, it’s worth seeking out.

Another veteran artist still creating important recordings of medieval music is Paul van Nevel, founder and director of the Huelgas Ensemble, a Belgian vocal group that’s been around since the 1970s. Released on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, En Albion: Medieval Polyphony in England features anonymous, (mostly) sacred music.

Van Nevel always dives into primary-source research and comes up with rare manuscripts bearing unpublished, unedited works. And while the pieces on this album are notated as polyphony, that doesn’t give a musicologist much information about how they were performed. A longtime influencer in the field of early-music vocal arrangement, van Nevel has a knack for evoking certain context by who he has sing each part. For example, “En Albion de fluns environen” has been assigned only to the men, who make up seven of the group’s 11 singers.

Huelgas Ensemble has precise intonation, using something close to Pythagorean tuning (perfect fifths and fourths are mathematically exact), and they let the relationships of the vocal lines speak for themselves. Unlike with Renaissance music, where dissonant intervals were used by composers for emotional expression, medieval musicians had a different definition of what even constituted a dissonance. Therefore, the best performers don’t presume to add in false, anachronistic emphasis. Huelgas are certainly among the best. 

The women are included in many of the arrangements, including this setting of the liturgical Easter text, “Victime Paschali laudes.”


While most of the track list consists of hymns pulled from obscurity, the widely known “Sumer is acumin in” makes an appearance in a jaunty arrangement. Language is an interesting issue on this album. Although the works date from 1300 – 1400, well after the Norman Conquest in 1066, there is still a heavy influence of French on both the Middle English and the Latin. There are also a couple of motets, a genre which, during the 14th century, consisted of multiple texts sung at once, usually in more than one language.

Now that we’ve traveled to Denmark and England, it’s time for a stop in medieval Poland. Krakow, to be exact. The Ensemble La Morra has a new recording called Mirabilia Musica: Echoes from Late Medieval Cracow on the Ramée label. The vocal polyphony, mostly dating from the first half of the 15th century, is a combination of anonymous pieces, a Mass movement by the famed Italian composer Johannes Ciconia, and selections by several Polish composers whose names are not on the tongues of most early musicians.

For example, there are a couple of works by Mikołaj Radomski, whose exact dates are not known. If this setting of the Gloria is any indication, he was a composer of solid skills. His style matches what was happening a century earlier in France in terms of its rhythms and lack of complete triads. But France and the Netherlands were the center of polyphonic innovation at the time, so a place like Krakow, so distant from that center, would have lagged behind stylistically.


La Morra is an excellent ensemble. The five singers, co-directed by Corina Marti and Michał Gondko (who also on occasion play a proto-harpsichord and a lute, respectively), possess the right mixture of precision and energy, so the interplay of the lines is accurate but not boring. Besides the polyphony that was obviously written to be sung in a church service, there are also religious-themed songs that were likely sung in everyday life. The prayerful but charming “Maria en mitissima” (Mary most mild) is a good example.


There’s a reason that all these recordings of sacred music have concentrated on singing. Starting in the late 16th century, sacred vocal polyphony usually included an organ part. In the Middle Ages, however, organs were very rare in churches. (Some religious authorities even believed using instruments to praise God was sinful.) Until the Renaissance, musicians who wanted an organ in a church would carry in a small instrument, logically called a portative organ. That fact is what makes the so-called Rysum Organ so special. It was built around 1440 in the Dutch province of Groningen, and it still exists today, making it the oldest surviving permanent organ. It still has some pipes from its original construction 800 years ago.

Lorenzo Ghielmi plays this rare instrument on A Late Medieval Mass on the Rysum Organ, from the Passacaille label. He is joined by the five-voice, all-male Ensemble Biscantores, under the direction of Luca Colombo. They constructed a complete Mass out of pieces of music from manuscripts of anonymous compositions and contributions by composers who would have been known in the late 15th and early 16th centuries in Groningen.

This is a product of Ghielmi and Colombo’s imaginations, not a reconstruction of a Mass that was ever actually heard. Still, it acts as a fascinating micro-lesson in music history. One of the movements they chose is another anonymous setting of that same text we heard above, “Victime Pascali laudes,” paired with the French text “D’un autre amer” to make it a motet.


Ensemble Biscantores has a smooth, meditative style, blending beautifully under the floating voice of countertenor Maximiliano Felipe Baños. The organ’s treble-focused, bright tone is very different from the timbre of the big, bass-heavy pipe organs we’re used to today. To get a better sense of the Rysum Organ’s delightfully colorful sound, here is one of several solo organ tracks included on this recording.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Wikielwikingo Anonymous.

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