“It is the same effect as when you see the sun shining through stained-glass windows in a church: suddenly all the colours are singing.”
After nearly three decades of carving out a niche (as rich as Romanesque statuary found in the Burgundy where he lives and works), Dominique Vellard has returned with a new vigour for performing (and recording), whether it is with his colleagues from the Ensemble Gilles Binchois or as a solo singer. The tenor voice of this deeply-thinking musician has the capacity to explore and explain the messages and subtleties of liturgical traditions that range far beyond the Western tradition.
Glossa has already welcomed Dominique Vellard and his ensemble with a recording devoted to his own compositions – Vox nostra resonet – but now has had the opportunity to capture the sound and interpretations of the group in repertory that they have made their own: the bringing together of the earliest polyphony, including pieces from the École de Notre-Dame de Paris and the École de Saint-Martial de Limoges alongside Gregorian chant; all as a means to express the Biblical messages. The recording comes with an informed article by another of Vellard’s long-term collaborators, the scholar Marie-Noël Colette.
Despite – perhaps because of – this depth of experience L’Arbre de Jessé is neither a reflection of show virtuosity nor of a tightly-drilled choral ensemble, as Dominique Vellard explains in describing – for him – the importance of text and music.
You have been performing medieval music over the ensemble’s history, but how has this developed recently?
I have been putting much effort into trying to understand what the music represents, working alongside musicologists such as Marie-Noël Colette, learning from her knowledge of the repertory and its notation, so that progressively the music becomes more and more part of me. Increasingly I can use all this as though it had been taught to me in an oral way – as though I had learnt it as a child and now can do it without having to think about it. It is like being part of a living tradition and I have also spent time listening to oral music traditions such as from India, Islamic countries, Coptic and Jewish music. Now, I think that our performances are stronger because I can ask my colleagues to perform the music in a much more natural way, not as a form of historical reconstruction. Thus we have a new conception of this music – involving a more integrated and matured affekt and attitude to sound – and I am very happy to be able to express it for the first time with the recording L’Arbre de Jessé.
The Tree of Jesse is an unusual theme for a CD. Why did you become interested in it?
I was interested in all these Old Testament characters who each in their own way provided a foreshadowing of the figure of Christ. But it was also an opportunity to present compositions that we have been defending for a long time and strongly connected with my musical life. And they are works which I believe have a very strong musical and artistic effect, such as the Benedictus es– the Canticle of the Three Young Men (a long but very strong piece) or Cantemus Domino or the genealogy (Sequencia sancti evangelii secundum Lucam).
Why are the texts of the chants and polyphonic works on this recording so important for you?
The reason is that Biblical texts such as these involved stories from a saint or a prophet (or an invocation or a prayer) that were written down in order to be proclaimed to the people. What is important in the musical pieces when they are sung – and especially so given that they are in Latin – is that they provide more than just the intellectual message of the text. Suddenly the piece takes life: the discourse that is going on has a stronger power, simply because you can hear it. As a parallel, consider the text for Martin Luther King’s public speech, “I have a Dream”. If you merely read it through, it is a very beautiful text but when you hear this strong man proclaiming his words, the effect is a hundred times stronger. And for me, these musical pieces on this record are like that. It is the same effect as when you see the sun shining through stained-glass windows in a church (whether they are in Chartres Cathedral or even with modern windows): suddenly all the colours are singing.
After 30 years as a group together, how does the Ensemble Gilles Binchois work as a group?
In the past it was as though I was teaching courses in singing and interpretation through my ensemble and the result was not what I am after, because this music – such as on L’Arbre de Jessé – needs to represent the power of the people. My role with my colleagues now is to allow them to express their own personality and their own comprehension of the music – they are all independent artists in their own right. Thus, as a director I only get involved if some mistakes are made. My role cannot exist as a product of teaching at the point of giving a concert or making a recording – and in any case this music has no mensuration, so conducting would be somewhat out of place! Whilst I can hand on to them knowledge about the understanding of the music – my own or that of scholars such as Wulf Arlt or Marie-Noël Colette – the delivery of that knowledge expressed artistically must be made by the singers themselves. If you don’t allow the instincts of the musicians to work, the music becomes very heavy and you miss the life of the melody, the life of the music itself. Also, on this recording I have purposefully avoided using a large group because the pieces can only be sung by one, two or three people; no more than that. Otherwise it starts to sound like a “choralization”. I believe that such a “chorus mentality” is very dangerous for such medieval music. We do not exist in an oral tradition and what we have to do is to study the notation and understand deeply what the music means. And then let our instincts take over.
And into what other directions are you now taking your music-making?
What is important for me now in all the repertory that I work with – in the court music but especially in music for the church – is to look for and hopefully find the right connections held within the music: what is important as far as questions such as the sound, the phrasing are concerned. To me the beauty and naturalness of the sound are extremely important in church music, because they describe its power. Because of this I no longer perform some music which I used to find interesting but where I cannot find this strength. Now I do not have to prove anything, but what is important for me is to carry on with repertories that I wish to defend – chants, some aspects of the early polyphonies and some composers from the 15th and 16th centuries. Two important considerations for me are the repertory of the ensemble, whether it is Dufay or Machaut or great polyphony such as by Josquin Desprez or Francisco de Peñalosa, and my own desire to carry on as a solo singer. The next planned recording reflects the latter desire with a programme called Motets croisés which features solo motets by Monteverdi, Schütz and by Jean-Pierre Leguay. The idea is to explore the expressivity of theKleines Konzertform with just two performers. Jean-Pierre plays the organ, also adding his own improvisations.
by Mark Wiggins © 2008 Glossa Music / MusiContact