Ferrara Ensemble and Crawford Young
Figures Of Harmony: Songs Of Codex Chantilly c1390


4.5
superb

Review

by The Orb Ponderer CONTRIBUTOR (51 Reviews)
January 15th, 2022 | 16 replies


Release Date: 2014 | Tracklist

Review Summary: the avant-garde of the 1300s.

Some time around Halloween circa 2020 I decided to try my hand at reviewing a jazz album for the very first time. My knowledge of the genre back then was minimal (and really, still is), but the sense of hand-in-hand adventure that the whole experience bestowed fostered an immediate connection with an audience as unfamiliar with the material in question as I was. Together, we explored Nubya Garcia's SOURCE with wide eyes and humility. It was fun, it was rewarding, and in the end it helped spark within me a deep fascination with a renowned musical revolution. Since then, my writing's focus has returned to a five-by-five of the standard fare - extreme metal and leftfield electronic music. It's honest work toiling in that well-trodden field, but the knowledge that variety and contrast are what make life a vivid endeavor has kindled a craving of the heart to find new horizons once again. Now, fast forward to the infancy of 2022, and I've found myself back at the beck and call of uncharted territory. This is where the New England Conservatory graduate and musicologist Crawford Young and his Basel-based Ferrara Ensemble enter the fold.

Founded in 1983 around the same time Crawford Young also started Project Ars Nova, the Ferrara Ensemble has been a revolving door of fluid membership consisting primarily of students from Schola Cantorum. Here, on this arduous compilation, their focus is fixed primarily on compositions from the late 1300s in a style known as ars subtilior. The genre in question, falling under the umbrella of medieval classical music, is a term coined in the 20th century by early music historian David Munrow, with the aim of separating the ars nova movement of the early 1300s from the extensively more complex compositions that followed the life and death of revolutionary French composer Guillaume de Machaut in 1377 and the generation that followed in his footsteps. It was a lightning-in-a-bottle period, and by the mid-1400s the avant-gardes and trailblazers were succeeded by more approachable music.

Luckily, much of the work coming from France (and the web of multilingual art havens spanning all the way to Aragon and Cyprus) have been preserved to this day. These works, numbering 112 in total in the Chantilly Codex (which stands as the single most comprehensive manuscript of ars subtilior music), boast a controversial history that saw the papal state find offense in their tendencies to hide sacred music theory within their secular, polyphonic stylings. Because of this, many of the compositions are credited to anonymous aliases and their true creators can only be presumed. All this history has only stoked the coals of fascination for many early music connoisseurs, driving a select few groups capable of recreating the pieces to record their challenging experiences. Ensemble Organum were one of the first to approach the Codex with the intentions of recording a dedicated syllabus of its contents with their 1987 release Codex Chantilly - Airs de Cour du XIVe siecle, but it wasn't until Crawford and his new ensemble set a course for interpreting the manuscript throughout the 1990s that its magic became fully realized.

Here, with 2014’s Figures of Harmony: Songs of the Chantilly Codex, c.1390, we have a collection of four full-length albums released in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2010 that cover the majority of the contents found within the Chantilly Codex. Spanning works dated roughly between 1350 to 1398 and safely kept in the museum at Château de Chantilly, the manuscript contains some the most complex music ever written. In fact, much of the work featured here was deemed unplayable for centuries due its difficult nature, but you'd never guess it thanks to Ferrara Ensemble's delicate touch. Choir, lute, harp & fiddle play the main characters on this four-and-a-half-hour voyage, and everything on each disc is arranged in a very sensible fashion despite the myriad composers that wrote the original songs. The Codex itself plays host to many styles including rondeaus, ballades, virelais and isorhythmic motets, and this compilation touches on the unique flavours of each one with great attentiveness. The individual songs vary in length between just a couple minutes to ten-plus minutes, but the ensemble didn't skip out on expressing every verse of each chanson and ballade. Thankfully this only serves to bolster this catalogue's fierce dedication to the music and its ability to mesmerize and intoxicate the soul of the listener.

When the dynamic movements of “Si Alixandre Et Hector Fussent En Vie” on the first disc Balades a III chans de Johan Robert "Trebor" & al. (1995) take hold alongside the incredible voices of Lena Susanne Norin and Kathleen Dineen, you'll be sure to get goosebumps and a strong sense of wanderlust for a time far removed from our own - a feeling that won't diminish as you venture deeper into the depths of this sonic world. Instrumental pieces like “Io Vegio Per Stasone” that see Crawford's virtuosic lute playing take center stage transport us to courtyards and mid-summer gardens, juxtaposing the hymnal moods of predominantly choral works like “Le Mont Aon De Thrace, Doulz Pais” best enjoyed within the holy spaces of large cathedrals. They all work in unison under the group's special mastery of tone and pacing, capturing a world of fiery creativity and expressiveness born from a collective relief following the end of recorded history's worst plague. The following three discs don't lose any staying power either, and each one gives special consideration to a different group of composers and pieces sorted by theme and geography. Take the fourth and final disc Corps Femenin - L'Avant-Garde De Jean Duc De Berry’s focus on the Duke of Berry’s musical fascinations as an example. On this release we see a greatly expanded lineup of musicians explore works composed by De Berry’s circle of collaborators, with a certain fixation on the female figure and love. Texts of the Corps Feminin such as "the female body is a gift from nature so wondrously shaped and fashioned" and Trebor’s “in her well built body/straight as lace and arrow/whoever sees her is filled with joy” give a sense that the bulk of these pieces were dedicated to someone dear to the Duke’s heart.

With all of this attention to detail and great reverence for the storied history and gravity of these pieces taken to heart, Crawford Young and his Ferrara Ensemble have achieved something truly incredible here. Two decades in the making and flying quietly under the radar, Figures of Harmony: Songs of the Chantilly Codex, c.1390 is a landmark release that captures the tour de force that is ars subtilior. The group’s adherence to the values of the time, when combined with the impeccable performances on display, render this an extremely special and highly unique listening experience that moves along with informative liner notes and gorgeous artwork. Fans of early music, medieval arts and ars nova may already be familiar with this compilation, but for those of us who are just dipping our toes in 600-year-old waters for the first time, Figures of Harmony… offers a stunningly beautiful and wonderfully challenging experience that will likely reframe your perception of music itself.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
Sunnyvale
Staff Reviewer
January 15th 2022


3822 Comments


1390 AOTY? Nice review!

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 15th 2022


8884 Comments


1390 AOTY!

Get Low
January 16th 2022


12349 Comments


Think again. Rank #0 for 2014.

CottonSalad
January 16th 2022


2460 Comments


nice! I've been interested in a good collection of ars subtilior - Solage and Caserta are the only two names I know, and those were passing interests I found in school a few years ago.

This sounds really promising!

Digging: Pascal Battus, Anne F Jacques, Tim Olive - Trois Conseillers

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 16th 2022


8884 Comments


Hope you enjoy it then :] I'm hooked!

MiloRuggles
Staff Reviewer
January 16th 2022


2005 Comments


Stunning review! Thanks for reminding me that you're my favourite person xx
Very excited to check this, it's all completely new to me. Nice digging

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 17th 2022


8884 Comments


Ur my favourite person ;]

dedex
Contributing Reviewer
January 17th 2022


11432 Comments


Le Codex Chantilly !!!! Super good read man

parksungjoon
January 17th 2022


43132 Comments


the unknown always beckons

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 17th 2022


8884 Comments


it howls like a coyote in the night

brainmelter
January 17th 2022


7847 Comments


this looks intense

Digging: Uiv - Frigus

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 18th 2022


8884 Comments


Its so worth it. Its stunningly beautiful tbh. If I could recommend one disc it would be the first though. That's my personal fave at least. I've added them to the database individually for rating purposes too.

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
January 19th 2022


8884 Comments


I know it's on apple music and soulseek. I'm assuming its on other streaming services as well.

Mort.
January 19th 2022


17896 Comments


too many paragraphs, negged forever

Digging: Beastie Boys - Paul's Boutique

MiloRuggles
Staff Reviewer
February 1st 2022


2005 Comments


Finished with the first disc (is it the first LP listed on the sput band page?)
Really cool stuff, vocalists are amazing. Strange, floaty, serene beauty that feels kinda amorphous at times? excited to slowly work through the lot

Evok
Contributing Reviewer
February 1st 2022


8884 Comments


Its a bit dense and like you said... floaty. They mustve had some good weed back then. Happy for them. I wish you luck on your venture papi



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