Music Monday: Agincourt Carol

And now for something completely different. All of the posts to date have featured music from the 20th and 21st Centuries. That's been deliberate: I have an overwhelming fondness for these musics, and I think most of them are neglected and often unfairly maligned as cacophonous and unpleasant to listen to. But they're also not the only good music out there. So today I'm turning to the other side of the Western Art Music common practice, to feature a piece born out of the bitter rivalry between Medieval France and England.

Going over the entire history of English-French relations in the Middle Ages is somewhat beyond the scope of a single blog post, but suffice it to say they weren't overly fond of each other and fought about it. A lot. During the thick of the fighting, Henry V (of Shakespearean fame) won a major victory for the English in the 1415 Battle of Agincourt. (It ultimately didn't last, but the English rode high on it for a while before things fell apart.) And, as often happens in these cases, someone wrote a song about it.

I can't tell you anything more about the creator(s), because the resulting "Agincourt Carol" (or "Agincourt Hymn" or "Agincourt Song" or "Deo gratias Anglia" or . . . ) was originally recorded (as far as I can tell) without attribution. (This wasn't at all uncommon at the time. Sometimes, works were left anonymous because the composer was understood to be working directly in the service of God, and to claim credit would seem blasphemous, but sometimes people just . . . didn't really care. Conceptions of authorship have evolved along with the styles of the works they create.) The oldest surviving copy (probably from East Anglia) is stored on a scroll in the Wren Library of Trinity College (part of Cambridge), where it's been since the 19th Century.

Now, despite the fact that it's essentially a "rah, rah, go and get 'em!" song for an absolute monarch, it's still a delightful, spry little tune, and it shows off a number of features very characteristic of English music at the time, from the metric fluidity between the verses and the chorus (the former being unambiguously in three and the latter feeling much more in two) to certain modal harmonic inflections (which you can hear perhaps most clearly in the "Deo gratias" at the end of each verse, before the first "Deo gratias" of the chorus). When there finally started being English-born composers of note after the yawning gap between Henry Purcell and Edward Elgar, many of them drew directly from music like this, tho usually filtering it thru a pretty heavy twentieth-century lens. (William Walton's treatment of it for the score of Lawrence Olivier's 1944 film about Henry V is rather conservative in this regard, but still, it was in the air.)

Certain people occasionally try to paint the history of Western music as a change from pretty, consonant, tonal music to harsh, discordant, atonal music, but the Agincourt Carol serves as a reminder that this really isn't true. Tonality, the system for organizing musical pitches that makes Mozart and Beethoven sound the way they do, was built up gradually over the years; there's a lot of pre-tonal music that can be quite harmonically confounding from a strict tonal perspective, albeit not as relentlessly dissonant as certain hardcore high modernists. Still, the point stands: Even within the European tradition, there are more alternatives for organizing pitches than Enlightenment tonality or Modernist emancipation of dissonance. Even within the narrow confines of this one tradition, we find a host of possibilities, and they are well worth exploring.