Song of the Seminar

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007
These days it's tough to imagine a world without cell phones, televisions, and compact discs. It's easy to forget how new such inventions are. Long-playing vinyl records, which CDs replaced, were themselves invented a mere fifty-one years ago.

Music department lecturer Fred Jodry asks his students to look back a lot further. Forget everything that's happened in the last 400 years, he tells them; forget Bach, forget Elvis, forget Alanis. For three hours a week, Jodry transports his Medieval and Renaissance Music class back to the days of Richard the Lionhearted and Henry VIII.

Beginning with chants composed in the year 800, Jodry steers the students in MU 91 through the musical development of secular songs, polyphony, and sacred music, up to about 1600. The class reads, listens, even sings. (The tonally challenged take refuge in humming.) In some obvious ways the music is far removed from what the students know today: for starters, the songs are sung in Latin, Provençal, Middle English, and Middle High German. Yet Jodry points out that medieval music has survived for centuries in part because its composers "wrote about much of the same things we write songs about today - love, longing, loss. 'My baby left me and now I'm blue.' That's timeless."

Besides the usual course readings, Jodry requires his students to attend and write about early-music concerts and church services that include music. "We get to listen and sing and totally immerse ourselves," says Shelby Freedman '00. While MU 91 is not limited to music majors, Jodry concedes that "the more music literacy the students have, the more they can get out of the class."

It's a Wednesday morning in early February, and Fred Jodry is dashing for the copier in the Orwig Music Building, preparing handouts for class. "We're going to sing today," he says. "In fact, we're going to sing a lot." They're going to laugh, too: Jodry has dug up a clip from the Wall Street Journal describing the eating habits of the medieval monks who occupied Westminster Abbey around the year 1500. To the students' delight, Jodry notes that the monks' daily food intake totaled more than 7,375 calories - the equivalent of twenty-four Snickers bars a day. What's more, 20 percent of those calories were pure ethanol; each monk drank up to a gallon of ale a day.

Apparently they needed sustenance for the arduous daily task of singing at eight church services, the first of which began at 3 a.m. The monks who first composed and sang sacred chants lived "regimented, communal lives, with cyclical rotations of work and worship," Jodry explains. Singing was a way of getting closer to God. "There's speculation that doing the chants can actually influence brain waves," says Jodry, "so the chanting was essentially the same as doing meditation eight times a day."

When Jodry plays a CD for his students, the monks' voices fill the tiny auditorium on Orwig's third floor. There are no stained-glass windows or drifting wafts of incense smoke in sight - just a piano, a set of enormous speakers, and rows of folding chairs - but the ethereal quality of the chants still leaves a feeling of tranquility in the classroom. Medieval chants, Jodry says, started out simple. But over the centuries, as cathedrals became larger and more ornate, the music grew correspondingly elaborate. "It's what they thought was needed to fill the space and induce awe and wonder," says Jodry.

In Orwig 315, however, it's back to basics. Jodry plays a Latin chant on the piano, sings it, and then has the students sing with him, encouraging their hesitant Latin pronunciation. "What makes this music odd to contemporary ears?" he asks.

After several tries, somebody ventures, "There are Bs and B-flats in the same song."

Someone else pipes in, "It's hard to sing because of where the breaks are for breathing."

True, Jodry agrees, the chant is structured differently from modern music. "The overall musical sense is based on the length of the words," he points out. As the words are sung, the voice holds them longer than we're accustomed to. The result, Jodry says, is "a high ecstatic sense."

With long dark hair and earrings in both ears, Jodry looks like a medieval minstrel; his graceful flamboyance in the classroom gives away his training as a performer. A New England Conservatory graduate, Jodry holds a master's degree in the performance of early music. He directs the Schola Cantorum, a fourteen-member choral group that performs Renaissance sacred music in Providence and Boston, a group he founded sixteen years ago while still an undergraduate at the conservatory. Jodry also is music director at the historic Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island, and at Brown he directs the chorus, teaches harpsichord, and holds classes on music history and theory.

Medieval music is Jodry's true passion, requiring him at times to be as much detective as musician. "All of this music began with a completely unwritten tradition," he explains. "It was passed down by the monks orally and really wasn't written down until 100 years after it was composed."

Rather than relying only on the written score, he says, "you have to study [paintings] that depict performances to see what kinds of instruments were used, or read later descriptions of the numbers and kinds of performers involved."

Jodry's students clearly revere his expertise. Jake Thomsen '01, who usually plays rock-and-roll guitar and piano, says he chose Medieval and Renaissance Music simply because of Jodry's reputation. "I'm really impressed by how he can lecture and sing and then lecture again," Thompson says. "He knows medieval Latin, French, German, and Italian. It's like he has an encyclopedia in his brain."

Claiborne Walthall '02, a member of the chorus and an organist, finds that the music he hears in Jodry's class shares anthropological similarities with the music of African pygmies, which he studied in high school. "It's where music begins," he explains. "People make sounds and figure out how to use them in different ways. It's neat to see how a society starts with a [musical] idea and then makes it evolve." Listening to medieval music, Walthall adds, is also a way to connect with the daily routines of people who lived almost a thousand years ago. "When you sing the music, you spend some real time doing what they did," he says. "You learn more about them."

Jodry once again slips a disc into the classroom's CD player. "Tell me what you hear," he instructs the class. Music floods the room: a single line of sound, unadorned by instrumental accompaniment. The chant has an austere, soaring purity. The human voice is everything, precise and disciplined, yet at the same time strangely exposed. "This" says Claiborne Walthall, "makes me think about music in a different way."

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May / June 1999