Richard de Ledrede (c.1260/70-1361)
Red Book of Ossory
Texts and translations included.
rec. 2019, Grouse Lodge Recording Studios, Westmeath, Ireland
Heresy 025 
A couple of months ago I reviewed another album by Caitríona O’Leary and her ensemble Anakronos, also issued by Heresy, Citadel of Song. That album was recorded in 2021; here is an earlier album, recorded in 2019 and previously reviewed for Musicweb International by Michael Wilkinson).
The two discs are similar in a number of ways. On each of them Caitríona O’Leary has made a selection of poetic texts – on Citadel of Song the texts, in Italian, are from Boccaccio’s Decameron; on this present disc they are poems (in Latin) by an Englishman, Richard de Ledrede (sometimes referred to as Richard Ledred), which are contained in a fourteenth-century manuscript known as The Red Book of Ossory. In each case we have no surviving settings even roughly contemporary with the poems. On both albums, O’Leary has fitted the chosen texts to existing musical compositions from various sources (see the contents list at the end of this review). On both albums the music is played on modern instruments and the performances embrace influences from jazz, folk music and modern ‘classical’ music. Both albums present texts which, while often beautiful in themselves, come from a painful or disturbing context – the songs in the Decameron are sung, in Boccaccio’s superb fiction, by young people escaping the plague; the often-beautiful Christian poems of Richard Ledred are the work of a man responsible for what is believed to have been the first ever burning alive of a woman found guilty of witchcraft. In both cases, the ‘new’ settings of Boccaccio and Ledred make for striking and rewarding listening.
Richard Ledred (he has an entry under this name in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, of which I have made use) was English, but his precise origins, in terms of family or place, are not known. He was a Franciscan and when, in 1317, he was appointed Bishop of Ossory, he was probably living in Avignon. Soon after his appointment he made it clear that one of his primary concerns was to hunt out cases of heresy, particularly in the form of sorcery or witchcraft. This came most fiercely to the fore in 1324, with the case of Alice Kyteler, three-times previously married, very wealthy and now married for a fourth time. Accusations were made by some of her stepchildren that she had killed her first three husbands through sorcery and that she intended to do the same to her new husband. Ledred became interested in the matter and started to investigate it. Alice’s wealth and influential connections helped her escape Ledred’s attentions. However, the bishop went on to pursue others he thought to be her sorcerous companions. One of these was Alice’s servant, Petronilla de Meath, who was burnt alive on his orders. A glance at the list of contents at the end of this review will show that that three of the pieces in this programme (‘Artisson’s Dance’, ‘The Flight of Dame Alice Kyteler’ and ‘The Burning of Petronilla de Meath’) relate to these events – Artisson supposedly being Alice’s incubus – while the remaining pieces are settings of Ledred’s lyrics. To the modern mind the writing of, for example, sensitive verses in praise of the Virgin Mary, as in the opening of ‘Regine Glorie’ – “Virgo pura carens labis rubigine / Natum nobis parens deum in homine” (“A pure, faultless, spotless virgin / Who bore for us the God made man”: booklet translation by Catríona O’Leary) and, on the other hand, the hounding of an unprotected serving maid to a horrible death, might seem very difficult to reconcile as the products of the same mind; but to Ledred both would, I suspect, have been understood and experienced as inseparable aspects of his faith.
The power and impact of these performances are the product of the seriousness with which Catríona O’Leary and her colleagues take both the story of Ledred’s fierce treatment of his innocent victims and the spirituality of his Latin verses. Catríona O’Leary’s wide knowledge of medieval music and her impeccable judgement in marrying Ledred’s texts to her choices of music are also central to the success of the project. In presenting his Latin poems, Ledred wrote that they were designed for the use of the vicars and clerks of the cathedral of Ossory, in order, as he added, “that their throats and mouths, consecrated to God, may not be polluted by songs which are lewd, secular, and associated with revelry, and since they are trained singers, let them provide themselves with suitable tunes according to what these sets of words require” (The Lyrics of the Red Book of Ossory, ed. R.L. Greene, Oxford, 1974, pp.iii-iv). Given that she has in some cases used music from medieval love poems, there is something delightfully disingenuous in Catríona O’Leary’s claim in her booklet essay, after quotation of the passage I have just cited: “Accordingly, I have drawn from various medieval music sources […], made speculative reconstructions of many of the bishop’s hymns, and with my fellow band members have deconstructed those songs with learned disregard for proper chronology”.
The results, as I suggested earlier, are fascinating – the “learned disregard for chronology” paying rich dividends. There isn’t a dull or disappointing track on the disc, but some deserve special mention. These include ‘Canite, Canite’, a joyously rhythmic piece, in which synthesiser, clarinet and saxophone introduce and then hover around the vocal line (beautifully sung by Catríona O’Leary); or ‘Amoris Vinculo’, where the percussion suggests some sort of disturbing ritual (perhaps the burning alive of an innocent woman?), although Ledred’s words are very different (the refrain of the hymn reads, “Amoris vinculo nos dei filius attraxit dulciter” (“With the chain of love the Son of God has sweetly pulled us to him”, in O’Leary’s translation) – the juxtaposition making the listener wonder which of the bishop’s impulses was the stronger. ‘Ubi Iam Sunt?’ – a fine poetic meditation on the transience of human life and joys (the refrain reads “Videbitis qualis et quantus mundi sit / Error in illecibris”, ‘You will see how and how much the world is / error in temptation” [my translation]. With splendid irony, O’Leary sets this text to a setting of a rondeau Adam de la Halle which opens thus: “Sweet pretty lover, bring me joy, Fair friend for ever” (translation from www.poetryintranslation.com/). Here the relationship between text and music is full of intriguing ambiguities. Track 12, ‘En Christi Fit Memoria’, has a theme by Catriona O’Reilly, setting a Hymn by Ledred in praise of Christ; O’Reilly sings Ledred’s words with an instrumental accompaniment which is in (large?) part improvised, the bass clarinet of Deirdre O’Leary and the assorted percussion being especially prominent. The resulting piece is both powerful and subtle.
The three purely instrumental pieces also offer rewarding listening; ‘Artisson’s Dance’ is a fusion of medieval music, jazz and world music. The performance, I suspect, gives the individual musicians a degree of freedom. ‘The Flight of Dame Alice Kyteler’ has some close reference to the medieval Italian source used (see the contents list below), though given that it is played on modern instruments its sound world is very different from that of its composer, Andrey Soulet (fl.1400). The sense of anxiety and entrapment builds quite powerfully, until the piece closes with a sense of release/escape and a sense of calm. ‘The Burning of Petronilla de Meath’ resists the temptation of melodrama, being surprisingly understated, but poignant, not least in its final descent into silence.
The musicians who make up Anakronos all bring with them a wealth of diverse musical experience. Catríona O’Leary has worked with more than a few luminaries of early music, including Christopher Hogwood and Konrad Junghanel, as well as ensembles like Sequentia and Joglaresa. She has recorded albums of Irish folk music and traditional carols, along with Irish-language adaptations of songs by Kate Bush (!). Deirdre O’Leary was one of the cofounders of the Cassiopeia Wind Quintet and has given many concerts with that ensemble. She plays frequently with the Orchestra of Irish National Opera. She also works in a duo with percussionist Alex Petcu. As a saxophonist Nick Roth has worked with, inter alia, Gavin Bryars. He founded the Yurodny Ensemble in 2007, playing contemporary interpretations of traditional music from many cultures. His compositions have been commissioned and/or performed by, for example, the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble and the RTĖ Con Tempo Quartet – a string quartet made up of Romanian musicians now living in Ireland. Italian-born Francesco Turrisi is a composer, pianist and multi-instrumentalist, who studied at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague and has been based in Ireland since 2004. In the realm of jazz, musicians he has worked with include guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist David Liebman. In what might broadly be called classical music, he has worked with Christina Pluhar’s L’Arpeggiata and the Silk Road Ensemble, and – at the other end of the ‘classical’ spectrum – with The Bang on a Can All Stars.
Given the way in which this project marries pre-existing texts with pre-existing music, both having very separate existences and identities plus the way in which it presents medieval music played on modern instruments and brings together musicians with very various backgrounds, it might have fragmented into chaos. In fact, it presents a coherent artistic vision with skill and persuasive conviction. That this should be so is very much to the credit of the commitment and musical imagination of all concerned. But the greatest praise has to be reserved for Catríona O’Leary, for the considerable success with which she has carried out her multiple roles – as researcher, conceiver and planner of the programme, vocal soloist, director of Anakronos, translator of the sung texts and author of the booklet essay.
Previous review: Michael Wilkinson
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Caitríona O’Leary (soprano, director)
Nick Roth (soprano saxophone, descant and treble recorders, percussion)
Dierdre O’Leary (clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion)
Francesco Turrisi (synthesiser, percussion).
- Canite, Canite (music: Splendens Ceptigera, Libre Vermell de Montserrat, Catalonian, 14th century)
- Artisson’s Dance (music: C.O’Leary, adapted from ‘Quant je oi chanter l’alouette’, Moniot de Paris, French, 13th century)
- Jhesu lux vera mencium (music: ‘La Harpe de melodie’, Jacob Senleches, Flemish, 14th century)
- Maria decoquit panem salviticum (music: C.O’Leary adapted from ‘Bel m’es quam son li fruich madur’, Marcabru, Gascon, 12th century)
- Consendit Salmon Ventrale Ferculum, (music: ‘Fenice Fu’, Jacopo da Bologna, Italian, 14th century)
- The Flight of Dame Alice Kyteler (music: Andray Soulet, Mattheus de Perusio, Italian, 15th century)
- Regine Glorie (music: ‘Salve Mater, Gratie/Dou Way, Robin’, English, late 13th century)
- Ecce Magnus (music: C.O’Leary adapted from Graz University Library MS. 807, f.21 r & v.).
- Amoris Vinculo, (music: ‘Pos qu’ieu vey la fualla’, French, 13th century).
- Christe Redemptor Omnium (music: ‘Ne me veuillez oublier’, Arnold de Lantins, Franco-Flemish, 15th century).
- Maria Noli Fieri (music: ‘O Virgo Splendens’, Libre Vermell de Montserrat, Catalonian, 14th century).
- En Christi Fit Memoria (music: by C.O’ Leary and improvisation).
- Ubi Iam Sunt? (music: ‘Bone amourete m’a souspris’, French, 13th century).
- Summe Deus Clemencie (music: ‘Fumeux fume par fumée’, Solage, French 14th century).
- Da, Da Nobis Nunc (music: ‘Lou, lou, lou! wer he goth!’, English, 14th century).
- Verum Est (music: ‘Dame, a qui m’ottri de cuer’, Machaut, French, 14th century).
- The Burning of Petronilla de Meath (music: ‘De Narcissus’, Magister Franciscus, French, 14th century).