The Baltimore Consort,
La Rocque 'n' Roll:
Popular Music of Renaissance France

(Dorian, 1993)

The Baltimore Consort has a theory. Popular music of any era can be linked together, and there's really not much difference in spirit between the top 40 court songs of Renaissance France and the top 40 now. It's not an obvious idea, but a few tracks into La Rocque 'n' Roll: Popular Music of Renaissance France proves their point.

The Consort's music is certainly gentler on the ear than modern rock. There's no heavy percussion or electronic overtones, although Chris Norman does blow a wicked bagpipe. Citterns and crumhorns, recorders and lutes move politely around each other in a mannered dance that at first sounds completely unlike the wild rumpus of modern rock. But longer listening reveals a certain tension, a passionate drive barely held in by the formal arrangements of the time. Mark Cudek's Renaissance guitar is never muted, and Custer LaRue's soprano is at once brightly polished and emotionally driven.

These songs are not sedate and courtly in subject, either. There are songs here that would be censored on modern radio. "Un Nimphe Jollie" rhapsodizes over a sleeping woman's form, especially the details under her dress. "Ma bergere, ma lumiere" is only slightly more discreet in its discussion of romantic trysts between shepherds and their loves.

There are power ballads, like "Mes Pas Semez," a tragic version of the Echo and Narcissus myth. And there are the multiple repetitions on a theme, proving that songwriters through time have known how to follow a trend; you can just imagine the writer of "Branle de la torche" trying to capture the success of "Branle double."

Mary Anne Ballard deserves much of the credit for the composition of these songs. Working with only historical tunes can be hard, as its often difficult to recreate from a single melody line a full consort's play. But Ballard's skill turns these bare tunes into full compositions so polished that their scattered histories are impossible to hear.

La Rocque 'n' Roll: Popular Music of Renaissance France is supported by wonderful liner notes, giving the songs' histories and lyrics, along with lovely, almost singable translations. But these songs don't need the help. Like the most memorable popular music of all times, they reach past language to the heart of the listener, with no cumbersome hesitation in the brain.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 25 October 2003