Uncovering 400-year-old Music: An Interview with Adele Marsland

On Wednesday September 16, Adele Marsland presented “From Archival Print to Modern Score: Making a Critical Edition of Two Seventeenth-Century Italian Motets” to the music department as the finale of her summer research program. Her project, supported by the J.E.A. Crake Foundation, was to transcribe two of Arcangelo Borsaro’s motets from seventeenth-century musical notation into modern score. This critical edition included performance notes and comments on text and translations as a resource for scholars and performers.

Mount Allison offers a summer research project through the independent student research grant (ISRG), allowing students to take part in an intensive project the summer between their third and fourth year. With Dr. Pearse as a mentor, Marsland studied manuscripts from an Italian archive in Bologna written in mensural notation. As a voice major, she decided to focus on works for solo voice, as “one of the goals that [she] had when going into this project was to find out more about early 17th century performance practice and really dig deep into things like ornamentation, phrasing, dynamics, and articulation,” noting that it “was really interesting …to take my magnifying glass and really focus in on Venice in 1605.” She explained that early music practices varied greatly by region. 

With the manuscripts themselves, Marsland explained the challenges of learning mensural notation, saying that “by then, some things had come to resemble what we’re familiar with today: the note heads, there was some system of beaming, but the accidental system was different, there were no bar lines, the textual underlay was very different” before notating it in a way that would be recognizable in the modern day. Additionally, she spoke about challenges with performance guidelines, especially in the fluidity and adjustable nature of the accompanying basso continuo part.

Marsland has a particular interest in early music. “What’s so fascinating about early music is there’s still so much to be discovered and it’s really like detective work because so much is still unknown and there’s a lot that we’re never really going to know unless we can hear the music, so it’s finding these pieces and thinking of how we can best recreate these pieces.” 

When creating her critical edition, especially in regard to performance notes, she also talked about the way that it’s simply an interpretation. “I think once we get to the bel canto period it’s ‘sing what the composer has put on the page’: there’s dynamics, there’s tempo markings, the piano part is fully realized, the orchestral part is fully realized. Meanwhile with early music, there’s a piece you can do with harpsichord and singer, or with a 5 person ensemble with gamba or trombone or portative organ and a singer, and that’s the exciting part—that you can put your own stamp on it and make it your own.”

The effects of COVID-19 have hit all of our studies, and when asked about the challenges in regard to her project, Marsland spoke about the original goal: a recording of these two pieces. She “wanted to spend some time learning the music and getting my own spin on it as a performer and possibly discover any new challenges while learning it and recording it.” When asked about a future for this idea, she hopes to still have a recording at some point, perhaps going back to the whole collection, with duos, trios, and double choir music.

For anyone in the music department, it’s difficult to try to aim for a career in music, as there are so many aspects that have been seemingly endlessly closed or completely changed due to COVID-19. Marsland encapsulated it best in the interview, saying that “It’s challenging now, because COVID has changed a lot of aspects of the artistic and musical communities, especially you see big companies like the Metropolitan Opera and the Canadian Opera Company close their doors for the entire 2020-2021 season. It’s a little scary to go into a field that potentially doesn’t have a future, or the future looks quite different post-COVID, but I think it’s important work what musicologists do and that’s what I’m going to grad school for…there’s so much music that is undiscovered, and that’s the exciting thing about early music. There’s always something new, there’s new works being found, there’s new ways we’re finding of performing things, so I have absolutely no doubt that early music will survive COVID and opera houses will re-open and we’ll continue to make music. Things might look a bit different, but it’s an integral part of our society.”

Emma Yee
Emma is a contributor to the Argosy.