Midlands alabaster was one of the great exports of the later Middle Ages. Quarried in south Derbyshire and adjacent parts of Staffordshire, it was easily malleable and beautifully luminous. Alabaster sculptures, including the Barber’s magnificent ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ from c.1400, existed not simply for silent contemplation but as sites of verbal and musical prayers for saintly intercession. My talk this evening serves to introduce both this phenomenon and a programme of music likely performed in the presence of such images which will be presented in concert by my group, ‘The Binchois Consort,’ in the Barber on November 20. At the same time it will offer a route, by means of example, into discussing my work as a scholar and performer of music of the fifteenth century and its social milieu.The high status and influence of English music in the late Middle Ages is undisputed. Less widely appreciated, however, is the fact that the English Midlands during the same period were the source of alabaster sacred images – of which the Barber’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin’ is a particularly impressive example – that were in demand throughout Christendom. Fashioned from stone quarried in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the sculptures and bas-reliefs functioned as the focuses of religious devotion and intercessory prayer. Frequently the power of the same prayers – in the charged space generated by such images – was enhanced by being set to music. This programme presents a taste of that rich musical legacy, in the context of an appreciation of the images whose sacred settings its sounds would so frequently have adorned.
This programme brings together two of Britain’s great late-medieval exports. The high status and influence of English music in the fifteenth century is well known; less generally familiar, though, is the Europe-wide impact of sacred images fashioned in the English Midlands during the same period from alabaster. Hewn from stone quarried in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, these talismanic sculptures served as foci for religious devotion and prayers for saintly intercession. Frequently the power of the same prayers – in the charged space generated by such images – was enhanced by being set to music. Illuminating a wide variety of musical settings of texts concerning the lives of Christ and the saints via the projection of parallel images in alabaster, our programme evokes something of the breathtaking combination of these glorious sights and sounds.